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Thursday 23rd December 2010

I am not as down as some of you seem to be thinking after yesterday's entry. There is plenty of time for things to pick up and as long as the last couple of weeks sell well in London then I don't need to worry too much. I just wanted to let you in on how I was feeling at this early stage: the insecurity, the paranoia, the worry. But it's also good to remind myself that there is some way for me to go, however far I have come. Reviews have been very good and there's been loads of press and the audiences who have come seem to have enjoyed it. And tonight, it was another small crowd, not as tiny as I had feared, but they were a supportive and lovely group of people and I think we all had fun. I certainly felt happier at the end of it than I had at the start. And my bicycle hung together OK.
The Frankie Boyle furore seems to be increasing. Today he was accused of racism. In this case, however, I think the jokes mentioned seem fairly defensible, in that they are actual gags which make a satirical point and in which the extreme language is (in my opinion) justified. When Frankie Boyle is at his best his invective and anger can be used to make some decent points and aren't just about causing offence. And sometimes, perhaps, it is fun just to be offensive for its own sake: it seems like Tramadol Nights is a big "Fuck off" to all the people who have complained about or been upset with or censored his previous work. As you are no doubt aware I have dabbled with similar ideas in my own work, but hope that usually there is more to what I am doing than just being a dick for the sake of it. But, you know, some people are offended just by the idea of me depicting Christ on a Bike and there are lines in my show (and previous ones) that are there to raise hackles. But usually I think, for a reason. Challenging people to think about whether an issue is right or wrong.
What I think is less admirable about Boyle is his casually offensive attitude to the disabled. There is humour to be had out of disability, both from how disabled cope with the world and how the not yet disabled embarrass themselves in the face of it. I don't think there is much very funny about mocking the disabled. Perhaps it challenges our fears about the subject and the fact that we are all just an accident away from being disabled (if we aren't already) and perhaps by laughing at these fears we can deflect some of their power. But Boyle, and others, seem to think it's funny enough just to mock the disabled, either by using the unpleasant words that we all know or by doing impressions or by ostracising this already ostracised group even further. Maybe you think this is funny - I think I probably did when I was at school. But it seems a shame that modern day comedy would find a niche where this is acceptable. The racist comedians of the past don't get to appear on TV any more. People can still pay to see them live if they wish. But it strikes me as odd that there is little critisicm or disapproval when disabled people are mocked.
Comedy went a long way to spearhead the fight against racism and sexism and yet disablism doesn't get much of a look in. I had a protracted and interesting discussion on Twitter with Gary Delaney about this and in particular this joke - "My grandad can make you laugh just by reading the phone book...he's a spastic." I would say that was pretty pointlessly lame, reinforcing prejudice and stereotypes, using language that is considered offensive and the only joke being that the way disabled talk is funny. Which you might think is OK. But what if you replaced the word spastic with the word nigger? They are equally contentious and disapproved of. And thirty years ago comedians would have felt it was OK to not only use that language, but to make jokes that the way that black people talk is "funny" (Jim Davidson pretty much made a career out of doing exactly that). It might work nowadays with a gloss of post modern irony, but I don't think anyone would try it. Because the idea of using that language or making such claims about a black person would be seen, rightly, as unacceptable. So why should it be acceptable to mock the disabled in this reactionary manner? They are a section of society who don't have a voice in the same way as ethnic groups do and a section of society that we should be supporting, not witlessly mocking, like schoolchildren. Similarly the joke about Jordan's son. It's pretty low picking on any eight year old on national TV and I suspect people are more upset by this than the disablist issues involved. But if Boyle had focused in on Harvey's colour and said that due to that he was likely to rape his own mother, would he have escaped a visit from the police? And whilst he has been condemned for the joke, is it acceptable to make the suggestion that disabled children are likely to rape people? Of course it's a joke and of course I have made many jokes that arew distasteful and said things that are wrong for comic effect. But the point that I hope I am succeeding in making is that the kind of jokes being made about disabled people would be totally unacceptable if made about black people. And weirdly enough from my point of view the "racist" jokes Boyle is being criticised for are actually acceptable.
It's a complex issue and one that includes many subtleties and hypocrisies. I actually like Frankie Boyle and admire a lot of his cleverer stuff. And comedians have to be allowed to test boundaries, but I would hope that they would do that with some wit and thought. And I feel that there is an imbalance in the way that disabled people are treated by comedians (and society). Though there are no rules, comedy, I feel, should be siding with the weak and the oppressed and punching either inwards (at the comedian him or herself) or upwards (at the powerful or the oppressors). Punching downwards is just bullying. A truly skilled comedian, like Jerry Sadowitz and occasionally Boyle himself, can make what looks like a punch downwards, actually be an inward punch or even make us understand inequality. I don't see how this phonebookm gag does anything but reinforce an unpleasant stereotype, puts the comedian on the side of the bullies and encourages any idiots or impressionable minds watching to think that mocking disabled people for their disabilities is OK.
Maybe Boyle is a greater genius than I realise. Perhaps he hopes that by doing this material he will make people discuss the issues and make us rethink our attitudes to the disabled. But I don't think so. Anger and offence are great things to investigate by comedy, but not sure this is the right way to go.
Much more offensive is the casual and witless impression of a disabled/mentally ill person on the Morgana show. It seems to have no point beyond saying "Look how brilliant I am at impersonating a disabled child."
Larry David and South Park are doing a much better job at exploring the issues around disability and the stuff that is funny about the subject. I think this is an issue where comedy, like it did in the eighties, has a real part to play in changing attitudes and it's a shame to see comedians reinforcing, rather than breaking this stuff down.
But comedy should still be confrontational and challenge people's beliefs. A young man came up to me after tonight's show quite concerned by my assertion in passing that love is an imaginary thing that we fool ourselves into thinking is real. He had clearly been perturbed by me saying it. He asked me if I really believed it to be true. I said that I didn't really, but that it was interesting to consider the similarities between love and religious beliefs (I am still thinking of making this the theme of my next show). He was upset, but intrigued and maybe even offended and it was interesting to have had this reaction. To have made something think about something that they had never thought about, to consider a core belief of what made them who they are. But even if he rejected the thought (and whilst I think it's funny to set out tom destroy love, I don't think I can and I don't really want to) he had considered the proposition. After a remark made very much in passing. That is a more interesting way of challenging people than saying, "Oooh, don't spastics talk funny. Aren't I naughty?"

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