Credit: Pikrepo.com

Everything’s cancelled but we’re still allowed a cheap laugh at religion

With the cancel culture in full throttle, attention turned in recent days (again) to comedians as they were hauled over the coals for historical misdemeanours. Little Britain was one of the first to feel the impact, being pulled from Netflix, BBC iPlayer and BritBox.

The Fawlty Towers episode The Germans has been pulled from UKTV over racial slurs made by the Major about the West Indies cricket team – although creator John Cleese has insisted the show is “making fun” of attitudes like the Major’s. Twink has had a sketch from 1982 where she did blackface removed by RTE. Ant and Dec, those lovable, irritating rogues are in trouble. The Inbetweeners is in more trouble now than when it resorted to full-frontal male nudity.

But what are the standards that these TV shows are being held to? Is it an objective standard of goodness or a self-reflective virtue-signalling vanity?

On Today FM, Mario’s Sunday Roast host Mario Rosenstock and guest Larissa Nolan attempted to work through the argument of racial insensitivity which Mario said was ‘doing my head in’. Mario is a comedian himself and he may find himself under similar fire in the future.

To their credit, neither supported the calls for removal of the programmes, nor for the self-flagellating apologies following. Rather, they say, the comedians should acknowledge it was the times that were in it, and that they would not do so in the modern era. End of.

The discussion came shortly after a comedy clip of Mario’s own about the coronavirus restrictions, narrated through character Des Skahill. The clip included the shouted repetition of the phrase ‘Jaysus, bucketseats’, (referring to bucketseats in Croke Park for social distancing).

One texter to the show noted: “It’s a little bit ironic that you talked about racial insensitivity immediately after shouting nearly ten times in a row “Jaysus busketseats” at your listeners … But also shows how different standards exist in relation to what people are supposed to be sensitive about. That was particularly tone deaf. But you probably think it’s just funny.”

Mario replied, flatly, that he did. And apologised for offending – though the tone did not suggest sincerity.

Which is, of course, his prerogative. But fails to answer the question of how this question of historical, or current, insensitivity in comedy should be addressed. Mario and Larissa seemed to have a reasonable argument. But it falls short when the veil of historicity is removed. Why is it that it is acceptable today, in an age of identity politics, for Mario to be insensitive, and essentially offensive, to Catholics in Ireland today, while at the same time, something historically offensive in relation to race is to be acknowledged as something that would not (ought not) be done today?

Why is the religious aspect of one’s character today an acceptable laughing matter, while one’s ethnicity cannot be joked about?
Roger Scruton, a man who fell badly foul of the new moral majority, accused of racism in the last years of his life (for which he received an apology though after he was sacked from the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful housing commission) said:
“We must feel free to express opinions and to make jokes that others may find offensive; censoring them only leads to a loss of reasoned argument.”

But he talks more elaborately about comedy in his books on culture, approaching the idea of laughter as a human reality and the particular human institution of the joke.

“It is a response to something, which also involves a judgment of that thing. Moreover, it is not an individual peculiarity, like a nervous tic or a sneeze. Laughter is an expression of amusement, and amusement is outwardly directed … laughter begins as a collective condition.”

Social discourse and context determine what humour is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

“That does not mean that laughter is subjective in the sense that ‘anything goes’ or that it is uncritical of its object. On the contrary, jokes are the object of fierce disputes and many are dismissed as ‘not funny’, ‘in bad taste’, ‘offensive’, and so on. The habit of laughing at things is not detachable from the habit of judging things to be worthy of laughter. Indeed, amusement, although
a spontaneous outflow of social emotion, is also the most frequently practiced form of judgment. To laugh at something is already to judge it, and when we refrain from laughing at what someone nevertheless believes to be funny, we may thereby show our disapproval of that person’s stance. A joke in ‘bad taste’ is not just a failure: it is an offence, and one of the most important aspects of moral education is to teach children not to commit that offense.”

What causes offence changes over time, and the marketplace of judgment is what casts the outdated jokes and comedians to the dustbin of time. We may cringe now when Basil Fawlty calls his German guests Krauts, in the 1980’s, in a smaller and more local world, the impact of the words were different.

At the same time, the words of the Major, as Cleese pointed out, are meant as satire, to further throw judgement on such attitudes using humour. The humourless generation of today no longer understand the virtue of the judgement of laughter, or more importantly, of laughter withheld. Instead, they seek to drive it underground, where humour, like opinions, are not exposed to rational discourse, and mutate into something rotten.

Although many of the humourless may consider themselves to be objectively racially sensitive in a way that those they seek to whitewash were not in years gone by, they should not be misled by their own vanity. They do not know how their attitudes will be viewed by their own children in years to come.

Basil Fawlty of 1975, Twink of 1982, Del and Rodney, Matt Lucas 15 years ago, or Ant and Dec more recently, may be the ones pushed to bow at the feet of the new Red Guards, but comedy is a collective/social interaction. Comedians are not successful without the laughing audience. And the enduring success of some of these comedians means that many have been laughing for a long time.
Comedians are a reactive bunch. They live for the laughs, and buzz off the audience. If responsibility lies anywhere for the out-dated humour, it lies with the audience. And who were the audience but the grandparents and parents of today’s pharisees. At least when Fawlty Towers satirised the views of the Major, they were pointing at the generation gone by and saying: the way you talk no longer fits in, and the marketplace of ideas show that to be so. But today’s pharisees are a humourless bunch. They seek not the marketplace but the monopolisation.

If Mario Rosenstock’s mimicry of a northside Dubliner is funny, it is only because the audience is laughing. It is modern Ireland. It has become almost part of the vernacular to speak in this way. And in most cases there is no malicious intent. It is thoughtlessness, ingrained, as well as a legacy of a Catholic past. And almost universally acceptable. Sometimes I have to check myself from saying similar.

The people offended by the taking of the name of Jesus in vain in Ireland are no longer the moral majority. There is a new dogma. The zeitgeist may not yet be with the pharisees that seek to de-platform Twink – or whoever they can dig up in the archives in order to feel morally superior – but it is definitely with the cheap laughs that is insensitive to pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland. And there is nothing
avant garde in this easy humour. They are just dancing on the graves of the past. And most of modern Ireland is laughing with them.

Ireland lives in an echo chamber right now, as many societies do and always have done. There are cheap laughs and easy targets. In 1975 United Kingdom, the echo chamber existed where no one heard from the people depicted using blackface. The Caribbean communities of the UK at that time had little chance to make their objections heard. Everyone was laughing and no one seemed to get hurt.

Times have changed. The world is more interconnected. But echo chambers still exist. The acceptable ‘other’ may not be defined on racial or lines, and racial sensitivity has moved in the right direction. But humour is still reflective. And while Mario may find his own jokes funny (although now he has to moved to talkshow, maybe he is not as funny as he used to be) no doubt he is still hearing
laughter from somewhere. And that is fine. But let’s not pretend the world is a more sensitive, more tolerant, more caring place when there are new acceptable sneers in the Irish echo chamber.

In the ‘70s there was an excuse that people did not know better because they may not have been face-to-face with the victims of the wit. But in modern Ireland, most everyone knows that to the Churchgoer, to egregiously take the name of the Lord in vain, is something that causes offence – at least to a minority (and this is supposed to be about minority rights) – because they were brought up with that knowledge and learning. Yet it happens and gets the laughs precisely for that reason.

Knowledgeable insensitivity is hardly more enlightened than plausible deniability when it comes to causing offence in the name of comedy. Maybe I should lighten up. But that was probably said in the 80s as well.

 


 

Dualta Roughneen is a humanitarian aid worker and was in Sierra Leone responding to the ebola outbreak 

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