From the Archives
“Really, With the Gay Jokes?” “The Rape-Joke Double Standard.” “Has The Onion Gotten Too Mean?” These are the headlines to just a few of the several articles appearing this week about comedians and conscience. All of them make excellent points, but the problem with trying to explain why a joke is offensive is that it instantly kills the mood. Culture critics aren’t professional comedians and thus they almost always end up being viewed as the more uptight of the two, even if their arguments are rock-solid.
And yet, the best comedians are pretty good culture critics, as Dara Ó Briain proved years ago at the Theatre Royal in London. Amidst his cracks about the idiots who ask you to remove your shoes in their home, the idiots who confuse astronomy and astrology, and the idiots who think the IRA had uniforms, he talked about a time when he was the idiot:
Last year I told a joke, and this is not a good joke, I have no excuses. It is a terrible joke, but it was about the musical Billy Elliot. And “What was the composer’s inspiration for Billy Elliot? Elton John – do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”
I know. It was rubbish. I didn’t mean it as an attack on Elton John, or as an attack on the gay community. I meant it as another joke in the glorious tradition of jokes involving the word “in.” As in, “Do you have any Irish in ye? Would you like some?”
Okay, so he explained he didn’t intend to trash homosexuality. But he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to talk about the backlash from the LGBT rights alliance Outrage, who said the joke contributed to a culture of hatred against gay men in Britain. Ó Briain explained:
And the thing is, your initial reaction is when somebody does a complaint like that is to get all tough and say, “It’s only a joke, for Jesus’s sake, relax.” Swiftly followed by arguments about civil rights and comedy’s obligation to say the difficult thing and freedom of speech. Which is a fairly lofty point to bring in to back up something as bad as that joke about Billy Elliot. You wouldn’t go to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights with that as your argument: “Oh, my lords and ladies of the court, Elton John? Do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”
He went on to clarify his political stance, emphasizing that “there is no pedophilia-homosexuality relationship at all,” showing he was brave enough to break character as a comedian despite the risk that always carries of losing the audience. He then addressed that risk as well:
And some people think it’s very politically correct of me, but then, I’m Irish. And if anyone’s benefited from a good dose of political correctness on this island, it’s the Irish. Remember the good old days with all those jokes about how stupid we were? And then a memo went around some time in the Eighties, when you [Brits] all said, “Oh, Jesus, we’re not doing jokes about the Irish anymore? Okay, fine.” And it just stopped. And thank you very much. A bit overdue, but thanks very much nonetheless.
He went on to tell a joke about a bunch of drunk Irishmen, reveling in the fact that he was allowed to tell it and the British weren’t. He then said, “But again with the whole Billy Elliot thing, the reason I backed down so fast on that was because I received one letter of support.” Removing the letter from his pocket, he proceeded to read the message sent by a group of conservatives in Northern Ireland who applauded him for taking a stand against the forces of sodomy. “If you ever use the phrase ‘forces of sodomy,’ it had better be a gay heavy metal band that you’re talkin’ about!”
It’s rare that comedians are brave enough to admit that their joke was a fail. But I’ve never heard a comedian own up to it so fiercely and admit the ways in which he’s personally benefited from the political correctness movement. By changing his target from the group he originally attacked to himself, Ó Briain proved not only the sincerity of his regret but the breadth of his comedic skill.
And I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Whenever comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy, it sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original. Ignoring the “PC police”—i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do—they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right? Wrong. We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t. We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique. And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?
Or, in the words of another Irish comic, Ed Byrne: “I see comedians making jokes about fat people being lazy, and I just think, well, they’re not as lazy as comedians who get easy laughs by picking on fat people.”
Originally posted May 12, 2013