Last month I saw Fin Taylor’s new standup show When Harrassy Met Sally, which made light of sexual harassment, the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement. His intention might well have been to make us laugh, but I found little to enjoy in this Jim Davidson tribute act.
What kind of reactionary drivel was I being subjected to in the name of comedy?
For a while I sat there, seething, as a room full of doubtless well-intentioned punters were laughing along with this thinly veiled rape apologism. Eventually, I left.
Satire is a powerful tool. Tyrants have always feared ridicule, because there is nothing more likely to undermine authority than the sound of derisory laughter. But male comedians like Taylor taking pot shots at women who have had the courage to speak out can hardly be described as “punching up”. As a comedy aficionado, I’ve seen a disturbing rise in this kind of victim-bashing on the circuit over the past few years. It’s got to the point where I have to research the acts on any given lineup very carefully before booking a ticket.
“Alt-right comedy” might sound like an oxymoron, but the immense popularity of internet “sh*tposters” such as PewDiePie and Sargon of Akkad has persuaded some comedians that there is money to be made from belittling social justice.
Speaking as a person of colour in an irredeemably racist culture, I’m sick of being accused of hypersensitivity by straight white men who are blind to their own privilege. What makes them believe that comedy should just be for them?
The hallmark of a good satirist is the ability to expose the follies of the powerful and the corrupt, not to embolden them at the expense of those of us who are already marginalised.
One would have thought that after years of progress, the bullying style of comedy once peddled by the likes of Bernard Manning would have been consigned to the distant past.
Depressingly, established comics who should know better are doubling down on their problematic jokes.
The overtly transphobic routine in Ricky Gervais’s Netflix special Humanity is a case in point, in which he repeatedly deadnamed Caitlyn Jenner and claimed to identify as an ape as a means to ridicule gender reassignment.
Last year, Dave Chappelle won a Grammy award for his shows The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, both of which explicitly attacked trans people.
In December, the renowned misogynist Louis CK was heard mocking non-binary identities and the victims of school shootings in a leaked recording of his new set. Is it any wonder that young comedians, eager to break into the industry, are following suit?
Perhaps it’s time for the comedy community to reflect. Danish comedian Sofie Hagen has successfully toured with “reduced-anxiety” performances in which all toilet facilities are gender-neutral and audience members can contact her in advance if they have particular needs.
The success of Hannah Gadsby’s game-changing masterpiece Nanette has also proven beyond doubt that woke comedy is commercially viable.
And yet the likes of Gervais, Chappelle and CK still fail to recognise that they no longer have to rely on shock tactics to appeal to a modern audience. As role models to a new generation of comics, they have a responsibility to be mindful of the damage they can do to an already divided society.
I would go so far as to argue that some of the jokes I have heard on the comedy circuit of late constitute actual hate speech.
The government has recently launched its new website to raise awareness of hate crime and hate incidents, in which it is made clear that verbal abuse can qualify as hateful if “perceived by the victim, or anybody else, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice”.
At a university gig in Cardiff I once saw a comedian wrap a towel around his head, make faux-Arabic noises, and claim that he was preparing for a BBC internship. I believe in freedom of speech, but I am also adult enough to recognise that this freedom does not extend to making public events unsafe for vulnerable members of society.
The latest government guidelines would now seem to confirm that this kind of Islamophobia dressed up as humour should be subject to investigation. It simply isn’t good enough for comedians to cry “free speech” after every hateful joke, as though the laws that govern the rest of us don’t apply to them.
The battle for equality will not be won by activists alone. We all need to play our part. Sometimes this will mean risking the accusation of being a “prude” or a “killjoy”, but this is surely a price worth paying.
Such tactics are designed to silence us, to make us feel ashamed for standing up for those who might not be able to stand up for themselves.
It takes an astonishing degree of entitlement to claim the right to free speech without accepting the consequences of one’s choices. In a country poised on the brink of a far-right resurgence, is a cheap laugh really worth the risk? The kind of jokes that reinforce negative stereotypes and normalise bigotry should no longer be tolerated in our society. This really isn’t too much to ask.
Update: The headline to this article has been amended, to no longer refer to the author as a comedian “working the circuit” 4/3/19
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