Irony and sarcasm don't always work written down, as anyone who has ever tried to make a joke on Twitter has discovered (though to be fair, it's almost guaranteed that any joke you make in that medium will be taken seriously or literally by someone). Sometimes the joke is at fault, but more often I think it's down to the reader taking a blunt statement literally or a general feeling that if the subject is serious then no one should be making jokes about it in any way. The problem with that is that all subjects are serious to someone. If your mum had choked to death on a custard pie you would perhaps find clowns incredibly insensitive. Also, in my experience, comedy is an excellent medium for exploring tragic or controversial subjects. Or the things that we just shy away from discussing. I don't believe that all jokes are excusable and I know that people draw the line in different places. But satire and irony are wonderful tools in the comedic tool box and ones that can actually make a difference to the world by forcing people to consider the awful things that people are doing (which are always worse than even the most insensitive joke about a subject, but often seemingly less offensive to some people). So Swift wrote about Irish people selling their babies to be eaten by the rich in an attempt to make us contemplate society's actually equally unpleasant attitude to the poor and Chaplin mocks Hitler and his treatment of the Jews in "The Great Dictator", not because he's making light of fascism and thinks that what Hitler was doing was "funny", but because he hoped to make people consider the unfunny things that were going on in Germany. And Hitler was ridiculous and maybe only comedy could effectively point that out. The people taking him seriously were arguably the ones doing the damage. Both of these writers actually affected some change in the world by their espousing of comedic ideas that might be (and were) seen as offensive by the literal-minded.
Whilst not wishing to imply I am their satirical equal, I too have learned the power of hyperbole and irony and taking an illogical idea to its logical conclusion in order to mock those who offend me. Sometimes a little exaggeration or stating the opposite of what you believe can highlight how ludicrous or unacceptable a real, non-joke is. It's something I hope I am doing successfully in my routine about the magazine/bookazine "Railways and the Holocaust" which is openly for sale in WH Smiths and which no one but me seems to be complaining about. By pointing out what is offensive about it, I say some awful things about the Holocaust and people laugh at those awful things. But they are not laughing about the people who died in Auschwitz, even when I am making comments about them. They are (I hope) realising how appalling it is that a publisher has found it acceptable to publish this magazine or our hypocrisy in doing nothing to complain about it, when we might do so if the magazine was a "joke". To me it's odd that because the magazine is "serious" it is not questioned, whereas if it was mocked up as a joke the reaction would be very different.
Similarly I joke about 9/11 in order to demonstrate the offensiveness of some people's serious views on what happened to the victims.
A man came up to me after one show this week to say, "I have just lost a good friend, am Jewish and lost a friend in 9/11. If anyone should be upset by your show it should be me." But he had enjoyed it and found it helpful in dealing with these subjects. Whose feelings do I consider as more important?
I wrote an article for the Metro this week, based on a routine I did in the "What Is Love, Anyway?" show (which never got any complaints, but then irony is possibly more detectable when spoken, but also it was only seen by people who "got" my humour). You can read the piece here. In it I attempt to mock people who are unthinking and patronising enough to claim that dead Native American people would willingly act as spirit guides for the descendants of the people who decimated their culture. This view is delusional in so many ways, but at its heart impossibly insulting to a civilization that has suffered so much already. My job is to make people laugh (and if I can make them think a bit then that's good too) so I manage to dress this up in a true story of how I was told I had a Native American spirit guide. I don't think I really did have one, and detail how, if I did, that he was rather incompetent (to the point of deliberate neglect). I would say the target of my mockery is squarely the purveyors of this kind of nonsensical spiritualism. Maybe it's not that big a target, but I have not seen anyone else point out this particular fact, which I think transforms them from being harmless buffoons, into slightly insensitive and offensive territory.
In mock anger (again perhaps more clear when I am speaking the words, but surely apparent to anyone who is concentrating on the argument), I admonish my spirit guide for failing so badly in my quest for romance by saying, "I am glad my ancestors wiped out his entire civilization." I would hope it was obvious that such arrogant self-obsession and the juxtaposition of something so trivial with something so serious, could not be read as genuine. It's a harsh statement, but one that I think in context works and helps to highlight the offensiveness of the mindset that I am satirising. I could have put it differently. I could have explained it seriously as I have in this blog entry. But that would not have been very funny (as you've probably noticed) and the sanctimonious and preaching tone would likely mean people stopped reading. By making them laugh and then making them wince I might make them think in a way that would make them consider this topic.
As I was writing the piece, aware that there is always someone who will take everything on a literal level regardless of what goes around it, I considered adding, "I am joking of course" or even "Clearly this would be a horrible thing to say if I actually believed it. I think genocide is wrong." But I decided to assume that people would know me well enough and be able to read between the lines - the final paragraph surely explains the idea clearly enough without me having to ruin the satirical impact by annotating the joke.
But evenso I got tweets or facebook messages from (at the moment) five people who thought this was unacceptable. I hate to have upset them. Because I agree with them that genocide is awful and that there's nothing funny about what our ancestors did in Northern America (or Australia or Africa or Asia or pretty much anywhere where there was stuff that they wanted and some local people in the way).
One wrote, "you absolute douchebag. Are you happy about slavery too?" I tried to explain that he might have missed the irony in the piece, but he said, ""irony" wouldn't excuse jokes concerning slavery or the holocaust. This is just plain tasteless." I know from my attempt to explain my Rohypnol joke that Twitter is not the place to get into lenghtly arguments as it's not really possible to discuss the subtleties of these jokes in 140 characters. But it seems a shame to destroy the valuable tool of irony, when it actually has some power to prick fascists and those who are exploitative of other human beings. Making a joke about something does not mean I don't take it seriously. Making a joke about slavery or the holocaust or genocide does not mean you approve of those things. It depends on the joke.
I don't always get it right and I know that my stuff is not for everyone and the medium employed has an effect on meaning. I also know that the vast majority of people who saw this article understood what I was getting at and didn't take offence. It makes me feel bad to upset people who I agree with, but I think it would be a shame to give up the effective tool of irony just because not everyone understands or appreciates it. Maybe I should just annotate everything I write with the kind of all encompassing footnotes that only Stewart Lee would employ, so I can explain what I was trying to get at and what I really think.
I know some people just see or hear a trigger word and then can't see the context (it certainly happened in the case when I was challenged by an audience member show said, "Railways and the Holocaust? Do you think that's funny?" and had to explain that I didn't think it was funny and that that was the whole point of the routine.
Is it worth really upsetting someone who miscontrues your intent or simply doesn't like your approach for the sake of comedy? I think it probably is, but it still feels pretty shitty to offend someone from the persecuted section of society that you are attempting to stand up for (or an issue that you're trying to provoke debate about). Are there subjects that are off-limits for comedy? I don't think there can be, because of the custard pie reason I gave earlier.
I did think carefully about this piece before I gave it in and I stand by it. But I am very sorry that it upset the five people who have got in touch with me (and any others that haven't). Was the nut I was trying to crack (patronising spiritualists) worth that upset? Given that the Metro would never have printed an earnest article (by me) about the trials and tribulations of the Native American people, is it still something that my comedic article leads to that subject being debated?
I don't know the answers. If you know me by now then you probaby know that I don't really know the answers to much. I am better at doing the questions.
I want to write interesting and challenging stuff and I like the fact that the Metro let me write whatever I wish in my column. Next week (I think) I am writing a piece about why the stupid should be deported. I don't think that, of course and am hoping to make a satirical point about people who espouse similar views based on race or religion or general "unEnglishness". I think five people will think I am serious and get upset about it. Should I not write the article? How do I know that five people won't still be offended by whatever I write instead? I am pretty sure there are at least five people who just think I am a cunt whatever I write.
Ultimately I can only put out stuff that I am happy with and this blog is not an attempt to defend myself or deflect criticism. It's not me saying, "oh poor me". It's not me saying I am right and you're wrong. It's just me trying to explain how I work and how the reaction to that work can affect me.
I've done all this by writing (almost entirely) seriously. So that can be done. But I bet less of you have read to the end than got to the end of a funny article.