Standing Up For Comedy


Tolerance. Freedom of speech. Hedonism. Three fundamental pillars to our way of life and civilization. Where these three uniquely meet, work together and blossom best is perhaps surprising: comedy. Hardly an Enlightenment pursuit. Yet it is more vital than we realise.

Satire, irony, stand-up comedy; all these forms of humour creep and crawl around the soil that feeds the rainforest of civilization. Last night I had the privilege of attending a Jimmy Carr show in my own backyard. Jimmy Carr is, so the billboards said, the no. 1 comedian in Britain. And this is like saying he is the no. 1 matador in Spain. Comedians in England are treated with reverence. They are superstars more worthy of stardom than anyone else.

Frankly, the British love to have a laugh. It’s a great Saturday night-out, going to a comedy club, having a few beers with mates, and laughing your arse off. Simple as that – it’s almost as good as Saturday afternoon football.

But it isn’t just the Brits that love to laugh, naturally. And I won’t here go into the psychological, and indeed biological reasons why humour is so innate to us, as much a part of our make-up as the fight-flight response. Surely, like all other human traits, comedy was born in the pre-historic savannahs of Africa. But what Jimmy Carr got me thinking about is more contemporary, prescient and even urgent.

In the words of another great British comedian (I quote them as I would authors or philosophers) John Cleese: “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And, if I can persuade you to laugh at a particular point that I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge it as true.” Behind any good joke, there is an idea. And, as the old adage goes, a joke isn’t funny unless it is at someone else’s expense.

Whatever it says about human nature, this much remains true: the misery, catastrophe, faults and challenges of others make us laugh. Harmless jokes are seldom funny. They are like box wine in a shelf of untouchable vintages. So, implicitly, if a joke is going to make you laugh it is also likely to insult you, or at the very least someone else. And here we face a crucial choice: what do you value most, laughter or honour?

The way a culture answers that question dictates whether it goes down the road of tyranny or liberalism. At this stage I am itching, as you might expect, to insert Jimmy Carr jokes – and I’ll delay it no longer, hoping, but not really caring if it sounds relevant or not. I will be paraphrasing, and I’m not a comedian, so apologies to Jimmy Carr if the punchline falls flat.

I can’t understand why the Catholic church is against homosexuals, all they do is get on their knees and beg a man for a second coming.

Now, some good Catholics among you, and there might be many, might find that joke offensive. You might even find it in bad taste. And, of course, that is your right. But think about it somewhat. The joke’s intention is not to insult, it is to make you laugh. The joke uses insult for the higher end of pleasure. It is not insult for insult’s sake. And, what’s more, jokes such as these can provoke discussion. Comedy can be fertile ground for philosophy. Imagine saying that joke in a stern Catholic environment, say, the Vatican, (go with me on this). If you could make a bunch of cardinals laugh aren’t you also getting them, as John Cleese said, to acknowledge your ideas?

Some of you, upon reading that joke, would have had another reaction, whether you’re Catholic or not. And Jimmy Carr actually addressed this straight after the joke. An audience member, he said, once told me, why won’t you make such a joke about Catholics but not Muslims? He replied, because Catholics won’t blow me up. What’s the worse they can do, forgive me?

Why can’t you make jokes about Muslims – because Islam promotes a culture whence, when asked what’s more important, laughter or honour, it chooses honour every time. There are, of course, Muslim comedians. But there is are two addendums that need to be made here. Muslim comedians are to be found in non-Mulsim countries. There are no Jimmy Carrs in Iran or Saudi Arabia, I’m sure. And secondly, these, admittedly very brave Muslim comedians are doing what they’re doing, in spite of Islam. Just as those Muslims who drink do so in spite of Islam – despite still being Muslim.

Of course, Jimmy Carr doesn’t shy away from jokes about Muslims. Islamic fundamentalist sex dolls, do they blow themselves up? And: I would never, never, burn a copy of the Quran because, I own a kindle, just delete the fucker.

The day that Islamists learn to choose laughter – that is, pleasure – over honour, shame, and all such values that date to our pre-literate days, will be the day they too have tolerance, freedom, equality. And of course, it isn’t just Islamists that need to get a sense of humour. Almost all devoutly religious people do. Take the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They are crass, revolting, in bad taste and obscene. But, their one and only crime is not one of offence, or insult; it is that they’re not funny. And really, ought you kill someone because of a bad joke?

Back to religious people; even tolerant ones like Christians or Hindus, would do well to learn not only to tolerate a joke about their faith, but to laugh at it too. Even if it doesn’t achieve evolutionary progress, at least, you’re laughing, enjoying yourself, making most of your limited time on this wondrous planet. And it’s not just religion: the political fundamentalists, ideological, aesthetic. Here’s a good marker of how rational a person is. Ask him who his greatest idol is. Then make a joke about him or her, make it hit home, funny, and if there’s some insult mixed in, fine. See how the person reacts. If he laughs and pats you on the back, he’s a reasonable person. If he gets offended and self-righteous, do the best thing you can do, shrug and walk away.

As Jimmy Carr previously said in a prior show, offence is not given it is taken. Everything is offensive and nothing is offensive. It all depends on whether the ‘victim’ of the joke decides to make it offensive or not.

On a larger scale, having comedians like Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Billy Connelly and Ricky Gervais is a sign of a healthy democratic, truly liberal society. The only judgment we allowed to impose on these artists is aesthetic.

During the gig last night, Jimmy Carr was doing a bit about the superfluity of airplane safety procedures. Like being sat in the right position, putting in your tray, and the whistle, yes, the whistle. Imagine a plane is attacked by terrorists, and everyone is whistling, he then says: take that ISIS.

And that is the message all comedians, and all of us who raise them on high, are indeed delivering to our enemies.

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