Is Political Correctness Saving Comedy?

by Robin Ince

If human beings had their way, they wouldn’t exist. The dislike of change would mean that mutation, heredity and natural selection would be instantaneously poo-pooed because even the emergence of single cellular lifeforms would be against traditional values of a predominantly lifeless planet.

“PC is killing comedy” raised its minstrel make up face again this week when Mel Brooks was on Radio 4’s Today programme.  ‘We have become stupidly politically correct which is the death of comedy….Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It’s the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behaviour.’

So what human behaviour are we not allowed to talk about in stand up? Personally, I have never seen such a variety of human behaviour being talked about on stage, whether by Doug Stanhope, Hannah Gadsby, Mae Martin or Maria Bamford. Those snowflakes who whine that comedy is not as funny as it used be should immediately have all their screens reprogrammed so that they can only watch On the Buses, Summertime Seaside Special and The Little and Large Show.

Political correctness means different things to different racists homophobes misogynists  concerned citizens. For some, it is a mindless removal of offensive words based purely on doctrine, they are cancelling the racist jokes for no other reason than statue 8 paragraph C. Some people cannot believe you may not make homophobic jokes and quips about rapes because you’re playing it safe rather than because you’ve thought it through and, via a combination of empathy and reason, you’ve decided it may be a better night without those jokes. You haven’t banned those jokes, you’ve just come up with other ones.

This is why I think PC can be good for comedy. It makes you think about what you are saying and why you are saying it. You still have the freedom to say it, you just might have spent a little more time thinking why you are. The cost of free speech when well-used is to think about its value and what you want to use it for.

One friend of mine does jokes attacking all manner of groups, jokes that I wouldn’t do it, but he has a much bigger audience and hasn’t been banned from any arenas yet. On one night of his cheeky gags about fat people, gay people and kids with cancer he received a complaint afterwards. The fans had enjoyed a lovely night until he made a joke about Anne Frank, this was in very poor taste and he should think on it. This is part of the problem. Those people loved all the political incorrectness, until it got to the subject that they are politically correct about, then it was unfair.

Most people are “politically correct” somewhere along the line. As Mel Brooks said, “I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis.”

Is that PC gone mad?

Talking to the comedian and activist Barry Crimmins for my book I’m a Joke and So Are You, that might be out next October if I ever finish constantly rewriting it, he told me his joke ethics. He doesn’t make jokes about cancer because he thinks about how that might sully the evening for someone in recovery or someone who has lost someone recently. To him, it has to be a very, very funny joke on such a subject to make the potential upset worthwhile. In my current show, I am talking about suicide. I had to think very hard about why I was doing this routine and what its purpose was. I believe it is defensible and the reason behind it is good, but I also know some people who have been affected by suicide are wary of coming to the show.

Barry told me a story about headlining a club gig where a couple in the front row seemed particularly delighted by his performance. Talking to them afterwards, they told him they rarely had a night out as they had a severely disabled child. The previous acts had bandied around the word retard, this had made them uncomfortable. When Barry came on, they soon saw that his sort of humanity meant they were in safe hands. It reminded him of why he made the choices he made.

For anyone who then thinks that comics such as Barry play it safe, then witness the material he does about American politics and child abuse, the kind of material that takes real chutzpah, passion and belief to deliver.

How many of those “oh so cool and edgy” comics would have fought their way to Washington to tackle child porn online? Barry did, at the risk of destroying himself.

If you think these “PC” ideas make milksops of us all, go see Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. If you want “edge”, then you’ll get it and you may leave changed.

As the comedian Wil Hodgson said, “If Mel Brooks doesn’t think Blazing Saddles would be made now, he obviously didn’t see Django Unchained.”

If this threat of PC is real, then from my experience it has broadened the language for stand up, not  impoverished it. As Mel Brooks said, comedy is “the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behaviour.’ and that lecherous little elf is whispering more than ever before, and sometimes that Elf is not lecherous, it is angry or confused or pugilistic or enlightening. The elf is freer than ever before.

I am currently on tour – Hull, Leeds, York, Winchester, Norwich and 43 more. Dates and tickets here.

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People returns this December. Tickets and lineup here.

There will be a benefit for Helen and Barry Crimmins on 23rd October at Wimbledon Theatre. Helen has cancer and the US medical bills are overwhelming. We think Barry should be spending time with Helen, not having to stay on the road to make money to try and cover these huge bills.  The night stars Billy Bragg, Charlotte Church, Josie Long, Mark Thomas, Hollie McNish, James Acaster, Chris Stoke, Alistair Barrie and me. Tickets on sale very soon. All the details and tickets will be available on the Cosmic Shambles Network site.

Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London.