HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST I'M OFFENDED?
When it comes to comedy some people claim that nothing can offend them. But the truth is that everyone can be offended - if you try hard enough.
In the same way that everyone has a price, everyone has something they're sensitive about - because everyone has beliefs. Rationalists believe it's stupid to hold irrational beliefs, and you can make them quite angry simply by professing faith in something, especially if you invent it yourself and make it as weird as possible. But it's sometimes hard to offend people who are so certain of their religious beliefs that they radiate that creepy, contemptuous serenity. With them you might have to get personal. Stuff about their mother often does the trick. But how do you offend a comedian who tells offensive jokes? I'll tell you later.
On May 19th I'm chairing an event at London's Southbank Centre. It's called "No Offence But..." and the panel includes Richard Herring, Brendon Burns, Francesca Martinez and Oona King, Channel 4's Head of Diversity (see link at the end of this post). We're going to challenge some basic assumptions about comedy.
Why does comedy have to be offensive at all? Why can't we just make nice, silly jokes that make everyone happy? Why do we need comedy that might offend some people? The answer could be in the word 'some'. If everyone in the world found something offensive it wouldn't be funny. But there are some very sick people out there, who find even the most vile, repulsive jokes amusing, if you tell them properly. Thank God for diversity. What one person finds funny, another person finds distasteful. But there can be lots of different reasons why someone takes offence. It could be because of beliefs they hold, or it could be because of something that's happened to them. And even then, two people can react differently to the same experience. Here's an example. It's not strictly speaking comedy, in the sense that it's about someone dying of cancer. But lighten up...
On 10th April 2010, The Guardian Weekend Magazine published a piece by Briony Campbell about the death of her father; it was called "Saying Goodbye with my Camera" and was illustrated by photographs of him in his final days. The pictures were muted and restrained, and mostly featured details, like close-ups of his thin, delicate hands. The next weekend (17th April) the magazine published responses by two readers. Here are extracts:
1. "Saying Goodbye With My Camera was objectionable, tasteless and plumbed the lowest depths of sensationalism. Having in recent years watched both my parents die of cancer, I found the whole thing distressing and disgusting."
2. "Briony Campbell's photographs are in front of me now, splattered with my tears. They are so beautiful. They reminded me of forgotten details connected with the deaths of my lovely, gentle mum and dad. Thank you."
So, one person found this material offensive and another found it moving. Does that mean one person is sensitive and the other isn't? It doesn't sound like it. Was the subject matter disgusting or perverse? The pictures showed nothing loathsome. Did it deal with some kind of bizarre minority interest? No, death seems to be pretty widespread. So, what's going on here?
The obvious conclusion is that it's not about the material itself. It's not even about principle, or morality, or taste. It's about an individual's experience, from which that individual derives a principle or moral value - based entirely on how they feel.
Okay, back to comedy. It's got to be obvious that you simply can't avoid offending some people, some of the time with some comedy material. It may be because of beliefs they hold, or because of the way they've reacted to an experience, or just because they're one of those people who seems to go around expecting to be offended, with a big invisible but irresistible sign on their back saying, "Go on, offend me, I know you're going to anyway, you bastard."
But if we examine the comedy material itself, trying to find out what's acceptable and what's not, the chances are we're looking in the wrong direction. It's not about the material, it's about the people. And that includes us - the people telling the jokes. If the only criteria we can find for judging what's going to offend someone, and why, is the way they feel, then the only chance we've got of understanding the process is by looking at the way we feel ourselves. If you aren't interested in understanding it, that's fine, just don't complain that the people who say you've offended them are narrow-minded. They may be, but so are you. It's one thing to say that you're using your right to free speech to make a joke that attacks hypocrisy or oppression, but if you just want to make people laugh and you're going to hurt someone in the process, then it's best to have some idea of how they feel. The you can go ahead and make an informed decision. Personally I want to be able to make comedy out of anything I please, but I think that 'challenging' comedy should challenge me along with everyone else. That's just a belief I have.
This will be investigated further in the next post, along with ideas about free speech, human rights, censorship, and some really great jokes about child abuse.
Oh, and that thing about offending a comedian who tells offensive jokes? It's easy to offend any comedian, whatever kind of material they use. Don't laugh.