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Heritage or Heresy?

Ruth E. Cockburn looks at how comedy ages and asks – Should we be proud or embarrassed of our comedy history?
Ruth E. Cockburn looks at how comedy ages and asks – Should we be proud or embarrassed of our comedy history?

The week that I wrote this, it was Bobby Ball’s funeral, a sad day. Myself and my fellow comedians clapped and shouted ‘Rock On Tommy’ as his coffin drove by, I felt a sense of pride that I work in such a supportive and loving profession.

I was brought up watching reruns of the Wheeltappers and Shunters Club, The Comedians and sketches by Al Reed and Les Dawson. I loved these comics and others just like them as if they were funny uncles and aunties. They were part of the family. But as the ’80s and ’90s came along, these ‘Variety’ comedians went out of favour and the medium of television entertainment – for better or for worse – changed; these comics became regarded as outdated, and in some cases downright offensive.

Now, as a straight, cis-gendered, white woman working in the arts, I must be careful and check my privilege at this point. I have never been called names because of my race or sexual orientation and I think this perhaps has coloured my judgement when it comes to the sensitive issue of comedy content and language. I’ve laughed at old episodes of Only Fools and Horses, Porridge and Fawlty Towers knowing that the jokes and language are very much ‘of its time.’ Whilst I was not offended, I still winced at some of the wording.

However, even I have my limits.

I have never watched (nor do I ever wish to watch) Roy Chubby Brown for example. Call me a lefty liberal all you want I don’t want to see it. I’m fairly sure it isn’t going to be for me. ‘How?’ You might ask, ‘If you’ve never tried it?’ But like a toddler faced with broccoli or a cat with a cucumber I know that I will dislike it wholeheartedly. I will be offended.

However, I do defend his right and his audience, of which there are many, to say and hear these things he jokes about. That’s not to say I’m easily offended. I don’t think of myself as a ‘snowflake’ by any stretch of the imagination. But I feel I will never laugh at something that is needlessly cruel, no matter who the comedy foil is. If it intends to inflict harm it doesn’t matter what words you use, to me, it is not funny.

And that brings me to my point.

Words can harm; I feel that the intent of the words, as well as the choice of words themselves, can lead to bigotry and a biased view of another. I do think you can make a joke about anything; comedy is to mock normality and point out its ridiculousness… but it must be done well.

For example, if a comic has a routine that contains racist comments it’s because the routine is specifically about the subject of racism; and they want to show racism in the pathetic light in which it should be viewed. Laughing at such a serious subject, I believe, takes away any power from the people who want to maintain these bigoted views.

Words can harm; I feel that the intent of the words, as well as the choice of words themselves, can lead to bigotry and a biased view of another. I do think you can make a joke about anything; comedy is to mock normality and point out its ridiculousness… but it must be done well.

Comedy is cruel and you could say that many modern comedians are just as (if not more) cruel than some old-fashioned comedians that might be classed as ‘un-PC’. Some modern comedians are still saying the same ‘un-PC’ thing simply by using the phrase “My mate said to me in the pub” or “Isn’t it mad when people say”; when the sentiment of what they are really saying is unkind and derogatory. I’m not the comedy police. Everything is up for interpretation. I myself have been pinned in a toilet after a gig by a drunk woman telling me that my jokes were offensive and that I should: “Do more material about shoes and the difference between men and women.” I didn’t say any un-PC words, I didn’t intend to cause harm yet someone took offence.

You can never know if your well-intended satirical comedy comment will be taken in the way you intended. You can’t plan for people’s interpretation. People will be offended no matter what you say, but as long as what you are trying to do is for the better, without hate and blind ridicule then I believe comedy should be allowed to be shown.

I’m certainly not condoning racists, bigotry or hate speech, but art and comedy reflect the times. Rigsby in Rising Damp is a fool that shows his ignorance by saying racist things, Fletcher in Porridge is using the slang of the day, Alf Garnett was a racist, misogynistic, anti-Semite, that was ridiculed by his family and played by a Jewish actor. I know the BBC have to be careful what they broadcast as they are publicly funded, but a comedy, in my opinion, should challenge the conventions of society. Comedians are there to show the foolishness of our current situation. Stupid people will always find a way to rationalise their bigotry. We need to be careful as comedians that we don’t give these people fuel for their argument, but if we erase the language and content of the past, we risk being blind to it recurring in the future.

One thing is certain, we will be offended in our lives. We will disagree with other people’s opinions, but we all have the right to say them. As long as we’re not being cruel and we’re not shutting down anyone, diminishing their right to a voice because of who they are, or what they believe, then in my opinion, you’re ok by me. And of course, as long as we use comedy to entertain, ‘all in the best possible taste’. Then again, maybe I haven’t explained myself properly and so if I’ve offended you…

Follow Ruth here Comedian | Ruth E. Cockburn 

Images courtesy of Andy Hollingworth

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