It takes a while to recover from the suffocating cultural smugness of Red Nose Day. The millions raised for charitable causes are, of course, to be welcomed, but what a price has had to be paid.
This eminently mockable event will, as usual, be given a free ride on television and radio, and for an obvious reason. The very people whose careers are built on taking an edgy, satirical view of life were themselves part of the charity circle jerk.
As the BBC agonises yet again as to whether its comedy is too left-wing, a single unbreakable rule informs the output of establishment broadcasters. No material which any significant number of viewers can decide is offensive should be broadcast. It may be acceptable to laugh at political leaders, and be gently subversive, but anything which could unleash a squawking editorial from a moralising tabloid must be avoided. No doubt this year’s mini-fuss about childish bad language will provoke a new set of guidelines for 2014.
Thank goodness for America, where the best TV comedy has a casual daring and moral subtlety which our programme-makers lost years ago. The perfect purgative for post-Comic Relief nausea is to spend 30 minutes in the town where genuine satire and brilliant jokes gloriously live on – South Park.
If you are unconvinced by how much braver this cartoon comedy is than anything being produced in Britain, imagine the following storyline being pitched at a commissioning meeting in London. A gay primary school teacher discovers that massive payouts are going to teachers who lose their jobs on the grounds of their sexuality, and sets out to get fired.
He brings a lisping gimp called Mr Slave into the classroom and spanks him in front of the children. When they complain to their parents, they are sent to the Tolerance Museum where the staff tell them about the importance of “life choices”, only pausing briefly to beat up a passing smoker.
Trying again, the teacher inserts the class gerbil into Mr Slave. This time, when the children tell their parents, they are sent to a Nazi-run Death Camp of Tolerance (“Here intolerance vill not be tolerated!”). Meanwhile, the gerbil sets out on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style voyage through Mr Slave’s intestines.
The brilliance of South Park is relatively simple: its writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone follow what is funny, mocking the almost limitless hypocrisy and silliness of the modern world. Over the past few years – the tolerance episode is more than 10 years old – they may have appalled the left and the right, all major religions, the environmental lobby, feed-the-world celebrities, bigots and the ever-gullible general public, but they have remained uncompromising. Speaking of The Book of Mormon, the musical by the same writers, Stone has said that liberals are far more sensitive to mockery than those on the right.
Whereas British comedy, at its bravest, will take politicians, bankers or Catholic priests as its target, the best of American comedy puts the culture as a whole in the line of fire. It is prepared to live dangerously. Whatever the consequences: some scenes and songs from South Park, taken out of context and put on YouTube, have been made to reinforce the very prejudice it is mocking.
The integrity of the joke wins through and silences the objectors. Parker and Stone have broken all the rules of appropriateness over the past decade, and everybody loves them for it. Would that British writers and directors were allowed to do the same.
Roth at 80: so much he can teach us
If the philosopher of the High Street Alain de Botton is looking for a follow-up to his bestseller How Proust Can Change Your Life, he could do worse than to draw some lessons from the life and career of Philip Roth, who is 80 today.
The best of Roth’s fiction bears comparison with the greatest novels of the past century, but his life as a writer is admirable, too. He avoided allowing early success and notoriety to deflect him. He put his work before all else, ignoring the distractions of publicity and the cosy embrace of the literary world. In a vivid fictional portrait, Janet Hobhouse, with whom he had an affair, described “the monkish habits of his solitude, the grim, even depressive minimalism of his life”. There was something heroic about his loneliness, she wrote.
At an age when other writers slow down and grow cautious, he was at his wildest and most exuberant. Then, without fuss or anguish, this most obsessive of writers put down his pen one day, and declared that he would now enjoy his old age. In his work and life, Roth is a true literary hero and deserves to enjoy his birthday.