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