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Comedians are used to being censored. Sometimes, that’s fair enough. On Monday, I watched Stephen Fry explain to an audience at a new Radio 4 panel show that his mother used to describe muttonchops (the large facial hair, rather than the unlikely foodstuff) as “bugger’s grips”. As he was saying it, he admitted that he was simply telling the live audience for their amusement and his – he knew there was no way that Radio 4 would be able to broadcast a phrase like that at 11.30am, when the programme will go out.
Most comedians I know are stoic in the face of this kind of “appropriate-ness” censorship – we’re happy enough to write and perform jokes that are relatively risqué for one audience, and relatively bland for another. Radio 4 isn’t without humour on this issue, either: they did after all once broadcast Fry’s peerless definition of the word “countryside” (the act of killing Piers Morgan, according to Fry: a joke of truly beautiful construction) in I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which goes out at 6.30pm.
But if there’s one thing that gets all broadcasters edgy, it is the mention of god or gods in jokes. So I suppose it should come as no surprise to find that Tim Minchin has found himself on the receiving end of this brand of religious or quasi-religious censorship. On the Jonathan Ross Show for ITV this week, he sang a sweet, funny song about how Jesus did magic tricks like Derren Brown and was a thoughtful Jew like Woody Allen.
It’s not his best song, by his own admission. But you would strain to find it offensive, I think, unless you have that disposition anyway (in which case, watching Jonathan Ross seems calculated to give you early heart failure). Comic book nerds might be traumatised by his suggestion that “With great power comes great responsibility” is a phrase belonging to Superman, rather than Spiderman. But, in my experience, even a vexed comic book nerd does not write in to ITV and complain about that kind of thing.
Minchin’s song was recorded, included in the recorded programme, and then removed from it later, before broadcast, apparently at the behest of Peter Fincham, controller of ITV. Minchin attributes this to fear of “ranty, shit-stirring right-wing press”, and I suspect he’s right. Yet Fincham must have known what kind of performer Tim Minchin is: he surely watches television occasionally. So why hire him at all, or let others hire him, if you are then going to wig out when he does exactly what you would expect him to do: write a funny song from a rationalist perspective?
The song is, at the time of writing, on Minchin’s blog, along with Ross’ awkward intro and outro, which seem to me to make it perfectly clear that he also expects complaints by the bucketload and is dissociating himself from the potential shit-storm. Once bitten by a wild-haired imaginative comedian, twice shy, I suppose. So do go and have a look and see if you think the delicate watchers of Ross’s talk-show would have been provoked to swoon.
And if you like the song, perhaps you might write or call in to ITV to explain that you’re offended every time they pull this kind of material from shows (on the rare occasions we find out about it). If offence must be taken so seriously, then perhaps we need to start being offended too, at least for the purposes of complaining. Tell them you object to being treated like a child and to having pre-emptive steps taken on your behalf to ensure you aren’t shocked or upset. At the moment, there are no consequences for this sort of creative cowardice. There are only consequences for taking the risk and broadcasting.
People of religious faith can cope with mild teasing, just like anyone else: they aren’t some exotic, frail species, and some of them even like jokes. ITV should remember – as all broadcasters might – that offending a small number of people, who are bafflingly watching a show where their offence is almost guaranteed by at least some of its content, is a small price to pay for entertaining the majority with thoughtful, clever, musical, non-bullying humour.
Natalie Haynes is a writer and comedian.