Why we need scapegoats like Frankie Boyle | Extract from A Good Bullet by Freddy Syborn

Why we need scapegoats like Frankie Boyle

Extract from A Good Bullet by Freddy Syborn

In his new book A Good Bullet, Freddy Syborn (co-writer of Jack Whitehall's sitcom Bad Education) looks at comedy and how jokes amuse us with thinks that otherwise cause anxiety and pain. Here is an exclusive extract.

The word ‘scapegoat’ – signifying, at first literally, an animal burdened with the sins of a community – has its origin in the Book of Leviticus. Surprisingly, it’s worth quoting at length:

16:8 And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.

16: 9 And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.

16: 10 But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.

It’s a good yarn, in which the scapegoat becomes nothing less than a four-footed version of Aristotle’s kômôidoi (or comedian), ‘degraded and excluded’ from the city by its authorities.

The Hebrew ‘azāzēl’ was translated by William Tyndale in 1530 as ‘scapegoat’ to suggest that a community can ‘escape’ its sins by projecting them onto an outcast. But escapism cuts both ways. God’s animal has its throat slashed; the scapegoat is free to live in sin (and, whatever the sins of the Children of Israel, I doubt they much bothered the goat).

In The Scapegoat, René Girard says these sins (like Jerry Sadowitz’s jokes) ‘transgress the taboos that are considered the strictest... they attack the very foundations of cultural order.’ But sins, jokes, are required to do this. Societies give themselves definition by degrading and excluding others.

Though the word ‘tragedy’ comes from the Greek word for a ‘goat-song’, goats themselves have a very limited amount of tragic agency. A goat could poo somewhere inappropriate, bleat loudly, or perhaps molest a kid if it was a goat priest, but that’s sort of it. Scapegoats, too, are burdened with a disproportionate role within the performance of social morality. We need villains. If Jerry Sadowitz stopped performing, we’d find someone else to be shocked by.

Passivity is convenient. I’m just a consumer! I have rights, not responsibilities! Thus, when confronted by difficult or shocking material, we become Girard’s mob. We see ourselves as ‘completely passive, purely reactive…there is only one person responsible for everything’ sick in our society. We don’t have microphones, we’re not the ones spouting obscenities. But comedy is a performance; a performance needs an audience, an audience needs a performance.

Say you’re a physicist and you’re conducting an experiment (or whatever you do – I didn’t listen at school, just read Viz under my desk, which meant that I sometimes had to explain why I found prisms funny). Classical physics defines the components of an experiment as either observer or observed. The scientist is the observer; the content being experimented upon (say, sound waves or one of those hilarious prisms) is the observed.

But observer and observed leech. As the mathematician Alan Turing wrote, ‘when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves.’ Shouldn’t we come to the same conclusion when considering the comedian and their audience, particularly when we, the audience, are presented with something we object to?

Only hypocrites get offended by comedians; when Frankie Boyle made a joke about her appearance, Rebecca Adlington said that ‘I cannot say I don’t laugh when a comedian tells a joke about someone else. So it would be hypocritical to turn around and say you can’t joke about me.’ So why are audiences still shocked by Boyle’s material? It’s not like he got them watching under false pretences – his tours are called things like I Would Happily Punch Every One Of You In The Face. In theory, at least, his audience are just as happy to get punched.

Why? For the same reason you see a horror film. You want to be brutalised by the content. The more popular these films (and comedians) get, moreover, the more shocking they need to be. It’s a question of supply and demand. The one thing the consumer doesn’t want is to be confronted with the consequences of their appetite. If you eat Big Macs every day, you’re unlikely to own a weighing machine.

In Being And Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre describes an eavesdropper kneeling at a keyhole. This eavesdropper needs to remain undetected, the better to derive pleasure, surprise, outrage or information from what’s being said. He’s so focused on listening that he loses awareness of his surroundings. In his mind, he is silent, invisible. Then, behind him, he hears a floorboard creak. In that instant, he becomes aware of how he looks to someone else. He sees himself through another’s eyes and all he can feel is shame.

Frankie Boyle’s critics do one of two things in order to pretend that they’re somehow above him. They say either that the shock factor has worn off (supply has failed demand), or – if they are shocked – that they’ve taken offence at the construction of his material, not its subject-matter. This second criticism is a little disingenuous.

To use a much-publicised incident, if Sharon and Kieron Smith – the parents of a child with Down’s Syndrome – are in the front row (the front row!) of a Frankie Boyle gig when he tells a joke about Down’s Syndrome, the Smiths are not offended by his technical abilities. Though Sharon Smith said in a blog entry that “I expected dry, nasty, crude humour, yes, but…[his jokes] weren’t even clever”, she did not storm out because of an over-obvious set-up or a mistimed punchline, deviation from the rule of three or a callback that labours the point.

Couldn’t you argue (if you were particularly cynical and honestly only playing Devil’s advocate) that Sharon Smith stormed out because she recognised in herself what she finds hateful in others: the pleasure taken in victimisation. It’s only now her child’s the victim that she and her husband see how they’ve previously taken part in ‘nasty, crude’victimisation themselves.

Sharon Smith was caught eavesdropping, and she didn’t like what she saw. Terrifyingly, however, that’s an opinion shared by the Daily Mail’s online forum.

As the Daily Mail online forum also wants to castrate Britain-hating benefit-scrounging homosexual Chinese imam-lizard-scapegoats with yo-yoing weight problems and a heroin habit funded by muggins here, I’m going back on my word. Are Frankie Boyle’s critics right? Does structure alone have the power to offend?

• Find out, ‘sort of’, in Freddy Syborn’s book A Good Bullet: A Good Bullet: Comedy, Violence And All The Terrible Things That Make Us Laugh, published by Short Books, priced £9.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £7.99.

Published: 8 Oct 2013

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.