Were you aware that the PC brigade have spoiled comedy forever? Did you know that these days, with all those precious petals and goodie-goodies out there, the very concept of humour has been compromised? Pardon the capital letters, but did you know that THE VERY ABILITY TO TELL A JOKE HAS GONE DOWN THE GURGLER? I do, because a group of iconic veteran Australian comedians told me so, kvetching to The Daily Telegraph this week about the supposedly grave state of modern comedy.
“I can’t go on TV anymore, it’s so bloody PC,” says Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson. Rodney Rude reckons the “soft” generation has taken over comedy. Austen Tayshus, best-known for this comedy single released in 1983, concurs, saying: “The soft new generation of PC-wary comedians need to grow some balls and not worry about pleasing the audience. I get physically and verbally abused all the time and banned from pubs and bars around the country.”
When comedians such as these blokes pine for the good old days, lamenting a world that has moved beyond laughing at their old, and possibly offensive jokes, what they are actually saying is that they object to being held accountable. The line “I was just joking!” no longer explains contentious material. In recent years, partly due to the rise of social media, audiences have been given a voice – and are talking back. Older comedians remember when all they had to put up with was a heckler at a live show, or maybe a disgruntled handwritten letter.
There is, unquestionably, a higher standard placed on comedians these days. We now expect comics to not just be funny, but also intelligent.
The comedians who make these sorts of complaints – that the world is worse for no longer allowing them to get away with the things they did – usually belong to the dominant power structure. In other words, people who have the most to lose from a realignment of social values. They usually (though this is not always the case) do not know what it is like to be discriminated against on a daily basis, let alone to have that discrimination paraded on stage for the solicitation of a few cheap laughs. They are used to punching down.
There is, unquestionably, a higher standard placed on comedians these days. We now expect comics to not just be funny, but also intelligent and ideologically sound (which is not the same as saying they should always reinforce traditional notions or right or wrong, or be ‘politically correct’). That is a mark of progress, not an indication of a reduced capacity to laugh at ourselves or each other.
Recently, Ricky Gervais (pictured above) dedicated a substantial part of his Netflix special to American television personality Caitlyn Jenner in particular, and transgender people in general. The influential comic began his bit by saying: “If I say I’m a chimp, I am a chimp.” A range of outraged pieces were published in response, such as this, this, this, this and this. That is surely a good thing. Anybody who compares transgender people to monkeys deserves, at the very least, to have their motivations questioned.
Good comedy however stands the test of time.
In this week’s Daily Telegraph article, Nazeem Hussain was quoted as saying: “It’s 2018. The rule is punch up, not down.” That’s a good rule of thumb, but gifted comedians don’t necessarily abide by it – or they do, but not in simplistic ways. When Sacha Baron Cohen sang his parody song Throw the Jew Down the Well, in an bar deep in the south of America, the joke wasn’t on Jewish people but his audience of cowboys and yokels, for embracing the perverse lyrics and singing along so enthusiastically. Antisemitism came so naturally they didn’t even realise they were being inappropriate.
The core of Cohen’s classic comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan works in a similar way. It was not, however, unanimously well-received. The people of Kazakhstan were understandably insulted. It was generally accepted that the level of ridicule they experienced was morally justified, because it served a greater purpose by exposing the ignorant views of Americans. You might argue for or against this logic, but it is a legitimate ethical and intellectual argument.
Not so for a routine from Rodney Rude’s ‘Frog Sack Album’, which I stumbled upon on YouTube while writing this piece, contained in a video titled “japs and stuff.” The comedian speaks in a thick, cartoon accent, impersonating a Japanese businessman, which continues with occasional breaks for over six minutes. It ends with the Japanese man receiving a ‘real Australian arse kicking’. If this is the kind of comedy the old vanguard says is dying, great. Let us dance on its ashes.
In the defense of comedians, it is true that ‘edgy’ material is often misinterpreted, even intelligent audiences not necessarily au fait or comfortable with concepts such as characterisation and satire. I was gobsmacked by the outraged response to Seth MacFarlane’s ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ segment at the Academy Awards five years ago. The one-time Oscars host clearly contextualised the sketch as something completely inappropriate (with William Shatner beaming in from the future to warn him about how the night went wrong). In the sketch he poked fun at the childish heterosexual male obsession towards on-screen nudity (without resorting to showing any) and an entertainment industry that happily caters for it, under the pretense of ‘art’ and ‘sophistication’.
This is not a bold or adventurous reading; MacFarlane’s sketch was about as plain as day as satire gets. And yet publications that should have known better obsessed over the apparent sexism and misogyny of it, without grasping the obvious counter message. Satire is difficult; comedy is difficult. I don’t envy comedians and I have great respect for them. Good comedy however stands the test of time. If it was good back in the ’80s, it’s almost certainly still good now. And if it was crap back then, it probably looks even worse these days. That, once again, is a sign of progress.