Last month, I watched a programme that I found so offensive, I immediately resolved to cancel my Netflix subscription.
It wasn’t Jimmy Carr’s His Dark Material, in which the comedian and light entertainer quipped that nobody talks about the tens of thousands of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers murdered by the Nazis because “no one ever wants to talk about the positives”. His show first aired in December last year, but became a topic of political conversation only when someone posted the relevant clip on Twitter, where journalists spend a lot of time doing important research into why the United Kingdom’s productivity is so low.
The offending programme was Superstore, an American workplace sitcom about a “big box” shopping centre (the kind on the outskirts of town with a large car park and a business model under serious threat from online shopping), which ran on NBC from 2015 to 2021. What was it about Superstore that I found upsetting? Nothing, really: that was the problem. If, like me, you love smart American comedies such as Community or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, then you will just about tolerate Superstore, a programme that never sinks below “mildly amusing” but hardly ever threatens to rise above it.
Netflix’s biggest selling point is the strength of its recommendations. My problem is that it works too well: Netflix’s algorithm is right, I enjoyed Superstore. I don’t have any particular memories of watching it, but it passed the time. That’s what I’ve come to expect from Netflix: whether it’s landfill science fiction or replacement-level comedy, its recommendation engine largely serves to provide me with slightly worse versions of things I already enjoy.
Time I spend on Netflix is time I don’t spend challenging myself to listen to new music or watch a film that might broaden my horizons; it’s time I spend watching something that isn’t good enough for me to recommend it to anyone else, but isn’t bad enough for me to get up and do something better.
Other people will tell me that the streaming service is a gateway to some of the world’s best television, be it Call My Agent! or Fauda. This is true: the problem is me. The joy but also the horror of Netflix is that it’s a mirror that shows, in large part, your own reflection. I dislike Netflix because of what it tells me about myself: that I am willing to watch C-list workplace comedies on an endless loop.
Carr’s Holocaust joke has a similar problem. One possible defence of Carr is that the gag is ironic: people who take the joke at face value are, themselves, the joke. But the grim and unsettling truth is that for many Britons, the gag is funny because it is true: 44.6 per cent of us have a “negative” or “very negative” perception of people from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller background, according to a recent study by Birmingham University.
And this perception has real-world consequences: Theresa May’s race disparity audit found that pupils from a Gypsy, Roma or Irish Traveller background are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to progress to formal education after the age of 16 than any other group. New government legislation that will effectively criminalise the Traveller way of life in the UK has attracted little attention or scrutiny. Liberal-minded MPs of all parties will hand out leaflets promising to further limit the rights of Travellers.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust called the joke “abhorrent”. Carr – whose stand-up has long traded in “dark” humour that wouldn’t make it on to his panel shows – defended it as educational and “f***ing funny”. Most of the million and a half households who have watched it will have reached the same verdict as I did of Superstore: it’s essentially unremarkable and not worth getting fussed about either way. An open and liberal society has to accommodate Carr’s joke and the right of others to criticise it. But a tolerant society is one in which Carr’s joke is enjoyed only by a fringe, if at all. Jokes about Holocaust victims should carry a high social taboo, but not a legal one.
The row about Carr – whose routine sat on Netflix for weeks, unnoticed by everyone other than its fans – doesn’t just prove that controversies reach Westminster only once Twitter finds out about them. It also shows how, in the age of streaming, the very concept of a public sphere is under threat. Bernard Manning, like Carr, was a comedian of undoubted talent, but his material is now agreed by nearly everybody to be racist. Almost until the end of his life in 2007, Manning was performing to crowded venues. But he had vanished from the national broadcasters’ schedules long before his death.
Commissioning editors judged that, while Manning might still be packing out music halls, his humour wasn’t right for their platforms. But in the age of streaming, national broadcasters no longer bring us together or shape the culture as they used to: instead there’s me watching sub-par sitcoms on a loop, you watching Call My Agent!, and someone else laughing at the genocide of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – among the UK’s worst-treated ethnic minorities. There is unparalleled creative diversity but there also isn’t really a public sphere any more. For anyone who believes in the nation state, that is far from a laughing matter.
This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game