When Joan Rivers died aged eighty-one in September 2014, tributes poured in for the American comedy legend. To judge by events of the previous months, however, not everybody would have been quite so sad to hear of her passing. Shortly before she died Rivers had been bitterly attacked not only for her caustic and politically incorrect expressions of support for Israel’s air-strikes on Gaza – ‘If New Jersey was firing rockets into New York, we would wipe them out’ – but also for telling the wrong kind of jokes involving race, sexuality and much else. (Asked whether she thought there would ever be a gay president, she told the TV reporter that there already was, since ‘Michelle’s a tranny.’) Worse, her offensive jokes tended to be funny.
When Rivers criticized Justin Bieber’s ‘gangsta’ dress sense on her TV show Fashion Police in August 2014, just a month before her death, it was hard to know which caused more outrage – what she said or the fact that others laughed out loud at it. ‘That little bitch gets on my nerves,’ Rivers said of Bieber. ‘You are not a big black thug, you are just like your shoes – ordinary and completely white.’ The reverse-Voltaires went quickly into action online, and Village People veteran Victor Willis made headlines by apparently tweeting for many: ‘What Joan Rivers said is no laughing matter. It’s Racist and she has a history of this. Time to shut her down. What say you?’ When death finally managed to shut her down just weeks later, there was much smug and charmless talk of ‘karma’ on social media sites.
What some of us say is that Joan Rivers’s great quality was her insistence that nothing ought to be beyond a joke. In contrast to the ‘shut-it-down’ lobby, she believed that there was no such thing as ‘no laughing matter.’ In this she stood in the great tradition of subversive comedians. Unlike many alleged comedians who are coming after her, she also understood that simply trying to be offensive is not enough – you first have to be funny. And unlike many wannabe controversialists today, when what she said caused the expected outrage, she refused to withdraw or apologize. It was just a joke, after all. Rivers even dared to tell a Holocaust joke, saying of the model Heidi Klum’s outfit at the 2013 Oscars ceremony that ‘the last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into ovens.’ When that gag enlisted an army of critics, she would not back down or apologize. ‘My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz,’ Rivers said, ‘and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humor.’ She also reminded them that humor was how Jewish people had coped with the horror.
It is hard not to think that, when Joan Rivers died, a kind of comedy was shut down with her. As one obituarist asked, ‘Who is going to slay all those sacred cows now?’
Generally speaking, good jokes are in bad taste. They tend to mock the respectable rules and morals of society. By its nature comedy is always controversial, pushing as it must at the limits of what passes for taste and decency in any era. That is why there have long been attempts to control what is deemed ‘acceptable’ humor and to censor what is not. And why many writers and comedians have tried to subvert the rules.
However, as with other issues in the Anglo-American free-speech wars, the terrain has shifted. Once the complaints were about blasphemous and indecent comedy, and the censors were conservative politicians, policemen and priests. Now the protests are more often against comedians accused of breaking the new taboos – racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the other usual suspects. And the demands to shut them down tend to be led not by old-fashioned prudes but by radical online activists, the liberal media and even other comedians. Backed up, in the UK at least, by broadcast regulators, politicians and the newly PC police.
We have come a long way since the upsurge of modern radical comedy in the 1960s, when the Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce could be arrested in America and barred from Britain for using the word ‘cocksucker’ on stage. The political and social changes of that decade were paralleled by a sort of Western cultural revolution affecting music, theatre and comedy. The UK had the new satire movement led by Peter Cook. In the US, the new comedy and the counter-revolution against it initially focused on Lenny Bruce.
Bruce had been using comedy to upset the applecart since his days as a teenage sailor during the Second World War. In 1945 he entertained his shipmates aboard the USS Brooklyn with a comedy routine whilst dressed in drag – an episode which led to his discharge from the US Navy. But it was in the Sixties that the ‘troubled’ and drug-taking Bruce became infamous as the figurehead for a new kind of satirical and sexually explicit comedy. In October 1961 he was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, after a routine involving the use of ‘cocksucker’ and some discussion of the expression ‘to come.' The jury acquitted him, but the authorities had already found him guilty and several other arrests for onstage obscenity followed. In 1962 he was arrested in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, for using the word ‘schmuck,’ which many might think simply means idiot, but originated as a Yiddish insult meaning a prick. Bruce wrote that he had been arrested ‘by a Yiddish undercover agent who had been placed in the club several nights running to determine if my use of Yiddish terms was a cover for profanity.’ He came to Britain and appeared at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club, birthplace of modern British satire. But in 1963 the actual British Establishment, in the person of the Tory home secretary, barred him from coming back into the country, branding Bruce an ‘undesirable alien’ whose presence in the UK would not serve ‘the public interest.’
Back in the States, the anti-Lenny Bruce show reached its climax in 1964, when he was arrested twice after leaving the stage at the Café Au Go Go in New York’s Greenwich Village, where undercover cops had recorded his act. Bruce was found guilty of performing a routine that was ‘obscene, indecent, immoral and impure,' in which ‘words such as “ass,” “balls,” “cock-sucker,” “cunt,” “fuck,” “mother-fucker,” “piss,” “screw,” “shit,” and “tits” were used about one hundred times in utter obscenity.’ Three New York judges sentenced him, in what now sounds like a bad Dickensian joke, to four months in the workhouse. Bruce was released on bail pending appeals, but died before the legal process was complete. He was posthumously pardoned in 2003 by Republican New York Governor George Pataki, who acknowledged how far things had changed. Bruce’s arrest for obscenity was now deemed a free-speech issue: ‘Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties,’ Pataki said, ‘and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve.’
These days Lenny Bruce is revered as a pioneering comedy hero. Yet if the young Lenny were magically to appear on the New York stage today, what reception might he get? His routine about a psychopathic rapist meeting up with a nymphomaniac after they each escape from their respective institutions, or suggestion that he enjoyed sex with a chicken, or description of his audience as ‘seven n****rs, six spics, five micks, four kykes, three guineas, and one wop’ might not get him arrested for obscenity by the US state or barred from entering Britain, but it surely would see him accused of racism and sexism and possibly the abuse of animals and the mentally ill by the outraged illiberal liberals of the ‘shut-it-down’ lobby, who would try to have him banned from campuses. And Bruce’s insistence that he used the n-word and other offensive epithets ‘just to make a point,’ that ‘it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness,’ would not wash with the new comedy censors, who claim the right to decide what jokes others should be allowed to tell or to laugh at, what points they should be permitted to make, all in the public interest of course.
The ‘alternative’ comedy scene of the 1980s in the UK and the US began partly as a punkish reaction against the older school of what was seen as one-note racist, sexist and homophobic humor.
These alternative comedians soon became the new establishment, creating an alternative comedic conformism of their own – not so much, as British tabloids might have claimed, ‘political correctness gone mad,’ more PC gone mainstream. The fresh generation of comedians, including feminist stars, broke many old taboos in the way they talked about sex, sexuality or race. They were also, however, helping to create new taboos.
There is a powerful whiff of the reverse-Voltaire around the controversies about comedy today. The critics are not simply objecting to a comedian’s shtick or saying that it’s not funny – which anybody has the perfect right to do. They are denying the offensive performer’s right to say it, demanding it is time to ‘shut them down.’ This sort of censoriousness can only have severe consequences both for comedy and wider issues of free speech.
Some of the targets of the reverse-Voltaires of comedy might seem unquestionably objectionable, but as with all forms of extreme speech, bans and proscriptions are not the answer. Take the example of the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who became infamous for his ‘reverse Nazi salute,’ the so-called quenelle, has several convictions in France for anti-Semitic hate speech, and was convicted of encouraging terrorism for his remarks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Early in 2014, the Socialist government in France, backed by the country’s top court, banned Dieudonné from performing in public. Interior minister Manuel Valls, shortly to become prime minister, justified this act of official intolerance in the name of tolerance, declaring that: ‘We cannot tolerate anti-semitism, historical revisionism and racism.’ Soon afterwards, the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK gave in to pressure from the ‘shut it down’ lobby and banned Dieudonné from entering Britain. As with the arrests and bans used against the Jewish rebel Lenny Bruce, these measures are justified in the name of protecting the public good. Yet censoring comedy, trying to tell people what they may find funny, is never in the interests of a healthy public sphere. It is also counter-productive even in its own censorious terms. The disaffected young people in France and elsewhere attracted to Dieudonné by his apparently anti-Establishment stance are unlikely to be deterred by discovering that those same elites, on both sides of the Channel and both ends of the political spectrum, are trying to shut him up.
Other clashes in the new free-speech wars over comedy involve attempts to close down more mundane comedians who simply don’t conform to the changed rules. One revealing episode in the UK was the strange case of Dapper Laughs. A London comedian called Daniel O’Reilly invented a character called Dapper Laughs on social media – a vulgar, laddish, sexist caricature who went on about women going ‘proper moist’ in his irresistible presence. The Dapper character – part send-up of himself, part reaction against the growing cultural dominance of feminism – proved quite popular among younger social media users. (Others had never heard of him until the backlash began.) In 2014 he was given his own television series, entitled On the Pull, on the UK terrestrial channel ITV 2.
This was unacceptable to the reverse-Voltaires, who launched a campaign to kill off Dapper with the message ‘You can’t laugh at that!’ He was banned from university campuses while a wave of online petitions and postings and outraged media comment sought to wash the television airwaves clean of his seedy presence. This crusade was led not by old-fashioned censors or churchmen but by allegedly liberal publications and comedians themselves. Their complaint was not merely that there were no laughs in Dapper Laughs, but that he was dangerous. A po-faced magazine for comedians called Chortle branded Dapper’s show as a ‘rapist’s almanac’ which ‘contributed to a prevalent predatory culture that reduces women to nothing more than a piece of cunt’ (it now being acceptable to use the words that got Bruce arrested and banned, so long as you do so in support of PC censorship). New Statesman magazine, traditional house journal of the British left, instructed its readers to ‘be worried about Dapper Laughs’ because he was ‘normalizing sexual harassment.’
How could a bad-taste joke told by an invented character seriously be accused of legitimizing sexual harassment or even violence in the real world? Like all attempts to restrict free speech, it reflected a low view not just of the speaker, but of the audience.
What worried the comedy conformists was that Dapper was popular among an audience of young men or ‘lads’ who did not meet their standards of non-sexist behavior. The criticism of Dapper Laughs seethed with contempt for working-class men who apparently look at every woman as a ‘potential wank fantasy,' as if that in itself was a sexual crime. Chortle described Dapper’s young laddish followers as ‘the unenlightened, the confused, the intellectually frightened … a people shoveling themselves into the excrement of history.’ Vice magazine, house journal of London hipsters, declared that Dapper came from and spoke to ‘a universe that Vagenda [a feminist campaign group] seeks to destroy … suburban white men with hairstyles and tattoos … douchebags, basically.’ However hateful an opinion the made-up character Dapper might have had of women, it was easily matched by the real-world fear and loathing with which these critics viewed his audience of working-class men. If these people were allowed to laugh as they saw fit, civilization would surely be at risk. So their ‘culture’ must be not just derided, but ‘destroyed.’
The anti-Dapper crusade reached its nadir when almost fifty comedians signed an open letter demanding that ITV should follow the lead set by student unions and banish Dapper Laughs from its doorstep. The idea of liberal comedians stupidly cheerleading the censorship of comedy would be funny if it were not such a serious sign of illiberal times. The notion that no one must speak out of turn or laugh out of line is a far more dangerous threat to a free society than any sexist joke might ever be. But none of this, we were assured, had anything to do with freedom of speech.
Inevitably the liberal lynch mob succeeded in killing off Dapper Laughs. Having first offered the crusaders the sensible response that ‘comedy is subjective,’ ITV bosses quickly caved in and cancelled On the Pull. The comedian behind the character then went on current affairs TV to apologize, cry, and swear that Dapper was now dead. It was enough to make anybody weep who cares about free speech, or just the right to have a laugh even if they didn’t think Dapper provided many laughs.
The rise of the reverse-Voltaires has damaged comedy. On one hand it has created a stifling atmosphere of conformism and intolerance in which any humor that crosses the line must be not just ignored but ‘shut down.’ That in turn has given rise to a feeble backlash of comedians trying to be offensive for the sake of it.
Top American comedian Chris Rock, not noted for avoiding controversial issues, revealed in December 2014 that he no longer plays college venues, because the student audiences are ‘too conservative.’ ‘Not in their political views – not like they’re voting Republican – but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody,’ Rock told New York magazine. ‘You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.’
A similar atmosphere now appears to prevail even among some paying audience members in comedy clubs. The traditional art of heckling a performer you don’t find funny is apparently outdated– now you hear tell of punters trying to shout down a comedian or flouncing out in outrage because they object to him or her breaking a taboo – say, by joking about gay marriage or police racism. Whether what they said was funny seems to miss the point for those who think a comedy set should be as orthodox as a sermon.
Inevitably, there has been an attempted backlash against these stultifying trends. We have witnessed the rise of comedians or just deliberate provocateurs whose aim is to appear as offensive as possible. This is the flipside of the attempt to sanitise humor. It leads unerringly to further attempts at ethical cleansing of the comedy cesspit. In spring 2015, when the South African comedian Trevor Noah was appointed to succeed Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, online critics protested that Noah was an unsuitable choice due to his past record of tweeting ‘controversial’ jokes about women and Jewish people. One tweeter put this row in some welcome perspective: ‘Trevor Noah doesn’t offend me as a woman,’ posted @helienne, ‘he offends me because he’s just not funny.’
That is the question that appears to have been forgotten in all this: Is it funny? The attempt to impose codes of conduct on comedy reflects the idea that you can somehow apply a political and moral judgement to humor. That you can, in short, stop yourself laughing at something offensive or controversial. Good luck with that, and with preventing yourself sneezing at the same time.
The history of comedy surely shows that, as with old-time British comedians such as Bernard Manning, it is perfectly possible to talk like a bigot and yet be funny. That’s life. Comedy is a messy business, and people can laugh at the most outrageous things. To attempt to impose order on it, by removing what is not to the taste of the moment, is to risk killing it. In the early 1990s, I recall, a young British comedian called John Thomson created a great send-up of the old-fashioned club comic, called Bernard Righton, who told impeccably politically correct gags such as: ‘An Irishman, an Englishman and a Pakistani walked into a pub. What a wonderful example of a multicultural community!’ The punchline, of course, was that Bernard Righton was not funny at all.
We are faced with a situation where what is considered acceptable in comedy could be every bit as one-note and conformist as in the bad old days, except that it now has to comply with different codes and taboos. Of course, nobody is against free speech for comedians. Until, that is, they decide somebody has gone too far in offending their own views and hurting their feelings.
In September 2014, while controversy raged about comedians accused of telling ‘rape jokes,’ one UK feminist comedian made an appeal for a grown-up attitude to stand-up comedians talking about sex and sexuality. In the words of Katy Brand:
Crass, misogynist, homophobic comedy has always been a part of the business, but surely we are all grown up enough to let the market decide, and those comedians who insist on telling crappy jokes about anything, let alone sex, are finding their audiences slowly ebbing away. So my motto for discussing sex in comedy is: say what you like, but stand up and take the consequences like a woman – if the late, great Joan Rivers has taught us anything, it’s this.
An admirable sentiment. Yet within weeks many of her fellow comedians were campaigning to censor the crass, misogynist, homophobic Dapper Laughs. The consequences those who transgress have to face today are likely to involve demands to ‘shut them down.’ Especially, it seems, when the market decides they are funny and the humorous heretics raise more laughs than the dour conformists. Unlike Joan Rivers, these days few comedians appear to have the balls to face down the shrill demands to apologize, conform or shut up.
As on other fronts in the silent war on free speech, the debate about taboos in comedy is marked by a straight-faced inconsistency. Whether it is left-wing comics protesting about sexism on ITV, or right-wing ones complaining that the lefties monopolize BBC panel shows, all sides will champion freedom – for the comedy which suits their own tastes. Whether anybody succeeds or fails as a comedian should not be judged by whether or not their jokes meet somebody else’s political or ethical standards. It might be hard to get excited about defending free speech for those you consider sexist, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic comedians. There are few heroes in the battle for comedy’s soul. Yet it remains as important to defend freedom of speech and thought here as in any other corner of Western culture.
It is a fact that the most bitter free-speech battles these days can often be fought in the muddy lowlands of sport or comedy, far from the cultural high ground. And the wish to dictate not just what jokes a comedian should tell, but also what we should laugh at, is the clearest conceivable attempt at thought control. What could be more intrusive than the attempt to police something as reflexive as a snort of laughter?
A bizarre and revealing crossover moment in the free speech wars surrounding football and comedy occurred in February 2012 when police took the unprecedented action of impounding Red Issue, the biggest and best Manchester United supporters’ fanzine (for which I wrote), for publishing a ‘potentially offensive’ joke. Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan star of Liverpool FC – Manchester United’s fiercest rivals – had been handed an eight-match ban and a big fine after being found guilty of racially abusing United’s Patrice Evra during that season’s match at Anfield. For the return game at Old Trafford, Red Issue printed a back cover ridiculing Suarez and Liverpool’s support of their player – a spoof cut-out mask in the shape of a KKK hood, carrying the legend ‘Suarez is Innocent.’ When the magazine went on sale outside the stadium, Greater Manchester Police confiscated every copy on the ground that the Suarez cover was ‘potentially offensive,’ and threatened to arrest Red Issue sellers for ‘inciting racial hatred.’ Thus did a (rather good) joke about racism in football somehow become the pretext for more ‘anti-racist’ censorship. The draconian and groundless police impounding of an entire magazine (no charges were ever brought) on the streets of a British city prompted few protests from the civil liberties lobby. Well, it’s only football fans telling jokes, who cares about free speech for them?
The tortured efforts to patrol what is and is not acceptably funny have created a fraught situation where comedy is in danger of becoming a more staid and safe affair, certainly in the colleges and on TV. One side effect of this might be the recent elevation of old-fashioned uncontroversial one-line jokes at comedy festivals. Another is the upsurge of silly look-at-me acts where the main aim appears to be controversy rather than comedy.
The trends towards a more conformist and intolerant world of comedy put at risk one of the most important sorts of release we have left in a dour world. The pulling of comedy’s teeth should be no laughing matter. The sight of outraged reverse-Voltaires rampaging across the comedy stage is also a dire warning for the wider free-speech wars. If comedians are not allowed to upset and offend, what chance have the rest of us got?
To quote another controversial line from the late, great, Joan Rivers, possibly channeling the long-gone great Lenny Bruce:
‘Everybody just relax. Everybody’s either a wop, a nigga, a kike, a chink, a fairy, a mick – everybody’s something, so why don’t we all just. Calm. Down.’ There seems little chance of that when comedy can be treated as a serious case for censorship.
Excerpted from "Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech" by Mick Hume. Published by William Collins © Mick Hume 2015. All rights reserved.