Whichever way you look at it, the Professional Footballers’ Association scored a spectacular own goal this week and Reginald D Hunter – he of the dazzling, sweet-natured smile, the dreadlocks and the unhurried charm – was in no mood to let anyone forget that fact when he played to a packed, loudly appreciative audience at Cheltenham Town Hall on Thursday.
This was the first gig the black American comedian had done since his controversial performance last Sunday at the PFA’s Awards Ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel.
In Cheltenham, before his scheduled routine for his new tour (which is entitled In the Midst of Crackers), Hunter added a whole first half of very funny and agile-witted reflections arising from the affair. Yes, he liked to use the word “nigger” – he reported early on – but he is not trying to “reclaim” it, because, s***, it was a white invention in the first place.
It’s because of his unabashed use of the N-word at the footballers’ ceremony and because he was typically thoughtful and provocative about race, that the PFA has recoiled in horror. The agency through which he was booked– the London Speaker Bureau – is apparently alleging that he infringed an unwritten agreement about the kind of material he would perform, and there’s talk of him being asked to refund his fee.
Referring to “a big corporate ass-covering”, Hunter maintained that there were no “guidelines” to contravene, that is he known to be a man who’s fond of “swinging [his] nuts” and that what’s particularly dispiriting is that “even people who are supportive of me think that it was a mistake booking me”. Indeed, favourable online comments nonetheless bristle with notions such as that recruiting him was tantamount to “booking Frankie Boyle to entertain Mencap”.
But the ironies, I would suggest, go deeper than that. An organisation in charge of a sport that is not exactly renowned for its freedom from racism (either on the field or off) hires a black comedian only to disown him and to wax censorious because his work refuses to be pious about the subject of race or to eschew the N-word. It’s a bizarre and hypocritical scenario and it’s given me fantasies of some cock-eyed, through-the-looking-glass world in which, say, Hezbollah hires Jackie Mason to do the cabaret at its AGM and then huffily demands its money back when he cracks self-deprecating Jewish jokes.
Political correctness – at its best a voluntary code of sensitive, verbally watchful respect for the otherness of people who are different from ourselves – can itself be guilty of discriminatory bad faith, along the lines of “I’m right-thinking. You’re politically correct. He’s a language-fascist.” And its obsession with linguistic purity can all too easily become a substitute for lifting so much as a finger where actually promoting cordiality, whether interracial or between mainstream and minority cultures, is concerned.
“You can make any word racist if you have the hate behind it,” declared Hunter in a set that is full of cleverly layered naughtiness – the line “If a movie were made about me, I’d want Meryl Streep to play me”, followed by a fantasy of what she might say about the part on her way to the Baftas – is funny on many levels (especially if you have seen Angels in America).
And he keeps skilfully steering the audience into morally challenging territory. Born in Georgia but based in the UK for more than a decade, the 44-year-old described how his own attitudes towards what counts as racist have evolved and changed over time.
He recollected his adventures with the first woman he slept with (“it took three years”) in this country. She was white and in the course of their lovemaking, there was a moment when she asked: “How does it feel to be in the master’s bed?” “I was taken aback, right?” Hunter continued. “I mean, I almost stopped f***ing her.”
His point is that, back then, he thought that there was a racist edge to her query. Now he’s more inclined to see it as part of the exploratory quality of sexual (role-)play and experience in general. “We take chances; we explore dangerous corners... to see what would happen if we crossed the line.”
Comedy, like sex, is no great respecter of boundaries of taste or taboo. And offence and offensiveness aren’t, for the non-religious, objective phenomena. They exist in the ear and eye of the receiver.
Hunter talked of “these people who want to control people through anti-racism laws”. Of course, a situation can arise where the relatively powerless find themselves bullied into laughing at jokes made about them because they fear that by not doing so they will fail the “good sport” test. Equally, you can decide to take offence at anything, with horribly restrictive consequences to those who don’t agree with you.
Christopher Ricks, our greatest literary critic, once gave a talk about how all true comedy has to take the calculated risk of offending someone, and that most true comedy makes liberating, thoughtful play with the fact that everyone is a type.
“I’m a type,” he quipped with ironic mock-riskiness, “the type of bald septuagenarian professor who pretends to like Bob Dylan in order to come into contact with beautiful people, especially female.” Try passing on that wisdom to the PFA.
In Cheltenham, Hunter had, as his support act, an engaging and quick-witted Canadian comedian, Pete Johansson, who certainly got us in the mood with gags such as how, standing on top of the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai, he found himself thinking: “Well, mmm... but no, Christians would never fly a plane into a tower”. (Split-second pause.) “Unless there was an abortion clinic on the top.”
As Hunter’s fate this week emphasises, the world would be a more rigid, doctrinaire place if only atheistic pro-choice activists would be prepared to admit to a jolt of stimulation from the way that remark is not quite kosher.