“You’re an idiot and I am a coward”
Comedy is too often constrained by preconceptions of audience reaction and the comic’s own self-censoring streak, says Robin Ince “If those in charge of our society — politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television — can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power” — Howard Zinn “Comedy killed the upper […]
22 May 09

robin-ince-2Comedy is too often constrained by preconceptions of audience reaction and the comic’s own self-censoring streak, says Robin Ince

“If those in charge of our society — politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television — can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power” — Howard Zinn

“Comedy killed the upper class accent, the tweed jacket and the grouse moor. It made an entire class too ridiculous to rule” — Peter Hitchens

You know the two problems with comedy? You’re an idiot and I am a coward.

It has been decided, at high level meetings in shiny glass offices where the words “our demographic” are bandied around far too often, that you are an idiot. As an idiot, the majority of television promises not to tax you with thoughts or intrigue. After the millions of years that were required to evolve to this point of human self-consciousness, television promises to help switch it off.

Was Neil Postman right? Are we amusing ourselves to death? Which prophet of the shape of things to come should we believe? Do we live in an Orwellian future where newspeak and doublespeak rule and it is impossible to know if your choco rations have really gone up? Do we live in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where the endless merry-go-round of trivialities mean no one really cares?

I might have hoped that my first personal experience of censorship was for an attack on the rabid dogs that make up most of the modern press, or a diatribe about the moral paucity of UK foreign policy. But no, it was all over the use of a word — not “cunt” or “motherfucker”, just “curmudgeon”.

I was fronting a documentary for BBC3 about OAPs who refuse to behave in the seemly manner we expect of the elderly. It consisted of old men who are active in swingers groups, septugenarians who are immersed in the rave scene and other oddities that appeal to the tastes of TV controllers. I suppose that was my first error, agreeing to be involved in a marshmallow pretending to be meat on BBC3, but it’s so hard not to be a slut in comedy.

In one brief link, I mentioned that I was looking forward to becoming stereotypically old as I have always been something of a curmudgeon. Word came from the Olympian heights of the commissioners that “their demographic”, whoever this presumed group was, would not understand the word “curmudgeon”. I suggested that “their demographic” might not be as ignorant as they imagined, in an attempt to fight my corner. Then I tried the tack of it being understood due to the context. They insisted I use the words “young fogey” instead. I explained that this was not really the same thing. So they resorted to the old TV trick of suggesting that we film two versions — a fogey one and a curmudgeon one. This offers a pretence of democracy, but I knew full well that the only take that would see the light of day was the young fogey one. And so I sold myself out as the producer cajoled me. I still believe that the few who were watching would not have switched over, their brains spinning, had the word curmudgeon made them punch drunk. There were so many other reasons to switch over already.

Fortunately, on Radio 4, the use of words like “curmudgeon” or “obstreperous” are positively encouraged. As far as I know, I have never been censored there, though it’s always a joy to read the audience log and see what has garnered fury. So far talking about Holocaust denial, charlatan homeopaths and my cellar full of bears and caribou that I am teaching to dance with hot plates and Yes Sir I Can Boogie on a loop have been misconstrued by people in Pinner and Bexley.

Frequently ideas won’t make the screen because of the legal minds that castrate scripts before they get to air for fear of some ramification or other. The moral majority, a group defined by their bigotry and adoration of Victorian values, attempt to wield their censorious rapier by bellowing in the press. Their view of Victorian values is fortunately not marred by historical accuracy. Child death, disease, rampant poverty and occasional colonial genocide are replaced with a vision that the streets were packed kindly Mr Brownlows. Nevertheless, they hope that by screaming and picketing the broadcasters and theatres will self-censor for fear of broken windows and a lengthy period of eternity in hell.

After the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross debacle, there was much written about how comedy had gone too far and a new leash might be required. What was broadcast was not an example of modern comedy so much as an example of male egos, egging each other on to be the naughtiest boy and then, in a moment of uncontrolled excitement, going too far. The childishness of Brand and Ross was only outstripped by the childishness of those who had decided that is what they should be most morally outraged about that week. In a world where 80 per cent of the population are below the poverty line, the unruly treatment of Britain’s favourite comedy waiter is still more important.

So that’s enough about you being an idiot. Now why I am a coward.

Stand-up comedy is presumed to be the freest art of all. There are no restraints. It’s just you and some amplification, you can say whatever you wish, but how often we fail to do that. However edgy the comedian declares themselves to be, the dangerous “love me love me” personality defect can kick in. Even the most hard-nosed stand-up comic wilt, stammer and desperately grasp for material when an audience fail to react. It is not heckling and audience abuse that cause it — they can allow the comedian to swagger on that he is being so dangerous the mob are in revolt — but disinterest.

There are some comics who declare they “say the unsayable”, but most of them still want rapturous applause and an encore. What about Bernard Manning, he said the unsayable didn’t he? No, he still said things that his audience wanted to hear; it’s only those who overheard but would never have stepped foot in Manning’s Embassy club who were appalled. Even Bernard may have had a moment of self-censorship. Perhaps one day he woke up and suddenly thought of a beautiful piece of whimsy about the thoughts of a cocooned butterfly. He giggled and thought of using it that night in Burnley and then thought, “if I do that, they’ll bloody lynch me, best to get back to the Paki gags”.

Two of the supposed most outrageous comedians in Britain, Roy Chubby Brown and Jim Davidson have stormed offstage after feeling their audience were not loving them enough.

Jimmy Carr, considered by some to be ruthless and devil may care, was once trying out a gag about “mongs”. Some of the audience recoiled and, at the bar afterwards, he quizzed them as to how he could make the joke more acceptable.

Those who find Jimmy Carr a thrilling ride of risks should go and see Jerry Sadowitz, whose crazed rage and scattergun jibes can genuinely shock, then make you laugh, then leave you gasping and questioning your own morality. Jimmy Carr is an excellent deliverer of off colour, cynical jibes and cynicism has been a popular comedic style in the last decade. While delivering bad taste runs risk, the greatest risk a stand up can undertake it is to be passionate and honest. The only problem with being yourself on stage is, should you crash and burn, you cannot shrug it off as the audience not getting your persona; they hated you.

George Carlin once said that the difference between a comedian and a comic was what you learn from them. A comedian like Bob Hope could stand on stage for an hour and deliver joke after joke and laugh after laugh for an hour, but when he left the stage, you knew as little about him as when he first took the stage. Watch George Carlin or Josie Long or John Hegley and afterwards you have learnt a little bit about what makes them the people they are.

If we all start to presume that people are not yet as dumb as imagined and make sure that we are not so cowardly as to run from ideas for fear of derision or a sly heckling threat, then comedy becomes more exciting. As the mass media becomes more homogenized, and even the Guardian doesn’t feel it can be home to left wing comedy writers like Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, then live stand up becomes a place where we can shun censorship and take risks.

Most people think comedy can do nothing. Peter Hitchens believed it destroyed the ruling class. Maybe we can destroy another ruling class if we stick to our guns. It will be death by a thousand tiny quips, but it could be worth a go.