Is ironic racism ever OK?
Is ironic racism ever OK? No, it isn't.
That's the concise answer. Saying something horrible and then claiming it's OK because it was intended ironically - because you were actually laughing at racism, not with it - is an incredibly flimsy and self-indulgent argument.
For a start, how sure can you be that the audience will be aware of your ironic intentions? These might not be as clear as you think. Secondly, even if the audience knows you're being ironic (or trying to be), does this mean they will be fine with your liberal use of racist terms and nasty stereotypes? "
‘Oh, he was being ironic when he blacked up and made the joke about wanting to burn Mongolians at the stake! Well that's OK then!’, people may or may not be saying.
I perform as the character Sir Reginald Tweedy-Duffer. As his name suggests, Sir Reginald is a out-of-touch, elderly Conservative politician. Originally the joke behind the character lay in his attempts to be cool and down with the kidz. This is a pretty safe target. Most of us have seen a politician quoting a pop-culture reference they are clearly unfamiliar with, making an awkward reference to a soap opera, claiming to like Radiohead... that sort of thing. Parodying this is unlikely to offend anybody, even politicians themselves.
However, over time I discovered that in character I could get away with making some surprisingly bigoted and nasty statements. Audiences seemed to accept this and actually enjoy hearing Sir Reginald make unpleasant, offhand remarks about women and teachers and members of the working class. Pantomime villain stuff, complete with amused ‘boos’ and gasps of faux-shock from the audience.
But then racism - ironic racism - started to creep in.
And the trouble was, I almost always got away with it.
I took to starting my set by announcing it was a pleasure to be in whatever town I was in ‘...which is the home town of one of my favourite bands, Niggas With Attitude.’ This always got a big laugh. Of course, the idea was simply that NWA were the band least likely to be from any town in which I might happen to be performing, as well as the absurd idea of this being the favourite band of an elderly member of the Conservative party. And of course I justified that saying ‘Niggas’ in this context was not particularly racist because it was just part of the band's name.
As I say, it always got a big laugh, but it took a while for me to wake up to the fact that a significant number of the audience had never heard of this particular band, and they were simply laughing at the unexpected use of the N word. I regret that once this fact dawned on me, it didn't stop me. I was being ironic, after all. Even if the audience thought Sir Reginald was racist, they were laughing at this silly old man with his racist views and that was OK.
I also made a joke along the lines of: ‘I try always to speak plainly. I call a spade a spade’ ...then, with a shifty expression... ‘which lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding in Brixton recently.’ My wife asked me on a number of occasions to stop doing this bit. However, I carried on with it because it usually got a laugh and again, it was ironic. They were laughing at the old buffoon, not with him and therefore it was OK.
There were times when audiences didn't laugh, or when individual audience members (or promoters, or other acts) seemed uncomfortable with this bit, but most of the time I got away with it and I carried on doing it.
More of this sort of thing started to creep into my set and during last year's Edinburgh Fringe I found myself making some truly indefensible comments in the guise of Sir Reginald. On a number of occasions I followed up the reference to NWA by stating: ‘...and I feel a particular affinity for the “nig nogs” if I might be permitted to call them that, because...’
I literally cringed as I typed that just then. It's one of the few things I've said on stage of which I'm genuinely ashamed. I was wondering whether I should even mention it in this piece but fuck it, I said it on stage and so I can bloody well live with the consequences. And you know what? I continued to get away with it (mostly). Audiences laughed at it in a shocked way and I continued to justify it on the grounds that it was ironic and we were all laughing at the character and the way in which a certain generation makes racist remarks without meaning to, and that meant it was OK.
Except I was a middle-class white guy in his 30s getting a laugh by saying ‘nig nogs’ on stage and however you spin it, that's just not OK. It really isn't. It's horrible.
I did stop saying that a couple of weeks into my Fringe run, as it became clear even to me that it was upsetting some people. A comedian and promoter whose opinion I respect told me he had a problem with it and I decided to drop it. But I did keep a lot of the other ironic racist stuff. The same promoter recently booked me, on the grounds that I avoided all such material. I'm incredibly grateful to him for this. I found that by dropping all the racist shit, my set was greatly improved. I thought about it all a bit more clearly and I decided such material is a bad idea. It's always a really bad idea.
Clearly I can get laughs without it and even if it offends 10 per cent of the audience, or 5 per cent, or 0.01 per cent, is that something I want? No, I do not. If people come to a comedy event at which I'm performing, it's my job to help them enjoy themselves, not to upset them or leave them with an unpleasant taste in their mouths (in a metaphorical sense, but I guess in a literal sense too, although that's never really been a worry with my non-contact style of comedy).
Or worse still, what if they like hearing these things said on stage? I remember an interview with Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett. He spoke of the times people would approach him in the street and say things like, ‘Hey Alf, I love you show. I like how you have a go at the coons!’ In vain did he try to explain to them the real butt of the show's mockery. And that's the thing about ironic racism. People have to get it. If they don't, it's just racism.
Anyway, why do it? Like why do ironic rape jokes (will the rape vicim in the audience think it's OK, because it's ironic?) Or ironic peadophile jokes. Yeah, you might get a laugh. You might convince the audience that you're not actually advocating any of these evil things, but to what extent are you making an original or worthwhile point about the evils or racism/rape/paedophilia? Is this why you're doing the jokes? To educate the audience and make them see a complex issue from a new perspective? Or are you just getting a cheap laugh, like the worst sort of 1970s dinner-jacket-clad club comic, but shielding yourself against criticism with the magic cloak of irony?
I think I know which I was doing. But not any more. I'm not Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce nor Reginald D Hunter. The fact I could get away with it was no excuse and I hope I never do it again. Anyway, why do I need to when there's a wealth of comic potential in ironic homophobia, ironic sexism and ironic snobbery?
I'll stick to those.