My rebuttal of Guardian piece 31/7/09

'There isn't a "New Offensiveness"'

Standup comedian Richard Herring defends his 'Hitler Moustache' act following an article by Guardian critic Brian Logan

* Richard Herring
* The Guardian, Friday 31 July 2009

On Monday I was astounded to read an article by Brian Logan in this very paper in which he wrote, and I quote, that "racists have a point". I never thought I'd live to see such a hateful opinion expressed by a Guardian journalist and was morally outraged.

Actually, I'm not being entirely fair. The piece read: "This year veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show Hitler Moustache, in which he argues that 'racists have a point'." So it wasn't Logan who said it. It was me. I knew that all along, and yet I wilfully took the line out of context in order to be sensationalist. What a cheap and shoddy tactic: you'd expect that in a tabloid perhaps, but the Guardian?

Imagine if I hadn't bothered to contextualise that first paragraph. At best, that would be sloppy journalism. Yet that's exactly what happened to me on Monday. In an attempt to prove the debatable point that there is a "new offensiveness" in comedy, Logan quoted that one off-colour line and nothing else. He then included contentious statements from two more of my routines (about hating Pakistanis and supporting the BNP), providing little indication of how or why they might have been said. Is it possible he interviewed me with an argument already in mind, cherry-picking the lines that supported his hypothesis? Or is it unfair of me to represent him in that way? I think that most reasonable people might assume from the article that I am racist, or at least pathetically confrontational. Indeed, some reasonable people did assume that. One blogger wrote: "Richard Herring is currently putting on a show called Hitler Moustache, where (and I haven't seen the show) he apparently dishes up straight-faced endorsements of racist ideas."

It is true that the phrase "maybe racists have a point" is in the show. It's an interesting moment: the awkwardness in the room is palpable; a core belief has been challenged (by a man with a Hitler moustache) and people are uncomfortable about where this might be leading. But the statement is followed by what is possibly the standup routine I am most proud of, one which examines our attitudes to ethnicity and questions whether the way humans choose to divide themselves is obfuscating their essential similarity. It challenges racism, but also liberal assumptions about cultural identity. It's funny, too. Comedy, it seems, can cover some complex issues much more effectively than someone blankly stating these truths.

This isn't a "new offensiveness". It is an age-old comedic device to say the opposite of what you believe in order to demonstrate the ultimate stupidity of the stated position, following it through to its illogical conclusion. Is it heresy to explore the arguments of the racist? Some liberals might think so. But if we stop people even discussing it, then aren't they bound to question why they aren't allowed to question it? Generally, when people are silenced by authority it is because they have a point – look at Galileo or Iran's democracy movement. There is no harm in exploring the truth about racism when all moral, scientific, social, historical and genetic evidence demonstrates it to be groundless and ridiculous. And funny.

Fascism is, and always has been, inherently ridiculous, and it can be damaged and even destroyed by laughter. Yet if we fight fascism with fascism and make it forbidden to discuss it, then we become fascists ourselves. And by making such subjects taboo, we play into the hands of those who equate political correctness with humourlessness rather than politeness, which is all it really is. I give my routines a lot of thought – most comedians do – as I believe I have responsibility for their content. Which is why it hurts to feel that they have been misrepresented or sensationalised.

Logan is right that there are comedians out there (and there always have been) who aren't as thoughtful, and who enjoy reaffirming unpleasant stereotypes simply for the hell of it (go to any American comedy club and you will see endless amounts of sexist, racist and disablist comedy). But there are many more (certainly many of the comics Logan mentioned) who are exploring offensive subjects without being truly offensive, and who are discovering where the ebbing and flowing boundaries lie on a nightly basis.

In my show I get into a spiralling argument where, after chastising Carol Thatcher for using the word "golliwog", I comment on her physical appearance, and then ask if that makes me as bad as her. On stage I crumble, unable to give a satisfactory answer.

Off stage, I think the material is justified, because it is about intent: ultimately, Carol Thatcher thinks she has done nothing wrong, while I am aware of which lines I have overstepped and why. But I'm still not sure about everything I am saying. Is it OK to make fun of Nick Griffin's melty face because he is a fascist, or does that make me as bad as him? I find out by debating it on stage, both informing my audience and being informed by them. This is the way we reach a consensus, and the way we move onwards.

In this country there is a fine tradition of challenging and offensive comedy. Look at the heroic Jerry Sadowitz (who dared to do this stuff in the right-on 80s), or Derek and Clive, or Swift, or Chaucer, or whoever it was who created the Cerne Abbas Giant. None of this is new.

The original idea of Hitler Moustache was to see if I could reclaim the toothbrush moustache for comedy – it was Chaplin's first, then Hitler ruined it. But it has become about a lot more and is constantly informed by events going on around it. Not least having a liberal newspaper, possibly accidentally, imply that it's racist. It really isn't.