Comedy journalism - by which I mean journalism about comedy as opposed to journalism that is comic - can easily rile those of us who work in the industry. I don't really mean comedy reviews where the scope for upset is obvious, I mean the broader sweep of journalists writing about comedy in general. Any article that purports to ‘take the comedy scene's temperature’ or what have you is bound to annoy those who work within it because we inevitably see it as a more subtle, nuanced and mixed up world.
If you want to write a piece saying that comedy has got more fey/ offensive / sweary / scientific / pious /surreal / real / personal / abstract / aggressive / passive /passive-aggressive / stupid / intelligent / subtle / unsubtle / satirical / knowing / gag-based / anecdotal or any other adjective you care to mention it would be easy to find five comedians whose material you could use to support your hypothesis. As the vast majority of people never go to see live comedy in any form your readers will accept your chosen sample as being representative and therefore accept your hypothesis.
To those of us who feel we know better this is annoying. Most of the time any such annoyance is wasted. The articles aren't of much import. They distract a few people during their lunch hour. The fact that a few thousand people read a piece arguing that comedy has recently gone all fey won't do anything to change the comic landscape. The fey comedians quoted will go down just as well that night as they did the night before and the unfey comics will carry on regardless. Pfft.
But Brian Logan's article in The Guardian on Monday seemed to go beyond this normal annoyance. It wasn't just wrong, it seemed to be malignly, dangerously so.
It’s titled The New Offenders Of Stand Up Comedy, and the idea behind it seems to be that comedy has thrown off the shackles of political correctness and is now setting out to offend. Like I say, it would be easy to find five comedians and use their material to make this - or any - case.
So what's odd about this article - what makes it quite so annoying - is that it takes the material of comedians who are quite deliberately not doing that instead. By cherry picking words and removing all context it steamrollers through facts and makes its argument anyway.
I'm not familiar with the material of all those quoted - and at least one of the comics referred to is really not to my taste - but I have seen a fair bit of Richard Herring's work in the last couple of years. If I hadn't I would have assumed from this edition of The Guardian that Richard was a racist comedian. Or at best, a comedian doing some borderline material about race under a cloak of irony. He's not. His material is explicitly anti-racist. So, the article says: 'This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues "that racists have a point".'
Then there's a new sentence. About another comic. So the summation of what Richard's new show is about is, according to The Guardian, "that racists have a point." What an amazing charge to level at someone!
My understanding of the show is that in attempting to reclaim the toothbrush moustache from fascism (Hitler) for comedy (Chaplin) Herring opens up a broader discussion about the issues. (I've made it sound dry and pious now. I'm sure it isn't.)
Rather than arguing that ‘racists have a point’, Herring says, ‘let's assume they have a point and see where it takes us’ and then follows the logical argument through to its farcical conclusions... thus demonstrating that if they have a point it's a horribly flawed one. That's probably not the conclusion you'd draw from the sentence, in which he argues ‘that racists have a point’.
Later in the article it says: 'In another routine, he claims to support the BNP's policy to deport all black people from the UK.'
Again it's hard to imagine a reader unfamiliar with Richard reaching anything other than the wrong conclusion. I mean... it's pretty clear isn't it? Isn't it?
Only I've seen the routine in question and it does no such thing. Brian Logan has seen it too. I generally hate it when I see material quoted because not only does it tend to work less well on the page, it also robs the comedian in question of the ability to surprise some of his/her audience. (Chortle's policy of not quoting jokes in reviews is to be applauded here.) So with apologies to Richard, I'll tell you how I think that routine works.
It starts with suggesting that anyone who votes for the BNP should have their right to vote taken away from them. In a lot of clubs this suggestion gets a cheer from the largely liberal crowd. But then Herring points out that taking away their right to vote would be a form of fascism in itself. And he follows the logic through a series of well-if-I-think-that-then-this-must-be-true-and-if-that's-true-I-must-think-this-too contortions with each new revelation being more ridiculous and comic than the last. By following this rat-run of (flawed) logic through he ends up in a confused place where his right-on desire to remove the right to vote from BNP supporters means that he also supports their views and so wants to remove his own right to vote as well. It's a ridiculous, circular piece of logic that plays with ideas, that starts somewhere well-intentioned but ends up somewhere ludicrous and the only conclusion any sensible audience member could draw from it is that if you want to defeat the BNP, you can't do it by lowering yourself to their level.
Which is quite different to, ‘In another routine, he claims to support the BNP's policy to deport all black people from the UK.’
Like I say, normally articles like this are best shrugged off. But I went to bed thinking about this one and I woke up still thinking about it the next morning. It's got nothing to do with me. Richard and I do know each other, we're friends but we aren't bosom buddies. But that really isn't important. This isn't the fleeting ire one feels at seeing a friend get an undeservedly bad review. This particular article goes beyond being just plain wrong. Not only does it brand someone as racist it knowingly ignores plenty of facts in order to do so.
This article originally appeared on Dave Gorman's blog.
Published: 29 Jul 2009