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Timandra Harkness: I prefer comedy that challenges the audience

Ahead of the Battle of Ideas 2016, journalist, writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness explains why there should be no holds barred when it comes to comedy

17 Oct 2016
BY TIMANDRA HARKNESS

Battle of Ideas 2016
A weekend of thought-provoking public debate taking place on 22 and 23 October at the Barbican Centre. Join the main debates or satellite events.

Comedy and censorship: Are you kidding me?
Is the fear of offence killing comedy? Jodie Ginsberg, Timandra Harkness, Will Franken, Tom Walker and Steve Bennett with chair Andrew Doyle.

When: 23 October, 10-11:30am
Where: Cinema 2, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

From hate speech to cyber-bullying: Is social media too toxic?
What of the free speech of those harassed into silence by a stream of abuse? And what of the abuse itself, consisting, as it so often seems to, of fantasy punishments and name-calling? Is that speech worth defending?

When: 22 October, 4-5:15pm
Where: Pit Theatre, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

We live in serious times, what with civil wars, US elections and the threat of Marmite rationing. But there’s always room in the news for outrage about a joke.

In the last few days Simon Cowell has been reprimanded for making a “back door” joke to X Factor host Rylan Clark-Neal, and singer Lily Allen for a stupid pun on the word “gyppo,” recorded several years ago. Meanwhile, Canadian comic Mike Ward, who was fined $42,000 by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for making jokes about a singer with disabilities, has been given leave to appeal.

The Ward case rightly drew support from comedians (and others) who didn’t particularly like the material. David Mitchell, commenting in The Guardian on jokes like Ward’s, said: “If we take ‘OK’ to mean ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘admirable’ or ‘kind’, then it isn’t. But if, by OK, we simply mean ‘legal’, then of course it’s OK. And quite right too.”

Offence depends heavily on context. Anybody who tells jokes for a living can easily imagine finding that an offensive gag is now a civil or even criminal offence. Collective self-interest alone should be (and usually is) enough to make comedians hold the line that legally, at least, anything goes in comedy.

This is not to say that one joke is as good as another. As writers, performers and audience members, we should discriminate between good and bad work. But this is a matter of quality, not morality. Lazy comedy presses the obvious buttons of the target audience. That can mean “back door” jokes about gay sex, or making fun of Donald Trump.

But you can hit the same targets without being lazy. Comedian Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, attacked both Donald Trump and the response to “Pussygate” with material that mocks those outraged by his use of “the P-word”, instead of by sexual assault. By ending his routine with the phrase “no pussy for me,” Noah will have offended those people all over again. That’s his point: it’s not about the word.

Although I prefer comedy that challenges the audience, rudely or gently, it’s no more possible to draw a line around acceptable approaches than around permitted subject matter. Again, it’s all about context. The same joke can shake one audience’s core beliefs, but reinforce another’s smug certainties.

So there should be no holds barred in comedy, nothing forbidden and nothing out of bounds. Leave it to the judgment of writers, performers and the audience. Especially the audience, because any kind of censorship is depriving them of their right to be offended.

Nobody has a right not to be offended. Certainly not a right enforced on their behalf by those in authority. How can anyone feel at once so vulnerable about being able to withstand unpleasant humour, and yet so confident in their capacity to draw the line of social acceptability?

It’s an absurd position, that only makes sense if each individual’s feelings are the supreme arbiter of moral value. And if each of us can insist that the law, or collective social censure, forbid the hurting of our feelings, there will soon be nothing left in shared culture but the blandest, safest, most anodyne pap.

We do all have the right to express our feelings of anger and disgust if we don’t like a joke. We have the right to leave the venue or switch the channel, to speak or write our own views, or simply to withhold our laughter which, for a comedian, is akin to withholding oxygen.

Though we should ask ourselves what provokes these feelings in us. Is it targetting of the weak, asking us to become vicarious bullies? Is it an unsettling of our ideas about ourselves, as we laugh at things we never thought we’d find funny? Or is it that we don’t think other people should listen to this, in case weaker minds than ours are poisoned by words or images?

If it’s the first, that you’re simply not amused by “punching down,” (or gratuitous lewdness, or whatever) don’t laugh. Be unamused. Like a tango, comedy takes at least two, and if one side of the partnership is not in the mood, comedy will quickly go flaccid.

If you don’t like being unsettled, that’s also fine. Not everybody goes to comedy to be made to think, just as not everybody goes to the opera for the thrilling discords of the latest Harrison Birtwhistle. Pick a different comedian next time. But it’s not up to you to prevent others subjecting their fondly-held ideas to the test of mockery, or of sudden shifts of perspective.

If your objection is that other people may be swayed by a joke to views you don’t like, you may be over-estimating the power of comedy or underestimating your fellow humans’ capacity to think for themselves. Or both. Either way, the only word for trying to prevent somebody else from seeing or hearing something is censorship.

As somebody who still writes and performs comedy, I’m almost flattered that anybody thinks it has that much power. It’s a long time since I was worthy of censure or censorship. So long that the offending material was about the aftermath of Diana’s tragic death in a car crash. These days the most controversial material I do involves a graph of the medical benefits of moderate drinking (you’d be surprised how provocative that can be to the right audience).

When I do shows, I hope people leave both amused and provoked to think afresh. As a writer and performer, I craft each line with that in mind.

But as a human being, I know that my audience arrived in the venue with their own thoughts, leave with their own thoughts, and engage with my ideas on their own terms, if at all. So politically, more important than anything I can say or show to them in that venue is the fact that they are free to decide for themselves what to see, what to hear, and what to think.

Timandra Harkness

Timandra Harkness is a writer, presenter and comedian. She presents BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing.

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