I Am Sorry to Repeat Myself But...

Robin Ince on the importance of language in comedy

I am sorry to repeat myself, but the time feels right to tell story I have told before of a great comedian and his thoughts on language. 

Pic by Helen Crimmins. Be sure to check out her excellent photography book about Barry, May to May.


I was interviewing  my late friend Barry Crimmins about free speech for my book I’m a Joke and So Are You. 

Barry was no shrinking violet.

Raped when he was little more than a toddler, he had grown up with a deep conviction to fight against injustice. 

He wanted to battle to make the world fairer. The people he mauled in his stand up were the powerful. The governments whose foreign policy crushed freedom and whose domestic policies destroyed hope. He was also a relentless campaigner against the Catholic church for their shielding of abusers.  He attacked those who were on top and crushing the people beneath them. 

His work was far more likely to lead to him being “cancelled” because his forthright attacks of the status quo made many in the entertainment industry uneasy. 

When I asked him what he might NOT say on stage he told me the story of a gig he was headlining. 

A couple in the front row laughed uproariously throughout his set.

After the show, Barry got talking with them. 

They reiterated their love of his set but then went on to explain that they had not found the evening easy. They rarely came out as their child had severe disabilities and there was only one carer they were really sure of. Usually they went for a meal or to a band , but this night they decided on comedy. Throughout the evening, the other comedians casually threw about the word r****d and they just couldn’t relax. When Barry came on, they soon saw that he was not one to throw around easy diminishment of the marginalised and oppressed. As he said to me, “words are shrapnel, you have to think about where you are aiming them”.

As I have said, I know I have told this story before but it seems pertinent. The charity SCOPE receiving a great deal of abuse this week for questioning the recent trailer for Ricky Gervais’s Armageddon. In it, he explains why he is clever enough and nuanced enough to use the word r****d.

On their Twitter account, they wrote –

“We wish we were surprised by reports that Ricky Gervais has used ableist slurs in his new Netflix special. 

And we’re just not accepting the explanation that Gervais uses to try and justify this language

He argues that he wouldn’t use this language in ‘real-life’. 

But his stand-up routine doesn’t exist in a parallel universe. The stage is real. Netflix is real. The people this kind of language impacts are real.

Disabled people¹ already face negative attitudes, and the media has an enormous role to play in improving understanding.

Language like this has consequences.”

Eventually, it came to this.

“We’ve turned replies off on this thread, something that we’ve never done before 

But we don’t feel we have a choice.

Earlier this week we posted about ableist slurs in Ricky Gervais’ new show.

As a result, our replies have been full of abuse towards disabled people “

Here is the statement from SCOPE and MENCAP posted on Friday. 

The first time I wrote anything about Ricky’s material was when he was criticised for using the word “mong”. I suggested to him that he did not have the power to tell everyone in the world how this term is used now. The lived experience of people with disabilities have not seen this extinguished as a casually thrown around weapon of street abuse.  It made me think about my own use of language. 

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After a telephone conversation he thought it would be a good idea for me to wrote about it and I also introduced him to a disability rights campaigner.

The years passed and we still had disagreements, some of which may have been heard on the Deadly Sirius podcast I would guest on. My opinion on Count Dankula and his “Nazi pug” was not quite the same as Gervais’s and David Baddiel’s belief that his free speech was the most important issue (something I believe Baddiel later changed his mind on though it was nothing to do with my inept arguments).

It was the trans jokes that finally broke our friendship.

After many arguments on this I felt uncomfortable remaining utterly silent and put up a blog post that I thought was mild but that led to us never speaking again.

I have nothing to lose by writing this now.

These were the conversations we once had.

A comedian friend of mine reminded me of our past and what we used to consider was acceptable or “just a joke” and the need to progress. He finished the email with “we were all c***s”.

The world progresses sometimes.

Marginalised voices are sometimes heard.

Hastily, commentators will say, “why are they making a fuss” because they have been unheard until now and on first hearing many want to shut them up again.

Hopefully, there is greater exposure to people who have been deemed the “not like us” and kept in a corner or another room.

I think of how the newspapers reacted to Benjamin Zephaniah.

How The Sun reacted when Zephaniah was made to be made a Don by TrinityCollege, Cambridge – “Would you let this man near your daughter?”

After the headline they wrote “is this really the kind of man parents would wish to have teaching their sons and daughters” before saying that he clearly needs a wash.

Sinead O Connor was repeatedly verbally battered for her “outspokenness” – she was deemed a madwoman who had escaped from the attic and the mainstream consensus was that her highlighting of abuse in the church was a terrible insult to that lovely man The Pope.

Progress can sting because it can make us aware of our mistakes in judgment and humanity.

It makes the status quo itchy and ill at ease.

When SCOPE attempts to bring up questions around a defence of the word r****d, it is telling who falls into the line etched in the past, who wishes for a better time where you could dehumanise whoever you want. The time when Jim Davidson couldn’t play Plymouth Pavilions because there were too many wheelchair users there and he didn’t know how to talk to them.

Is the world really a better place for working out a defence of the non disabled by using r****d as a punchline.

And if it is just a joke, aren’t there better jokes?

My friend was right, we were c***s, and we may still be, but some are trying to learn how to be little bit better, though we’ll still probably be arseholes.

You can donate to SCOPE here.

  1. Thank you to Alan Benson for sending us this disability glossary to make a change to the language used here.

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 Prof Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest books are The Importance of Being Interested and Bibliomaniac.

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