February 09, 2011

Frankie Boyle, Doug Stanhope, Down's Syndrome, and the story that won't die.

First blog in ages, and rather than warm up with something easy, I am jumping right in the deep end to finally tackle offensiveness in comedy, Frankie Boyle, Doug Stanhope and will try and use a specific thing to make a general point. I hope it works.

Let’s start with putting the cards on the table. I think Frankie Boyle is alright. He’s funny and writes good jokes, though the quality of those jokes has been dropping the past few years and I’d argue he’s somewhat like the Coldplay of comedy: pretty good, but nowhere near as good as his popularity would suggest. Doug Stanhope is brilliant, a bonafide comedy legend, but live he can be awfully hit and miss. But on form you’ll rarely see anyone better.

So at some point last year, Frankie Boyle had an altercation with an audience member whose son had Down’s Syndrome. The whole thing is reported here and is well worth a read to get the background on this. The story ran and ran, Mark Watson offered a remarkably even handed look at it and eventually Doug Stanhope picked it up last week. I broadly agree with everything Stanhope says in that piece, with the exception of his ire being directed towards the woman in the audience.

Here’s the thing. You don’t have a right not to be offended. That applies to life in general, but for comedy shows in particular it has an interesting corollary. An audience member does not have the right to not be offended by a comedian. So it follows that a comedian does not have the right to expect audience members not to be offended. It’s important to point out that in this case, the woman didn’t heckle and didn’t complain about the joke at all initially. She got a bit uncomfortable but just sat there. Her husband asked if she was okay. Talking during a comedy show is bad, but a few words are not going to ruin it for everyone else. Nevertheless, Boyle descended on them to ask what was going on.

The situation: you’re doing jokes about Down’s Syndrome, a woman at the front is not laughing and looking increasingly upset. Her husband asks if she’s okay. If you take a second to consider that, you’ll figure out pretty quickly what is going on and leave it the fuck alone. Carry on with the set, get on with the show, you’ll be off that topic in a minute and she’ll be back to laughing like a drain. Frankie’s reaction was interesting. He seemed to realise it was an error of judgement to engage the woman, and he tries at first to get her back on side: “Ahh, but its all true isn’t it?” When that doesn’t work, he realises it’s better to lose one woman than the whole room and resorts back to “It’s my last tour, I don’t give a fuck.”

The crucial takeaway here: this was a situation that Boyle created. He could have just got on with it, he was the one that opted to make it an issue by drawing attention to it. And if the woman, after the show and having been mocked by Frankie, wanted to make her point more calmly and eloquently in a blog post, and at the same time comment on what she thought of the jokes then she is perfectly entitled to do so. That sort of debate is okay. It’s fine. It should be encouraged. If the papers pick it up, that’s also fine (necessity of accurate reporting notwithstanding). This is how it should work. She doesn’t have the right not to be offended. She doesn’t want that right. But Frankie Boyle doesn’t have the right to not have people point out why they don’t find some stuff funny. Someone heckling, someone actively disturbing the show because they are offended, that’s different. They’re trying to censor the comic, to say he’s not allowed to say what he’s saying, and to literally get him to stop. Someone taking quiet offense and explaining why they don’t find a joke funny when asked – perfectly fine.

The people that complained about Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights TV show are different. The purpose of complaining about a TV show is to say “I don’t think this should be on TV”. Again, if you just want to post on your blog that it’s unfunny and offensive and say why, that’s fine. The minute you write to Channel 4 or OFCOM and say “you shouldn’t commission stuff like this” or “this sort of thing should be banned” you’re promoting censorship based on your personal take on what is and isn’t offensive. That’s not okay.

Having the debate is fine, trying to quash the debate is not.

And so to the wider point. Stanhope points out that most comedy is going to be offensive to someone, so you can’t plan your material around not offending people. I used to agree with this, but am not so sure now. I’d say instead that most comedy will upset someone. To a greater or lesser level, but I think a lot of what is labelled offense is actually upset.

There’s an argument often made in this debate that context matters. I’ve made it myself. It generally goes that it’s okay to joke about rape, as long as either the rapist or the comic on stage are the ‘victim’ of the joke. What isn’t okay is a joke where the rape victim is also the victim of the joke. It’s a fair moral argument when you’re discussing general values and being a good person and all that. I’m not sure it has any place in the reality of a comedy club.

I’ve never been raped. I was never sexually abused as a child. If I had been, I don’t think I’d find any joke about those topic funny, no matter who the victim was. Not because I’d be offended, but because the minute you mentioned that topic I’d be taken from enjoying a fun night out at a comedy club to recalling the worst and most harrowing moment of my life. That can’t be fun.

That’s not taking offense. It’s just a function of human psychology. Even if it’s the best written gag in the world, a rape victim isn’t going to laugh at a rape gag. They’re not prudes, they’re not offended, they just don’t want to fucking think about it. That, to me, seems perfectly reasonable.

It also raises the interesting question of what comics should do. It’s a scary, somewhat crippling idea to consider that doing that hilarious joke you wrote about rape might ruin someone’s night. And maybe context does come in to it. Not in terms of who the victim is or isn’t, but in terms of pure length. A one-liner about rape can be forgotten about as soon as the next gag starts. A one-minute long story is trickier, although if rape is only used in the punchline, and you move right on to something else then maybe it works. An extended five-minute routine about rape… well you’re definitely going to lose them. All speculation of course, and I realise I’m already on dodgy ground trying to speak for rape victims, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.

So to the final part of this thesis. Some things do actually offend, rather than upset people. But the opposite of funny is unfunny. The opposite of offensive is inoffensive. The opposite of funny is not offensive. Jokes can be offensive and funny at the same time. If you laugh at something you consider offensive then that’s okay. It’s because it was a well-written joke, not because you’re secretly a bigot.

There is of course, also an interesting flip-side to this for comics too. Just because people are laughing doesn’t mean what you said isn’t offensive. If Stanhope is right an there will always be someone that is offended, regardless of how funny a joke is, I’d counter that there will always be someone that will laugh, regardless of how offensive a joke is. “The rest of the audience laughed so it can’t be offensive” does not constitute a full defence. “It’s just a joke” is not a sufficient defence.

Comedy will upset people. Comedy will offend people. And comics need to own that idea. The one thing that drives me mad is comics that bill themselves as offensive, challenging and edgy, but then get all upset when someone actually gets offended, and say that they shouldn’t because they’re all just jokes. You can’t have it both ways.

For this debate to go anywhere we need to accept that some people get offended, and that this can’t be prevented, and instead of focusing on the odd individual case of a single person taking offense, actually consider the wider affects of the material. There will always be people that get upset or offended, let them have their say. But I think what is far more damaging is the more inoffensive stuff that casually re-enforces damaging and untrue stereotypes.

And so we come back to the original case of Frankie Boyle and Down’s Syndrome. See, what the mother in question was angry and upset about wasn’t that Frankie was poking fun at the sort of things her child did. It was that he was poking fun at the sort of things she didn’t do.

“Ahh, but its all true isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t.”

And so on that one night of the tour, the audience heard that in fact the basis of Boyle’s Down’s Syndrome jokes were faulty, that Down’s kids didn’t act like that, and in fact many led relatively normal lives in mainstream schools. But were you at any other show on that tour, you’d have no idea. The man on the stage tells you that’s how things are and you believe it.

That, to me, is where the danger is. Not in stuff made deliberately to offend, but that made to deliberately (or even accidentally out of ignorance) mislead. To quote and re-enforce untrue and damaging stereotypes just because they serve a gag.

But you’ll never read about that, of course, because Frankie Boyle just mocked the kid of a TV star.

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