Says who?

Russell Howard. Image: bbc.co.uk/iplayer/images

Last week, the second series of Russell Howard’s Good News began on the BBC.  According to the iPlayer blurb, this signified the return of ‘the hit show whose debut run was the most requested BBC Three programme in iPlayer in 2009 and the channel’s most successful studio-based entertainment show ever.’  During the first show of this new series, the much praised comedian made reference to a brand of clothing which played music when touched. He then went on to discuss the hilarious situations, in which a wearer of this regalia might find themselves.  One of these scenarios involved standing outside a ‘shelter for abused wives’, at which point, a recording of Britney Spears singing ‘hit me baby one more time’ was played in the studio.

We barely need to acknowledge that a joke like this is…well…bad. Our laughter is at the expense of a physically and sexually abused minority group.  But what’s really shocking, is the source of jokes like this.  Of course, there’s always going to be a man in a pub who likes to laugh about black people or brown people or gay people.  Everybody know he’s an idiot, but he keeps coming down to the bar on his own anyway.

But Russell Howard is not this man, and herein lies the rub.

He does not represent the prejudiced comedy old school, but rather, is branded as a comedian who is as enlightened, clever and middle-class as the young comedy consumers of today.  He’s media savvy, and as such, plays the role of ‘mate you wouldn’t mind your mum meeting’: he’s not the kid who does drugs or listens to death metal or leads you astray.  Your mother might say, ‘why don’t you play with Russell? He’s a nice boy’, and from his portrayal on his Good News programme, you might be inclined to agree with Ma: his show opens with the satirical newspaper clippings, I’m not racist but and asylum seekers cause global warming, and ends with a section entitled it’s not all doom and gloom, in which a heart-warming news item is featured.  Of this, Howard states:

‘at the end of the show, I like to show you a story that makes you feel better about the world’.

In essence, it is a refreshing idea – that a comedian would display a degree of vulnerability, before a baying-for-laughs crowd.

But despite all this, he’s still prepared to stand up in front of us all and wisecrack about domestic abuse.  Does he think that’s ok? Has he considered the feelings of a female viewer, curled up on the sofa with her occasionally violent boyfriend? Would he make that same joke at a women’s refuge?  Bernard Manning would, and has been recorded as saying he ‘doesn’t give a fuck’ if he offends.  As much of a racist cunt as he was, we must concede that he wasn’t in the business of conning his audience.  He was nothing if not open about his views on ‘fucking pakis’, whereas Howard’s cheap laugh at the expense of a vulnerable social group, is cushioned by lovely liberal wadding.

However, the inexplicable circumstance-based acceptability of such jokes is not unique to Howard’s comedy.  We’ve all witnessed people, good and moral people, joke about issues that are simply not funny.  Favourite topics seem to be AIDS and rape, although there are probably many more. Seeimngly, because they come from an ostensibly enlightened place, such as the mouth of a young, white, middle-class boy from a good West Country family, these jokes are deemed (if a little risqué) acceptable, whereas Manning’s gripes about Johnny Foreigner fall into the category of archaic, prejudiced crap.

To consider this brand of humour unacceptable is not to buckle under the pressure of Political Correctness, nor is it to succumb to cultural hyper-sensitivity.  All it demonstrates is sensitivity. When describing their perfect partner, people rarely say: ‘ooh, well I like a good sense of humour, a nice face…and they must be insensitive’.  Sensitivity is a seemingly fundamental attribute of a good human; to be horrified by the horrifying is a virtue.

Moreover, there seems to be something of a hierarchy of victims when it comes to deciding which side of the just-a-bit-of-fun/heinously-bad-taste line a certain joke will fall down upon.  Would Howard’s joke be acceptable if instead he said: ‘you’re walking past a black youth suffering a racially motivated beating by four white men’, at which point racist Nazi-punk was blasted into the studio?  Would the audience remain in this apathetic state when reminded of a victim who is so much easier to visualise than the millions of faceless sufferers of domestic violence?  It seems, for some reason, that a topic as nuanced, complicated, and misunderstood as spousal abuse can simply trickle into the category of ‘mainstream comedy target’ unnoticed.

While it is a cliché to say so, mass-apathy is a dangerous thing.  Not in the sense that we’ll all eventually sit back an watch as a far-right dictator swans to the top of British politics – it’s more subtle than that. We have come to relax into a position, whereby, either passively or actively, we are happy to ignore the cruel or offensive nature of a joke, so long as our judgement is distorted by the seemingly worthy place from which it arises.

by Rob Young

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2 responses to “Says who?

  1. There are a couple of very deft and important points made here. The first is about the dangers of discriminatory views being espoused by seemingly respectable or innocent people.

    I don’t think (and this is not to say you suggest it either) that Russell Howard actually feels the subject of domestic abuse is objectively funny. I simply think he doesn’t understand exactly the ramifications of the joke, i.e. undermining the seriousness of domestic abuse.

    A similar process is behind the apparent renewal of support for racist groups. These groups will court support by giving people with problems the easy scapegoat of immigrants and arguing that it isn’t racist to support a party that only wants to help it’s demographic. Consequently, the ridiculous disclaimer “I’m not racist, but …” has become popular. In the same way that mainstream comedians feel that such insensitive jokes are acceptable because there is no visible foil, or it is ‘just a bit of fun’, the supporters of groups like the BNP feel their support is justified because they believe they are just looking after their interests. The tragedy of this flawed logic is a different matter, but just like I don’t believe Russell Howard finds domestic abuse comic, I don’t think many BNP supporters are racist (though that is NOT to suggest the BNP is not a racist party. It is). Whether or not Howard or BNP supporters fully comprehend the consequences of what they do is unimportant though, the results are still dangerous.

    I also really agreed with the point about the heirarchy of victims. No kind of offense is less important than another. All I would say (and you guys are by no means guilty of this) is that political correctness, though an important consideration, can be misused when people project offence on to certain groups without foundation. A classic one is the headline: “Now Muslims Want to Cancel Christmas”. I have never met a muslim, and as far as I am aware, the Muslim Council of Great Britain or a similar body have never called for this. It is instead the work of media outlets like the Daily Mail who insist that political correctness is going ‘mad’ and so lead nervous bureaucrats to ‘cancel Christmas.’ All the while, the Muslim community has played no part in the media circus surrounding the circle, but reap all the ire of the Daily Mail’s readership.

    I’ve written quite a lot there, so I apologise if i’ve gone somewhat off-topic! Realising that there’s a second part to come, i’d like to say this is a very good article so far.

  2. In the name of balance, I thought I should post the BBC’s response to my complaint about Howard’s comment:

    Dear BBC Viewer

    Thanks for your e-mail regarding ‘ Russell Howard’s Good News’.

    I understand that you were very annoyed with the comments made by Russell Howard.

    I can assure you it is never the intention of the BBC to deliberately upset its audience.

    As the BBC is a public service financed by the licence fee it must provide programmes which cater for the whole range of tastes in humour. We believe that there is no single set of standards in this area on which the whole of society can agree, and it is inevitable that programmes which are acceptable to some will occasionally strike others as distasteful. The only realistic and fair approach for us is to ensure that the range of comedy is broad enough for all viewers to feel that they are catered for at least some of the time.

    I do realise that you may continue to disagree and I’d like to take a moment to assure you that I’ve registered your comments, on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all news programme makers within the BBC, and also their senior management.

    Thanks once again for taking the time to contact us.

    Regards

    Marie Therese Gibson
    BBC Complaints

    Interesting how ‘Marie’ feels that the public service status of the BBC means that, rather than to respect the potentially vulnerable position of some of its viewership, their responsibility is actually to appeal to the diverse (even if offensive) taste of their audience. I’m sure Britain’s many hardcore pornography fans will be pleased to hear this.

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