Words Are ShrapnelAn excerpt from the updated edition of I'm a Joke by Robin Ince
“Words are shrapnel” – Barry Crimmins
This is the blog post I wrote after watching Ricky Gervais’s Supernature. I believe there is nothing in it that I have not talked to him directly about. I think it is a very tame piece.
Sadly, this piece was too much.
It just went up on the Cosmic Shambles website, but then became a news piece on a comedy website and a drab talking point on a right wing news channel. At 10pm that night I received a text from a friend – “do you know you are trending on Twitter?” This is something that has never happened before or since and went on for about 48 hours. Our website was inundated with extremely abusive emails calling me a rape apologist and woman hater. It was bleakly amusing that people who adore Ricky Gervais because he is “edgy and offensive to all those snowflakes” were now so offended by what I considered to be mild criticism.
I didn’t want to stand by and say nothing. I thought silence equalled covert agreement.
Some months later, I returned to the blog post and was shocked by how mild it seemed to me and yet it infuriated thousands who felt it necessary to send threats and hate mail.
So here it is. You can be the judge.
The beginning of the original blog post has been cut as it has nothing to do with comedy and was just a some whimsical observations about having a few days off touring.
I was talking to the comedian Daniel Sloss about his book, Everyone You Hate Will Die (Ed – Listen to that conversation on this podcast right here). His stand up deals with topics like the death of his little sister, disability and sexual abuse. He ventures into taboo topics, but the prime motivation is not offence, it is bringing into the light thoughts and fears we often keep in the dark, and with very funny punchlines too.
We talk about offence in stand up comedy. Concepts of free speech have become a useful alibi for lazy jokes, elevating bullying to a noble pursuit, as if every punchline about a “fat bloke” or “a trans woman” makes you Voltaire.
There is a way of dismissing people who voice criticism at a joke’s target by making them the “professionally offended”. It is the notion that those that are offended are just a group that wander from offence to offence. It makes things easier to pretend that there are a single cult who seek out offence. It means you don’t have to think as much about the meaning of your words as it is just “those people that get offended.”
During the most recent bout of culture wars, there is much talk that it is now a property of the left. The good old right wing can take a joke, though this presumption falls apart when you se how regularly offended the right wing media is when the joke does not play to their own bigotries. Much of our news media is driven by making sure their readers are in a perpetual state of outrage.
Offence hasn’t really moved from one wing to another. Offence on the right was dominant because that is the dominant voice in mainstream media, but social media means that more voices can be heard and younger people without newspaper columns have used social media as their platform.
When the comedian Jimmy Carr joked about wounded soldiers, the right wing press were outraged that he should dare to do such a thing. He should be cancelled.
When he joked about the traveling community they were outraged that he might be “cancelled”. No wonder the press can seem so grotesque looking when it has so much cake that it is constantly having and eating.
There is a group of comedians who have made a good and high profile living out of skirting around the edges of offence, offensive enough to make their audience feel naughty for laughing, but not so offensive the audience don’t keep coming back. Much of their “offensive material” is punching down, not up. It is about finding the correct minority groups to mock, many of the regular targets of the 1970s comedians would not be considered acceptable targets of abuse in 2022.
The shock comic must be careful to balance their level of shock to the point that it doesn’t offend the market.
The people I would feel okay to mock and the style of mockery has changed in the 30 years I have been in comedy, affected by experience, age and hopefully the development of empathy. Now, try to avoid mockery and anger, after spending many years using it.
If you want to offend, one of the questions is “who do you want to offend and why?”
Do you want to offend the powerful?
Would you prefer to offend the marginalised?
Is your offence equally spread or is it focused?
This conversation coincided with the it being the day that Ricky Gervais’s new special began streaming.
Good news for Netflix shareholders, not so good for trans men and women.
I have known Ricky for almost 30 years. I have toured with him, written with him and been the bearer of the brunt of the practical jokes required to alleviate him of his tour boredom (hung up on coat racks, buried on beaches, covered in make up etc). We still talk and one of the things we argue about the most is the subjects of his jokes and the nature of offence. I think it is easy to forget the collateral damage of jokes.
Anti trans punchlines seem to have become highly profitable and it ignores the dehumanising effect on a swathe of already marginalised people.
I think Ricky believes it is just him being a “naughty boy”. I believe it makes him a pin up and role model for the alt right (which is sadly just the mainstream right nowadays). He is a useful ally for them in the culture war. Far right pundits Tucker Carlson and Nigel Farage and former actor Laurence Fox spoke warmly and encouragingly of Gervais’s trans jokes.
I know he is not a supporter of alt right ideology, but his words used as gifs and memes in support of such ideology. The problem with spending too much time on Twitter is that you can start to make mistakes on where the power really lies. Does it really lie with people who have taken umbrage with you and have a few hundred followers?
There is also an issue in forgetting how powerful you are and the size of audience you have. It is very different communicating with a few hundred people in a room rather then 1000s of people in an arena followed by millions on Netflix. What may be subtle and nuanced in your head may only be subtle and nuanced in your head and something very different as it spreads out across the stalls and living rooms. You know who you are and what you really believe, but the audience do not. Many of us have jokes that we would share with close friends but never with strangers because the close friends know our context.
I think it is all very easy to say a joke is just a joke if you are not the punchline of the joke and that you don’t just have to be in comedy club to be the subject of mockery, it might be a mockery that you know is a threat on a minute by minute basis the moment you leave the house. I think we can imagine that we know exactly the point we are making and however many people misunderstand it, it is their fault and nothing to do with you.
I am not proud of much of my past stand up and, in the last few years, I have thought harder and harder about trying to create shows that are funny, inclusive and make people happier to be alive.
The older I have become, the more that my first hope when performing is that people will leave my show happier to be alive.
I know, it sounds so Mr Saturday Night, but it is true.
I also hope to share some ideas about the universe with them which will stick and that they might want to explore further.
I also like sharing some of the stranger things that might exist in our minds because, after years of keeping it all in, I realised how many people put on a mask as they leave their house and keep it on for everyone they meet.
I am still learning and I will still fail.
As Daniel Sloss said to me, it is not good enough just to brush off all “the offended”. Sometimes, you need to listen. When Daniel was working on a show about sexual abuse, he knew he would get it wrong. He asked venues that, if anyone walked out, could the staff say that he would very much like to talk to them and listen to them about what they thought he has got wrong if they were willing.
The simplest route in comedy is to dehumanise and then to ignore any offence or mock it for further routines. Twitter, devoid nuance is an easy place to misunderstand and be misunderstood. Few of us have managed to travel through it without making a monster or two from these misunderstandings or overreacting or deciding that a while group of people are grotesques because the worst representatives have been mistaken for the average.
When I compare many of the male middle aged comedians with the young ones I see, it reminds me of the divide in 1979 between the old club comics and what was the new alternative scene. A few months ago, I was the closing act at a new comedian competition final. The contestants at a new act final the diversity was wonderful, they were all funny and they were all an image of a progressive future. When Lenny Bruce offended, it was for a purpose. Offence for nothing that also dehumanises seems like a waste of offence to me.
“I don’t know when a lack of conscience became synonymous with bravery; it seems cowardly to me.” – Barry Crimmins
Get a signed copy of the updated with 10 000 new words re-issue of I’m a Joke and So Are You from the Shambles shop now.
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.