Let's ditch 'ironic' hatred and get creative

Just mimicking prejudice isn't enough, says Karen White

A thundering sphere of punch-drunk sound slams into my ears like a slow-motion bullet, expanding to encase me inside a fragile membrane of applause. Time explodes into shimmering crystal shards around me, jokes slalom at hyperspeed through the nets in my head as I fumble slowly to catch them and form a set. Sand clusterfucks my throat, electric screams through my muscles, and adrenaline bursts my veins.

I love language. I always have. A mystical swamp of both labyrinthian complexity and beautiful simplicity, language is as close as I can get to magic, or alchemy. I can essentially just type a bunch of lines on a screen, like the paragraph above – and yet, it (I hope) conveys how I felt in that split-second before taking the mic when I first started out in comedy.

Three interconnected things have reminded me of the power of language recently; the media circus over Reginald D Hunter’s performance at the PFA Awards, Ava Vidal’s opinion piece in the Guardian on the same, and Will RichardsChortle correspondents piece on ironic racism. My aim here is not to address any of those articles or issues directly – it isn’t my place to do that – but to use them as a springboard to consider the effect we can have as comics through our use of language.

The first thing that struck me was the Kick It Out campaign’s press release in relation to Hunter’s performance, which stated ‘we condemn racial slurs, [and] use of the n-word, irrespective of context’.

Language is defined by context. The reason I call it magic is that it is, in itself, totally emotionally objective. It gains emotive meaning through the context and attitude with which it is spoken, or written. Perhaps there are exceptions to this, but broadly, as an example, saying, ‘I love you’ doesn’t mean you love someone; loving someone means you love them. It is the act and emotion itself, not the word, that bestows meaning. Language is simply an alchemical way of communicating that meaning.

But on the other hand, it is that status as objective, as a form of alchemy, that paradoxically renders such stratospheric power to language. Vidal’s article picked up on the two schools of thought in relation to ‘the n-word’. One, that it can be appropriated and used in a neutral, or even term of endearment manner, thus reducing its power to offend; or two, that historical context has forever defined it as a racial epithet, and thus it shouldn’t be used at all.

We have many words that can confer offence; but the crux here for me is that any language could be used either negatively or positively. Depressingly, it seems to be generally the former a lot of the time. Instant reactions are often critical, and criticism begets criticism. The notorious Godwin’s law of internet debates is predicated on the fact that internet debates generally turn into slanging matches very quickly, becoming an exercise in hyperbole one-upmanship.

So to counter this, I’m going to go back to the 17th Century, and The Imperfect Enjoyment, a poem written by the Earl of Rochester. In it, Rochester lampoons the epic poetry of Homer, Virgil et al, not merely by criticising via verse, but by using their own rules of composition to write an epically styled yet graphic piece about losing an erection during sex.

It is, in my opinion, a satirical masterpiece, and it is so because Rochester doesn’t stop at the negative criticism of ‘isn’t that epic poetry such flowery bollocks’, but adds the positive rejoinder ‘but what if I wrote one about actual bollocks? Wouldn’t that be funny?’

So what are the lessons for comedy in all this? Well, obviously that all comedians should have a degree in English and be pretentious enough to read 17th Century poetry (just kidding – my degree is in economics dahling).

More seriously, for many comedians, language is our raw material – so how do we use it? Are we just presenting a negative to the audience, are we only indulging in the critical side while never divulging our alternative, like a comedy Miliband? And this is where ironic racism, or sexism, or any-ism comes in.

To me, it’s negative. Simply giving an accurate imitation of prejudice is only the ‘isn’t this logic stupid’ half of the equation, it’s fighting fire with fire, you have to present an alternative. In politics, that’s a serious alternative. In comedy, it’s the absurd alternative of Rochester’s poem. Don’t say ironic prejudiced stuff as a character or persona, have that character use their twisted prejudiced logic to declare that linguine is inherently evil, or something to that effect.

Comedy shouldn’t be cruel, to anyone. There shouldn’t be a direct victim, ironic or otherwise. I try to stick to a principle that, if my material has a butt to its jokes, then it’s me, because I think self-effacing comedy helps us all to laugh at the stupid or ‘unfair’ things that happen to us all, which is always positive. And I’m going to satirise, I try not to go for a negative portrayal of an individual or group – I try to go for a positive skewering of the ideas or logic behind them by presenting the absurd alternative.

I do fear this could all just be a great big philosophical pseudo-wank. But, naïve as it might be, I honestly believe that words, well used, are mightier than the sword, the dollar, or anything else you might care to throw at me. So the question is: are we turning lead into comedy gold, or vice versa?

  • Karen White is, according to his business card, a comedian, writer, actor, astronaut and cartoon character.

Published: 9 May 2013

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