Tuesday, 28 July 2009

First Offence.

This will probably be a long one. It will probably be one of many on the same subject recently, so feel free to ignore it if you’re a serial blog reader.

Have a read of this article, written by Brian Logan. It’s long, but stick with it, or this blog won’t make sense. Or just don’t read this blog, that’s probably easier actually. But if you want to read it, best read this article first.

It’s about how stand-up comedy is offensive once again, like in the olden days. This has caused a bit of a furore in the comedy world, as some of you will have probably heard about if you are involved in any way. But this article offends me (ironically), there are so many things wrong with it. And for once, both my comedic and scientific side are vying to get their say in first. There are plenty of other comics who have or will rebuke this article, much more eloquently than I could, like this one, this one and this one. However, this article uses the familiar trick of including research from a scientist, to give the argument much more weight. I’m not a social psychologist like Sue Becker, but as a Neuroscientist who actually does stand-up comedy, I feel I’m more than qualified to offer a rebuttal from a science perspective. Many would argue that, as a Neuroscientist, I could pull rank, but I would never say such a thing. So consider this a scientific counterargument if you will.

Firstly, this article does make a few good points. I’ve noticed from my own experiences that there is an alarming degree of comedy that is offensive for offences sake these days. I recently saw a young comedian stating that he likes to kick epileptics in the face, because the noise they make as they fit and choke to death is ‘really funny’. Nothing about that statement constitutes a joke, as far as I can make out. Please correct me if I’m wrong. It’s offensive for the sake of it. A lot of new comics seem to follow the formula; offensive = funny. This isn’t true. Offensive can be funny, if done correctly. The equation is probably more like α[offensive] = funny, where α is the variable that is the talent of the comedian; a low or zero α means the ‘joke’ isn’t funny. I was serious when I said I was a scienceist.

But in the spirit of the article, I’m going to ignore the points that disprove my argument and concentrate on what’s wrong with it. I’ll break it into sections for ease of reading.

IS comedy…, or comedy IS…?

Although seemingly well researched, the article does not ask the question is comedy offensive? It states in the opening paragraph;

“…Comedy, 2009-style. It's a world where all the bigotries and the misogyny you thought had been banished forever from mainstream entertainment have made a startling comeback”.

Not asking, telling. Science is guilty of this too, researchers start out to prove a theory, not just start poking something and watching what happens (with the very notable exception of the Large Hadron Collider, among others). But when you apply this approach to your information too, ignoring anything that doesn’t tie in with your argument, then you lose all credability. This article is not good scientifically. It spends a lot of time asking why comedy is supposedly offensive again, but does not consider for a second that this might not be the case.

I also take issue with the quote above for it’s implication that the prejudices of old days are back in force. This is a very, very dubious conclusion. Admittedly, a lot of comics use “bigotry under a veil of irony”, but I would argue that in itself is a good indicator of social change. The bigotries and misogyny of old days needed no veil; they were acceptable, nay accepted, at face value. The fact that a ‘veil of irony’ is required these days suggests that, even if an act does agree with offensive views, they know most people don’t. This is not the standard seen in the days of Bernard Manning, when jokes at the expense of black people, Irish people, women etc. were actually symptomatic of what the supposed majority believed. Offensive, prejudice comics are still out there no doubt, but they clearly don’t have the luxury of the support of the majority these days. The assertions that racism and sexism are ‘on the wane’ in today’s society are, as the article says, incorrect. But then the exact same can be said of the assertion that they are as bad as ever

The social-comedy sine-wave

An interesting aspect of the article is that it seems to support the following framework.

OLD COMEDY (pre-80’s) = Offensive, Wrong, Bad.

ALTERNATIVE COMEDY (80’s) = P.C., Correct, Good.

MODERN COMEDY (post-alternative – now) = Offensive, Wrong, Bad.

This is toss, clearly. Holding up the alternative comedy movement as the bastion of all that is good is a wild conclusion. It must be lauded for the way it wrestled comedy from the old-school prejudice sorts, but I’ve heard numerous references to how it also limited comedy exclusively to the Oxbridge brigade and the middle classes. That, to me, seems quite prejudiced. The article doesn’t mention it, so I don’t know if that’s true. Would it be unfair of me to say that Brian Logan, a Guardian Arts and Entertainment critic/journalist, might be loath to bring up the unfairness of class bias? I wouldn’t of course, can’t imagine how that could be the case. But this black and white view (hah!) is, and always will be, misleading.

It’s also ridiculous to assume that all old-school comics were racist and offensive. I have a DVD of North East comedians from the 1970s (a joke Christmas gift from my dad) and I’ve watched it a few times (in an 'ironic' manner). It’s agonizingly dated of course, but I’ll admit to not hearing a single racist statement, or anything that was more sexist than a few harmless mother-in-law jokes. Mostly, just very self-depreciating local references, nothing much more than that. We remember the racist ones, but they were by no means the only ones.

Maybe it was heavily edited, but it doesn't seem that way. Maybe working class club acts from Newcastle circa 1970-1973 provide an insufficient opportunity sample of the comedian population (some more science there for you) for an absolute conclusion, but in the time it would take to obtain enough data to provide a valid sample of the entire UK comedy scene, the data you collected would be too old to be of use. We have the biggest, most varied scene in the world, it’s impossible to sum it up in a single article. People shouldn’t try.

Weird Science?

Sue Becker describes the modern offensiveness as ‘aversive racism’, “the negative stereotypes that persist under a veneer of liberal values”. I am confused by this term. ‘Aversive’ literally means ‘causing the avoidance of a thing or situation'. Usually, it is where a stimulus or item is paired with something unpleasant. I guess she means ‘aversive racism’ is where the comedian avoids appearing to be racist using irony or something, but the term doesn’t really mean that. To me, it suggests that the racism is being discouraged by coupling it with something unpleasant, which assumes that the racism isn’t already unpleasant. ‘Aversive racism’ would put people off racism. ‘Racism revaluation’ would be a better term, or simple ‘hidden racism’.

It might seem churlish to bring this up, but you when you consider the use the term is being put to, I think it necessary to question it.

Active Comic, Passive Audience

The article makes out that these evil comics go out with the specific intention of being offensive, crude and abusive, and the poor audience has no choice but to endure it. As someone who is a comic (well, I try), I can resolutely say that the audience will have a big effect on what a comic says and does. What this and many articles forget is that being a comedian is a job, an occupation. This article subtly suggests that comics have the freedom to say what they like and therefore choose to pursue offensive or unpleasant agendas. In a static or even one-way system, where audiences are mere cattle who have no choice but to sit and watch, this may be the case.

But comedians need to get paid in order to survive. The better a comic is at comedy, the more gigs he/she gets, and the more he/she gets paid, simple feedback. An offended audience is not going to come back, and will not spread good reviews, damaging the chance of further work. An audience that is not enjoying a set will not keep laughing in the right places out of some misplaced sense of obligation. Comic and audience are somewhat symbiotic. If comedians are genuinely getting more racist and offensive, the audiences they get must shoulder some of the blame by supporting this behaviour.

A comedian cannot risk offending the majority unless there is a sizable enough minority to support them. Given the multitude of types of people in this country, that probably can happen to a degree. Personally, I can’t abide the offensive drivel of Manning, Davidson and Brown, but then they’re all more successful than I am or probably ever will be (apart from Manning, who’s dead, so technically I’ve got one up on him at present). There is, therefore, a sizable number of people who enjoy this racist, sexist comedy. But notice that the major proponents of this sort of humour (in this country) are getting on a bit. Doesn’t that suggest something about the changing attitudes of society? i.e. Modern comics aren't appealing to this fan base? Maybe the newer comics aren't as racist as the older ones, a possibility which completely contradicts the article in question. Then again, the old conservative types who like this comedy, by definition, don't like change.

Minority rules

One of the articles main points is that these offensive comics justify their actions by saying that societies are more intermingled these days, and no minorities ever tell them they’re upset. It then rebukes this, by describing how the Edinburgh festival has very few minorities, and in a staggering example of hypocrisy, smugly states that Brendon Burns' statement that an ethnic minority individual has never expressed offence at his shows is “overlooking the fact that non-white people make up a small minority of his audience”.

So overlooking important details is bad, is it? Where to start.

As someone who married into a large Indian family, I can offer some views as to why you don’t get many minorities in comedy gigs in the UK. Minority groups tend to stick together. You travel from your homeland to a strange new country, you will of course seek out people who share your language, culture and beliefs. This doesn’t really end at any point, which is why you get districts and towns with specific ethnic areas. Human social grouping, an instinct that has endured for millions of years.

(Although interestingly, several dozen of my in-laws have expressed interest in coming to a gig of mine if I ever do one in London. When I have time, I will arrange one and let them know. I just want to see what happens when I turn up at a small gig in a pub back room, and suddenly about 70 Indians turn up to see me, an unknown Welsh valley bloke. I think I’ll claim to be massive on the sub-continent, and am attempting to break the UK secretly, just to see what happens)

I genuinely don’t think it’s a question of being excluded, but more the fact that ethnic minorities choose not to go to comedy nights. Please, prove me wrong if this is not the case.

It’s also worth mentioning that British comedy does often require a threshold level of social and cultural understanding, and ethnic minorities don’t always have this. I once did a gig with some Rwandan refugees in the audience. They seemed to enjoy the night, but it was clear they didn’t really get most of it. Or maybe it was the accent (mine, not theirs).

Regarding the Edinburgh festival, I’ll admit I didn’t see many different ethnicities when I went. But maybe other factors are in play? Scottish weather tends to be off putting for people more suited to a hotter climate, and that includes people from Yorkshire (Scottish weather can be really bad). Also, the most noticeable venue there is the Udderbelly. This explains the absence of Hindu people at least; why would they attend a festival where the main venue is a giant, hollowed-out dead cow?

None of these really help the lack of ethnic minorities at comedy gigs. But I wouldn’t want any point to be ‘overlooked’ now, would I?

The accused

Cutting aside all the questionable logic and dubious sensationalist tripe from the article, the biggest sin is the horrific character assassination of modern comics who are attempting to prove the exact opposite of what they are accused of.

Jo Brand, I have worked with her. You couldn’t meet a lovelier woman, genuine, down to earth, friendly, she’s brilliant. And very good live. Her opinions are taken as gospel, even though a lot of people believe her to be something of an old school sexist. She does a lot of man-hating stuff. Would a man be right to express offence? If not, why not? But the more challenging, modern comics are basically character assassinated.

Brendon Burns. He rubs people up the wrong way quite often, granted. He is not racist. He did have that offensive poster a while ago, but didn’t the title of the show suggest he was trying to make a point about offensiveness? I saw it, he was. He was anti-racist. If Brian Logan has seen the show, he clearly missed the point by accusing Brendon of racism (not that he 'officially' did so, but let's not split hairs). If he hasn’t seen the show, then he has no right whatsoever to judge him. I’ve not read the latest Jodi Picoult book, but I’ve seen the cover. I don’t think that gives me ground to review it, or criticise it.

But worst of all is the treatment of Richard Herring. I’m a fan of Herring, of his Blog, his Stand-up, his DVDs, his podcast, I’m basically a fan of his existence., so maybe I'm biased. But he has been utterly character assassinated by this Brian Logan git, who has portrayed him as something whichis the polar opposite of his real self (unless I've been fooled by a stage persona, but a racist trying to stamp out racism is still doing good work, if for some potentially baffling reason). I’ve only ever heard him be serious once on the podcast, expressing his anger at people not voting and allowing the BNP to make gains at the recent election. To say he’s a racist, and the article does everything except out and out state that he is one by quoting him out of context with no explanation, is horrifically ludicrous and a just plain evil hing to do to a man who relies heavilyon goodwill and the support of his fans.

On his blog, Herring hopes the fact that so many of his statements are taken out of context is due to incompetence. Sorry, Richard, it clearly isn’t. It’s a long, ‘well researched’ article. This isn’t incompetence. This is malicious. Which brings me to the last section, which isn’t as analytical as these previous sections.

What a prick!

Look at Brian Logan! Look at his incredibly smug face! Read his hideously smug, patronising prose. Look at how he addresses these successful comics, people who have made their livings spending years doing this ‘comedy’ thing in a business that he clearly doesn’t get but has no problem with dissecting and discussing as if he is the last word in the craft. So often, he quotes a successful comic then follows it with smug point which undercuts their claims. of innocence. Why are people so able to supply cutting retorts in hindsight? But he carries on, safe and secure in the knowledge that his mind has been made up long ago.

And the ultimate irony, his shocking use of quotes out of context speaks volumes about his morals, after spending so much time criticising successful stand ups for a supposed lack in their own. This sort of behaviour caused the MMR-Autism debacle, which given the rise of measles has no doubt cost many children their health, probably their lives. This sort of behaviour, just picking facts you like, justified the recent wars, killing many thousands. Just picking the bits that support what you think has provided the excuse for religious wars and terrorism. Hitler just picking the bits of Nietzsche he liked caused the Holocaust. So logically, Brian Logan is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and is a war-mongering, civillian murdering nazi with a taste for attempted genocide.

Actually he isn’t, probably, but isn’t it terrible when someone takes something you said out of context and runs with it? Yeah, it’s awful all right, people could easily get the wrong impression.



Welsh Pixie said...

"So logically, Brian Logan is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and is a war-mongering, civillian murdering nazi with a taste for attempted genocide."


Good article. Followed a link provided by Wes. Was amused to see you're a Cardiff Uni Neuroscientist - I was there in around 1998. Only did two years of the degree though before my short attention span got the better of me. ^.^


Cody Whitaker said...

Firstly- this a great read, Dean.
But if you'll allow me the grace, i kinda felt that the Logan article, felt crudely constructed crib-notes on the subject of Comedy -Practice and Theory -circa NOW.
Where as your article, (i'm not afraid of throwing the term article around) was more like a few pages from the textbook you have to buy at uni, cos your course tutor wrote it. (Don't read into that last metaphor)
What i'm getting at is, that you expanded the questions the original article asked but didn't not only answer but was poorly and skittishly written.
I'm obviously interested in Comedy- Theory and Practice and this was great to read cos it's rare that people talk about it.
At the moment and for a while, I've been interested in the Sacha Baron Cohen argument, being he can say anything inflammatory about Jews or homophobia under the banner of Nazism (probing hicks and general idiots into spouting their bile) all because he's as Jewish as Golders Green.
I'm just fascinated with attitude of 'He can't say that... oh wait, he's Jewish?...
That's fine, carry on...'
My problem's not-totally with Baron-Cohen because he's the closest we Brits have to a Peter Sellers these days but with this train-of-thought.
Uhhh, now i don't know where i'm going with this....
A good provocative intelligent read, Dean.

iMac_Hunt said...

Well said!

Social Network sharing gubbins