Friday, 3 February 2012

UniLad to the bone

[This piece was originally written as a more concise audio rant for The Pod Delusion]

[Also, this is quite a long one. I've tried to keep it amusing or interesting, but if you want to give up by paragraph 5 then please feel free]

Before I start with the main point of this piece, here are some facts about me that are worth bearing in mind for what I’m about to discuss.

Firstly, as you can probably tell from my name and picture, I am male. I have XY sex chromosomes. Counter-intuitively, the Y chromosome is quite a weak and feeble chromosome compared to the mighty X. Perhaps this is why us males tend to be so big and aggressive, we’re all compensating for small-chromosome syndrome. It’s like small-man syndrome, but it goes right down to the bimolecular level.

My being male means I’m probably not a feminist. I support gender equality in all its forms, but feminism is such a broad and diverse ideology these days I’d hesitate to label myself as one due to ignorance alone. I feel similarly about Jedis; I agree with what they say, I think it would be cool if I was one, but I just have no idea how to go about achieving this. I did wonder what the term was for a militant feminist who was male. I suggested an effeminate militarist, but apparently this isn’t right.

Also, being male, I think this makes me immune to any accusations of being a lesbian. Although I do share their appreciation for the female form, that’s where the similarities end. You could say there are some lesbians that have hair as short of mine, or wear the same size boots, but those are just superficial choices that happen to overlap. There are some very pronounced reasons (well, averagely pronounced if I’m being honest) why I can’t be a lesbian. Also some very obvious logical ones.

I am also a married man whose wife is currently pregnant with our first child, so I can claim to be sexually experienced to a certain degree. I’m no Casanova or renowned ladies man, but I know how it all works in that department, and obviously I’m proficient enough with women to have convinced one to live with me forever. That may just be pity on her part, admittedly, but you work with what you can.

I have also been doing stand up comedy for about 7 years now, and have been writing and creating comedy in other formats for almost as long, with a surprising degree of success. I'm not a household name as a comedian or anything, I've just done a lot more high profile gigs than I'd expect to as someone who's not actually pursued comedy as a career. This is probably due to some niche appeal via my science career no doubt, but still.

I say this not to brag, but to demonstrate that I clearly have A sense of humour. It's an odd one, and many would argue that it's a crap one, but I unarguably do have one, that much is obvious. If you're reading this now, the evidence is on this site. It might make you chuckle or shake your head in despair, but that's the beauty of a subjective medium.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it's in relation to Unilad, a website that became notorious this week and has now been taken down. I don't know who spotted it first, but it quickly entered the social network sphere via women who were outraged by it. I didn't get to see a great deal of it before it was taken down after a deluge of complaints, but what I did see warranted a few raised eyebrows, to say the least. Advertising itself as a guide to being a successful 'lad' in university, it seemed mainly dedicated to the degradation of women, disabled people and pretty much anyone who doesn't conform to their masculine ideal. One of the passages I read was a bizarrely detailed mathematical analysis of how many women are sluts and how to have sex with one, and ended with the observation that 85% of rapes go unreported, so you're likely to get away with it if you force yourself on a slut if she ends up rejecting you.

Or something like that. I may be mistaken, it's hard to read clearly when you're brain is trying escape through your eye sockets.

Obviously, once it became known about, a lot of people had some serious complaints about the Unilad website, and complain they did. From what I saw, the Unilad team, demonstrating reasoning skills in-keeping with their writing skills, seemingly resorted to one of 3 responses to these complaints.

1. Accuse the complainer of being a lesbian.

2. Accuse the complainer of being a feminist

3. Accuse the complainer of having no sense of humour.

Undeniably, a lot of those complaining were women. This is understandable, seeing as it was largely women who were being denigrated and degraded by Unilad. If you break into someone's home, it's usually the home owners who end up calling the police. Cause and effect, that is.

So, as a heterosexual white male non-feminist, non-lesbian, working class background comedian who's been a member of a university for over 10 years, I'm clearly part of Unilad's target demographic. And they claimed it was all for comedy, all a collection of jokes and 'banter'. If we accept this claim at face value, then those who object to it are 'wrong' to do so as it's not serious. Any criticism for it should be delivered in the context of comedy and humour, not political ideology and serious stuff like that.

So, taking this into account, as a comedian with a sense of humour, what reason do I have for not liking the Unilad website?

In a nutshell, it's crap. From a purely comedic perspective, viewing the whole thing as one big collection of jokes as they assured us it is/was, all the jokes are very poorly thought out and lacking in any element of subtlety or nuance that elevates crude jackass level physicality to genuinely good comedy.

The argument Unilad use that those who don't like their site lack a sense of humour seems very counter-intuitive to me. Only someone with only the most basic sense of what humour actually is could find their work genuinely funny. Anyone who has a working sense of humour and appreciation of good comedy would find the Unilad website as painful as Unilad's theoretical targets would find the consequences of their advice.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, perhaps there are many men who found Unilad funny, but I'd imagine they're not the sort of people I'd want to share a night out with. I'd probably prefer not to share a country with them, if that was possible, but that's just me. 'It's funny because it's a good joke' is a very different thing to 'it's funny because it agrees with my prejudices', and I distrust anyone who champions something based on the latter.

I should clarify that I'm not reflexively offended by the subject matter in principle. I've heard many feminist friends say that rape jokes are never acceptable, and I respectfully disagree. I see the arguments for this, but I don't believe there is such a thing as a subject unsuitable for comedy, as long as it's done right. Undeniably, it's never pleasant to hear someone make crass jokes about a subject that's emotive and painful for you, believe me I've experienced it myself, but a blanket ban is a level of censorship usually employed by totalitarian regimes, and it only ever gives power to those willing to make the jokes anyway. But that's a discussion for another time.

                My point was, making jokes about any controversial subject can be funny if it's done well. Unilad, for all their bluster at being humorous and just 'banter', do not do it well. It's seen as fashionable in comedy these days to be deliberately dark and bad taste, but this isn't that. This is just bad.

I've lost count of the number of aspiring young male (they're always men) stand ups who are relatively new to performing, who will go out in front of an audience of people and casually discuss graphic stories about rape, paedophilia, murder, racism and lord knows what else.

Bad taste comedy has been around for a long time now, from the shock comics like Frankie Boyle, and the stalwarts of bad taste comedy like Jerry Sadowitz, or the Americans like Doug Stanhope. Comics who use bad taste and push boundaries, like Boyle, Carr and many others, have become more successful in recent years, and this has had a questionable affect on the comedy scene. It means you can get away with more now, as people are more familiar with controversial statements or material intended to shock, thus widening the areas of what is acceptable to talk about. But on the down side, you get this slew of imitators, who see these comics becoming famous for saying these horrible things and decide that they can do that too. But they usually miss the point entirely.

Whatever you think about Boyle and Carr and all those guys, it's hard to deny that they are good at what they do. They make people laugh at things they know they shouldn't laugh at. And there's the key. You can usually say shocking things, controversial things, anything you like, as long as it's funny and obviously a joke. I know funny is a subjective measure, but it's often obvious to see where an attempt to introduce humour has been made, even if you think it's an unsuccessful one. If a comedian says something shocking/offensive and it looks like they actually mean it, then they've screwed up.

The funnier the joke, the more offensive it can get away with being. That's not an established fact, but it's a good rule of thumb to go by. But where many younger/newer comics, and Unilad in particular, seem to go wrong is assuming that, in comedy, offending people is an end in and of itself, when it really isn't. I've seen so many just come out with obviously horrific statements (that they clearly don't mean) as a short cut to getting a reaction. Rather than putting some effort into constructing some well thought out jokes, they just say some offensive statements and count the audiences shocked reaction as a successful response. But it isn't a success, any more than getting booed and having bottles of urine thrown at you is a success if you're a stand up. It's just lazy and short sighted.

 Pretty much every comic who goes down this offense-for-offense-sake route has some excuse or rationalisation for it.

Some claim they're being ironic. This may be the case, as irony is such a slippery concept for many. But irony which isn't funny or has any obvious purpose is pointless, and if the irony in a statement is very hard to detect then it should, and will, be evaluated on its own merits. Ergo, it's often not really an excuse.

Many others use an excuse that particularly gets on my nerves; they say that what they're doing is 'challenging people's politically correct preconceptions'.

Why? Why is that a thing that needs doing? I don't deny that political correctness can be ham fisted and over the top quite regularly, but I'd say that's by far the lesser of two evils. To me, the phrase 'political correctness has gone mad' is often an alternative way of saying 'I resent being made to feel guilty about my bigotry'. That doesn't apply to everyone who uses that phrase, of course, but it's repeated use suits the needs of those who do mean that. The phrase itself has such negative connotations, suggesting that if it wasn't for self-serving busybodies we'd all be regularly using racial slurs and oppressing people, and everyone would be happier for it.

So why do politically correct preconceptions need challenging? This has never been fully explained by anyone. You going to come to my house uninvited next and knock out some load bearing walls? Under the premise of 'challenging my architectural preconceptions'? How about you try saying something genuinely funny before attempting to undermine the accepted norms of society for questionable reasons? Run before you can walk, and all that.

(I'd wager there are many people who will object to my previous statements as they are deeply offended by it. Now, THAT'S irony)

But however much I might criticise these comics, I can't fault them for having the courage of their convictions and getting up on stage and saying these things. As far as I'm aware, that's not something Unilad have ever done. They're not exactly anonymous, but they prefer to convey their horrible attempts at humour via the safety of the internet, where anyone offended is likely to be many miles away.

One of the rules of the world of comedy is that it's a bad comic who automatically blames their audience. It's a wonderful example of cognitive dissonance. A comic who has had a bad gig must consider the possibilities that a) they're not, or weren't, funny and must work on their act for next time, or b) every single person in a room full of people (who have usually laughed at every other comic) are all deliberately not laughing at them for some reason. A bad comic will go for the latter very quickly. It's worrying that they do so so often. Unilad's first line of defence was to blame the audience, always a bad sign.

You could argue that the people complaining about Unilad weren't its target audience. Well that's tough. You write deliberately offensive comedy and put it out in the public domain, you have to be prepared for people who don't like it. I won't be surprised if I get a few 'you're an unfunny pompous prick' comments under this article (albeit probably not spelled as accurately), but that's an eventuality I'm aware of when I write this guff. You don't get to cherry pick your audience in advance, that's not how it works. If you promote yourselves as a deliberately offensive comedy website and include warnings beforehand of what people are likely to expect, then that argument may have some weight. But if you don't, you deal with the flack you create. Unilad apparently promote themselves as providing everything you need if you're a lad to succeed at university. As someone who approves University applications, let me say that the advice they give you will let you succeed at getting arrested, but not much else.

Robin Ince once said that, if challenged about something said for comedic effect, you should have a stronger defence than 'it's just a joke'. If you don't, then that's not a justification, unless you're Bernard Manning, apparently. If you truly believe that what you say is harmless fun, then you should have the guts to defend it. Unilad just took down the whole website when challenged. If they thought what they were saying was harmless banter, wouldn't they be willing to stand by that?

It didn't come across as harmless banter, it came across as the classic behaviour of bullies, victimising someone for their own amusement and to make themselves feel big, and when the victim finally turns, accuse them of being unable to take a joke. Having your testosterone cake and eating it isn't an option, 'lads'. As someone who grew up in a pub in an impoverished working class community, I've known many 'lads', and here's a hint; although having 'balls' is often referred to as a sign of manliness, a real man usually has a backbone as well

So, in summary, Unilad claimed that all their material was just harmless fun and jokes. If this is the case, the problem still stands that their attempts at comedy were dreadful, nowhere near amusing enough to make up for the horrific bile and misogyny they contained. So even if it was all a big joke, that's not really an excuse.

You are of course free to look up my comedy output online, and odds are you'll find it terrible, all nerdy and weird and incredibly laboured. That's fine, but my comedy victimises no-one but myself and individuals who usually don't exist.

And if anyone has been upset or offended by anything I've said so far, then don't worry, I'm just joking.

That's how this works, right?


Anonymous said...

In case you happen to be not aware of it, I've always been impressed with the level at Sickipedia:

Yes, most of the humour is exceedingly tasteless, but it operates as an equal-opportunity-offender, and the community mods pick out the wheat from the chaff rather than simple laddish victimisation.

John said...

Good article, nice idea to attack them on their comedy since going after their moral issues just gets ignored/shouted down, as you say, as being from feminists. I'd like to see one of their supporters answer this.

One issue though:
I find your line "Anyone who has a working sense of humour and appreciation of good comedy would find the Unilad website as painful as Unilad's theoretical targets would find the consequences of their advice." to be in incredibly bad taste, especially considering the point of your article. This kind of unthinking trivialisation of rape seems, to me, as bad as the original Unilad jokes; while they're going out to deliberately offend people you basically said that, as a comedian, reading bad jokes is as bad as being raped and it looks to me like you did it without even realising.

Dean Burnett said...


A bit of an odd one sickipedia. I do sort of approve of the self-policing, equal opportunities 'offence' vibe, but sickipedia can be a bot of a pain in the arse comedically. A lot of the wannabe offensive comics I've seen just lift jokes straight from there. Gag theft is major no-no in the comedy world. And contributors to sickipedia have been known to just take jokes form working comics who are good at the whole offensive thing and rely on those jokes to make a living and send them to sickipedia where anyone can see them uncredited. When they complained, they got attacked.

This was a while ago though, but I've heard it can still happen

Dean Burnett said...


My first draft of this article had a discussion on my thing about there being no subject that is off-limits to comedy, a position I still stand by.

I wanted to show how easy it is to say something that could be viewed as deeply offensive to someone purely because it's used in a joke.

E.g I say how real men have a backbone. You could interpret this as saying that people in wheelchairs aren't real men, equating not sticking up for your actions to crippling disability.

I compare feminists to Jedis. Am I equating feminism to a sci-fi concept made up to entertain lonely men? A deeply offensive notion to many

I joke about my brain trying to escape from my eye sockets. Ergo, reading an offensive article is as bad as violent cranial trauma?

The point of real men having 'balls' implies that the Unilad guys don't have any. Male castration = being told off for making offensive jokes?

I've heard genuine arguments that are very similar to the ones I've listed. The point being that the way language (English, at least) is used means you'll invariably end up using terms/phrases that are innocently meant but are nevertheless very offensive to some. We use metaphor/exaggeration all the time. Esp. us comedians.

I wrote a long passage explaining all this, then deleted at as it wasn't strictly on-topic and the piece was long enough already.
The sentence in question you take issue with was a holdover from this, both as an example and also me backing up my point that I do think subjects like rape shouldn't be off limits, but have to be handled properly.
But I forgot to remove/alter it along with the associated passage, hence why it seems to be a random bit of unnecessary trivialisation of a serious subject. This was an oversight on my part.

So, to clarify this rambling point;

I can see why that one seems bizarrely harsh, hopefully that's explained above. I feel it's obviously hyperbole on my part, and I still interpret the sentence as me saying Unilad's 'advice' is very dangerous and that rape is very bad. I think that's the opposite of the trivialising they got up to.

If you or anyone else still feel it is offensive to an unwarranted level, then I will be happy to change it, I'm not especially attached to or proud of the bit as it is.

However, I would argue that the level of scrutiny and interpretation you've applied to this one pseudojoke is excessive. From the article as a whole, it is blatantly obvious that I don't condone rape or the casual mocking of serious issues people may suffer from. You could apply the same level of scrutiny to every line in this article and derive similarly poor-taste interpretations. I know because I did it myself for the examples above.

I understand your problem and can see why it is quite a stand-out example, and like I said I'm happy to alter it if you feel it necessary. But if people are going to be offended by derived trivialisations that contradict the tone of the whole article, I'd hope they'd be offended by all of them.

I may be sounding a bit prickly (pricky?) about this, but it's something that irritates a lot of comedians; selective offence.

It's like the people who actively go to see Frankie Boyle, then complain about him making bad-taste jokes about a subject that's personal to them. It's essentially saying 'I love it when you say terrible, offensive jokes about subjects, unless it's a subject that's relevant to ME'. It's infuriating, either find it all offensive or put up with it when it happens to be a bit more relevant to your life.

I'm not saying that's what's happening here, by the way. Pretty sure it's not, but it could be interpreted that way. And that sort of thing is what started me writing this bit in the first place.

Apologies for yet another long-winded rant.

Anonymous said...

Every joke pretty much on the unilad website was stolen from sickipedia anyway, so not only are they cocks, they are thieving cocks....

Irony would be one of the unilad posters getting bottom attacked on the way home from getting kicked out of uni, I wouldn't laugh, I promise.

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