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- Should anything be ‘beyond a joke’?
- Beyond a Joke: The limits of humour eds Sharon Lockyer & Michael Pickering | The Independent
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Comedy, it seems, is no laughing matter these days, caught up in one controversy after another over the acceptable limits of humour. Last week it was the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that was in the firing line again, accused of racism by everybody from the Queen of Jordan to radical US cartoonists for publishing jokes involving dead refugees. Comedy is suffering under a stifling atmosphere of conformism and intolerance. It appears that any joke judged to have crossed a line must be not just ignored, but condemned, censured and, if possible, censored. That, in turn, has given rise to a pathetic backlash of comedians and provocateurs trying to be offensive for the sake of it.
The rest of us risk being left with the worst of both unfunny worlds. Good jokes are generally in bad taste. They tend to mock the respectable rules and morals of society.
Citations per year
By its nature comedy is always controversial, pushing as it must at the limits of what passes for taste and decency in any era. It is hard to think of a good joke that would not offend somebody. And why many writers and comedians have tried to subvert the rules. However, as with other issues in the 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, ableism, 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 by broadcast regulators, politicians and the newly PC police. 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. 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?
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-liberal lobby, who would try to have him banned from campuses. These alternative comedians soon became the new establishment, creating an alternative comedic conformism of their own. This fresh generation of comedians, including feminist stars, broke many old taboos about sex, sexuality or race. They were also, however, helping to create new taboos. This sort of censoriousness can only have severe consequences both for comedy and wider issues of free speech.
This might sound a worthy argument. In comedy, as in politics, if we are serious about free speech it has to be defended for all as an indivisible liberty. Of course, nobody has to approve of offensive humour, and anybody is free to heckle or hit back in kind. We have witnessed the rise of a new wave of comedians or deliberate provocateurs whose aim is to appear as offensive as possible. This is best understood as the flipside of the campaign to sanitise humour, an attempted backlash against those stultifying trends.
It is regrettable that the only way some seem able to take a stand for free speech these days is by becoming an offence-seeking caricature of themselves. But they are only a side-effect of the bigger problem. Jimmy Carr is sometimes guilty of being offensive for the sake of it. Yet the bit that got him into trouble with Ofcom this time was arguably slightly more thoughtful than that.
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I asked him how many partners he had in his life. And he started to count and he fell asleep. This sounded like a joke about the new taboos in comedy as much as it was about Welsh sheep-shaggers or dwarves. It was certainly inviting the offended responses, but also asking a question about how far he could go today. There is a question that often 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 humour. 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. 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. 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. It might be hard to get excited about defending free speech for those you consider to be sexist, disablist, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic comedians.
Yet it remains as important to defend freedom of speech and thought here as in any other corner of Western culture. The most bitter free-speech battles these days can often be fought in the muddy lowlands of football 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?
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 colleges and on TV, interrupted only by silly look-at-me acts where the main aim appears to be controversy rather than comedy. What was that like? Other times, they would tell me the president has a speech here or there. So I would research the place and find jokes [targeted at the local audience]. Although Gamble hadn't yet met Reagan, the two were in sync.
Gamble pitched to perfection, and Reagan knocked it out of the park. Then came Gamble's triumph, at the apex of the campaign — perhaps the single greatest joke in American political history. It came on the night of the second debate, October By his own assessment, Reagan had "flopped" in the preceding debate. Then aged 74, he'd appeared tired, called military uniforms "costumes" and mistakenly said "here in Washington" while the debate was in Louisville, Kentucky. He fell seven points in the polls, and the media was buzzing with the same question: was Reagan senile? As Gamble points out, "it was the first time the age question was raised".
The Republicans were in panic mode. This could well lose them the election. What should be the president's response? Curt Smith, then a speechwriter for the Reagan cabinet, remembers: "Every Tom, Dick and Harry was asked to submit suggestions and jokes. He said he had a plan but wouldn't tell anyone. Some thought him mad. The second debate came along, and journalist Henry Trewhitt quizzed the president: "You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with [Democratic candidate Walter] Mondale.
I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function under those circumstances? Reagan appeared cool and focused, like the actor he had been. Then a nod. And I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. His opponent, Walter Mondale, was 56 and had served as vice-president. Hardly a novice. But even when faced with a joke that would go down in history as his political death-knell, Mondale couldn't help giggling. Reagan's flair combined with the creativity of comedian Doug Gamble could accomplish more in a minute than armies of Ivy League consultants could in their lifetime.
With one line, the president had neutralised the issue and reminded America he was the sheriff in town. All thanks to Gamble, who had devised the riposte — the verbal equivalent of a first-round knockout punch by Mike Tyson.
Should anything be ‘beyond a joke’?
Gamble explains, "That line was not written for the debate. I had turned it in two weeks earlier. When Reagan read it in a speech, he knew right away: it's too good for a speech. The president metaphorically put it in his pocket, saved it for the debate and surprised everybody. What's so impressive about this one-liner is it works on multiple levels. The combination of Gamble's creativity and Reagan's flair accomplishes more in a minute than armies of Ivy League consultants ever could in their lifetime.
With this rhetorical pirouette, Reagan not only dismissed any doubt he was unfit for a second term, he also turned his Achilles' heel into a rabbit's foot.
Beyond a Joke: The limits of humour eds Sharon Lockyer & Michael Pickering | The Independent
Weakness became strength. By deploying humour, he instantly reframed the debate, going from defence to offence. Picture a boxing match. Reagan is in a corner of the ring, getting the life beaten out of him. But instead of punching back and attacking his opponent from the front — as a lesser politician would have — he slid to the side and let the other boxer punch away until he fell over.
Reagan succeeded precisely because he refuses to answer the question the way it was asked. Such is the sly nature — and genius — of the comic in politics. As Gamble puts it, "it's a way to disarm criticism".
Sometimes it can even pre-empt it. Another line Gamble wrote for Reagan did just that: "I've given my aides instructions that if trouble breaks out in any of the world's hot spots, they should wake me up immediately — even if I'm in a Cabinet meeting. Making light of oneself achieves something else needed of a campaigner: it radiates confidence. Gamble remarks: "If you're comfortable in your own skin, you poke fun at yourself.
Warren Beatty, one of history's foremost playboys, was a keen practitioner of self-deprecation, because he had so little to deprecate. And politics, of course, is a game of seduction. So when Reagan — a man who kept grace under pressure and boasted natural assurance — made fun of himself, it was charming. But Gamble warns that if, say, Richard Nixon — a notorious neurotic — had tried to use self-deprecating humour, no one would have bought it.
Political humour, however, is not just about asserting personality; it can also make abstract policies palatable to the general public. Gamble worked on Bob Dole's campaign. One of the cornerstones of Dole's project was tort reform. He wanted to keep lawyers from filing so many civil lawsuits on spurious — sometimes even ridiculous — grounds.
Dole was giving a speech on the campaign trail and fell from the stage, hitting the ground. Gamble's phone rang. It was Dole's campaign manager: "We've got another event in an hour. We need to say something about this. Gamble explains this is called "rapid response". Simply put: Unexpected things happen during campaigns and the candidate has to react immediately.
Otherwise he appears stuffy or, worse, wooden. Gamble found a way to work tort reform into a one-liner, turning mishap into opportunity. He had Dole tell the crowd: "I guess you heard what happened to me earlier. I have to tell you. Before I even hit the ground, my phone rang. It was my lawyer saying he thinks we have a good case!
Although Gamble can trade in jokes, that's not all he does. He refers to his work as "trying to make a point in a creative and memorable way". He's a maestro of the political aphorism, short statements filled with wisdom. In the election, for instance, he was called upon to provide material for George HW Bush's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention.
The goal was to present Bush as the rightful heir of Reagan, the president best suited to continue his legacy. Drawing inspiration from an old line by Roosevelt, Gamble wrote: "When you have to change horses mid-stream, doesn't it make sense to switch to one who's going the same way? In the trade of politics, these "statements" are known as soundbites.
They're what people remember from a speech — and what get journalists buzzing. Gamble's wordcraft has made the headlines, been played on endless loops on TV, and, with Trump, set social media afire. How did Gamble survive so long — and thrive — in the cut-throat world of politics? Where others crashed and burnt, he always kept his cool.
He shuns the spotlight and understands that, in politics, the place of the writer is in the wings, not centre-stage. It helps that he lives kilometres away from the political circus, in picturesque Carmel, California. Like the first president he served, Gamble never sought to become a political insider, preferring the sun-drenched vistas of California to the grey landscapes of Washington. He's in politics not for ego but because, just like Reagan, he's a true believer. When I tell people I'm writing about a man who injected humour into conservative politics, some wonder if that's not to be deplored.
Jokes distract from the issues and mislead the public. Politicians shouldn't do humour because their decisions touch and often hurt millions. And it's true, that's no laughing matter. But should politics really just be about stating facts and arguing policy? Why can't it also be an open-mic contest? John Cleese said it best: "Too many people confuse being serious with being solemn. Is politics bound to be solemn and serious, meaning, to many of us, boring?
Charles de Gaulle once quipped: "Politics is too serious to be left to the politicians. They knew — as Aristotle discovered, and as Gamble exemplifies — that politics is not policy. It's about dreaming big and, yes, having a grand old time doing it. Without lyricism and wit, democracy dies and morphs into technocracy, serving only the powerful and interesting only the wonks.
By making politics entertaining and stimulating, Doug Gamble did American democracy a great service. By getting more people interested in them he helped make public affairs what they should be: the people's business. But tell him that and he'll laugh. Because although he takes politics seriously, he doesn't take himself seriously.
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