In defence of racist jokes

John Fleming sticks up for Bernard Manning

I once put on a show at the Hackney Empire theatre in London where a top-name comic refused to introduce or be on stage with comedian Jimmy Carr because, in the preceding week, Jimmy had been much criticised in the press for jokes about gypsies. Especially one gag:

“The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth up to seven miles away – and that fact also works if you remove the word ‘moth’.”

I had no problem with Jimmy Carr nor with the joke. Told in his particular deadpan persona, it is a beautifully-crafted joke. From some other comic, it could have been very ethnically offensive. From the Jimmy Carr on-stage character, it did not seem to me to be offensive. It is/was a joke.

In a Guardian interview in 2006, Jimmy said: ‘If you’re doing wordplay, there is no real place to take offence. It’s like taking offence at a crossword puzzle… People don’t come and see my show and go, “That’s what he thinks”.’

I think if the late Bernard Manning’s live act – much attacked by knee-jerk PC supporters who never saw it – were performed today, word-for-word, by Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz, then trendy journalists would give it a four or five star review. Because they don’t believe (despite the gypsy jokes) that Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz are actually themselves bigoted.

But people do believe in retrospect and without having seen and heard him deliver jokes live on stage, that Bernard Manning’s live act was racist. Because they’ve read or heard other people say it’s a fact.

I did see Bernard Manning perform live three times. He was very funny. I also once had lunch with him. It seemed to me he had a bit of a superiority complex – he thought he was a better than the other Northern Comics of the time – but then he probably was. And he was very funny in a hard-edged, cynical way not un-reminiscent of the current Jimmy Carr on-stage persona.

The first time I saw Bernard perform live, at his own Embassy Club in Manchester, was probably in the early 1980s. It was one of the slickest professional shows I have ever seen in my life, performed in tacky, glittery decor like a cheap Hong Kong Christmas party that Butlins had staged for holiday campers in the mid 1950s.

The room was filled with ordinary downmarket punters who clearly seldom went out and were be-suited and dolled-up for their Big Night Out. The only comparable thing I’ve seen was a Sunday night show at a Masonic hall in Easterhouse, Glasgow, which felt like it was set in South Vietnam circa 1968. The exterior (the walls were topped with barbed wire broken glass) and location of the venue (a lone building in the middle of what felt like and very possibly was a free-fire zone) looked like something out of Escape From New York and the punters were middle-aged blue-rinsed women in over-tight sparkly dresses and dark-suited men looking uncomfortable wearing tightly-collared shirts and seldom-used ties.

What struck me about Bernard Manning’s act at the Embassy Club in Manchester for his very mainstream, very middle-of-the-road, probably Labour-voting but very conservative early-1980s audience was that, for the first third of the act, he used the word ‘cunt’ very liberally. It was all over the place. This was at a time when the word was unacceptable in alternative comedy shows (which were only barely starting) and never heard on feature films, let alone in straight middle-of-the-road live punter shows. The use of the word ‘cunt’ tailed-off after the first third of the act and had disappeared entirely by the final third.

It only struck me the next day that this was part of Bernard’s professionalism.

The show had been due to start at 8pm.

At 30 seconds before 8pm, Bernard appeared on stage and briefly introduced the first act. There then followed competent singers, competent comics. Nothing hyper-special. But satisfying. There were two breaks. In one, there was a charity raffle. In the other, chicken-in-a-basket. Throughout the show (as was the way with Northern clubs) you could order drinks at your table and there was a constant flow of staff bringing drinks from the bar to tables. It was a visible money-making machine and the paying punters got value for money. They got what they paid for.

At the climax of the show, they got Bernard Manning doing his stand-up act – he was the one they had come to see – and they expected his act to be rude and shocking. That was why they had come. He delivered. It was cunt-this and cunt-that and cunt-the-other at the start. After he had established the act was rude and shocking, he just got on with good, solid gags and had no need to say ‘cunt’. He had delivered what they expected and, next day, those punters would be able to tell their friends and workmates: ‘Ooh, our Bernard, he were so rude. It were proper dirty.’

Even there, I am perpetuating a stereotype.

The second time I saw Bernard perform live, there was a young honeymoon couple in the very front row who foolishly admitted the fact to him. He, of course, went for sexual jokes throughout. They loved it. At the same show, there was a black couple in the audience. He went for them as well. They loved it. Afterwards, they were laughing and joking with him.

I also saw him make anti-Semitic jokes.

He was part-Jewish.

I have seen the brilliant Jerry Sadowitz make what most people would consider anti-Semitic jokes.

He is Jewish.

The London-based New York comic Lewis Schaffer tells the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

He is Jewish.

Recently, I saw a newish comic, a British Asian, make an anti-Indian joke.

It should have felt OK – like a Jew telling a Jewish joke against Jews – but, to me, it felt racist.

It is relevant that he is a newish comic.

It’s the way they tell ‘em.

A joke is a joke is a joke.

It’s the way it’s told that makes it funny. Or racist.

The sign of a non-racist society is that anyone can be the butt of a good joke.

Published: 31 Jan 2011

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