In a society which promotes freedom of speech, comedians have a right, and often an expectation to be controversial, to provide a shock factor. Audiences are as entitled to be offended by a joke, as they are to find it funny. Offence which is taken from a joke’s lack of sensitivity towards certain subjects is perfectly understandable. However, one person being offended by something does not necessarily mean someone else will be offended too. This is the subjective nature of comedy, and debating on whether it should be censored is a debate which will rage on in a continuous storm of competing ideologies. But tragic events since the start of the year have made the debate on comedy’s relationship with freedom of speech as timely as ever.
Such a discussion took place this week, as part of the London Irish Comedy Festival. Chaired by Steve Moore, an Irish campaigner and entrepreneur, the talk focused mainly on Hungry, a proposed sitcom set in 19th century Ireland during the famine. The show’s proposal was slammed by sections of the media, while tens of thousands of people signed an online petition to have it scrapped before it is even considered for production.
In Frankie Boyle’s latest blog post - a man well versed in the more controversial side of comedy - he expresses concern over the way people sometimes choose to take offence:
“I find it incredibly worrying that we no longer need to hear the actual content of the thing we're told to be offended by”.
This is applicable to the case of Hungry, as Irish stand-up comedian Grainne Maguire clarified on the panel: “It’s an Irish sitcom, written by an Irishman... I’d be offended if all the female characters only want to have babies and complain, more than the fact it is set during the famine”. For her it is only lazy, badly written, cliché ridden comedy that is offensive, not the subject it deals with.
The show is barely a completed script at this stage, no one currently knows the plot, the characters or who its jokes are aimed at. Dublin councillor David McGuiness berated the show’s proposal because he predicts it will denigrate and embarrass the Irish. Audience members of the panel, who objected to the show being produced, did so because they feel it is wrong to shed humour on such a dark period in Ireland’s history.
But comedy has always been credited for its ability to help us cope with life’s horrors. Channel 4’s Head of Comedy Phil Clarke has to make a decision on the programme, he echoes Grainne’s statement that badly written comedy is offensive, but his job is to give talented writers a chance to showcase their work. Recalling a story of when he watched 80’s comedian Malcolm Hardee live, Clarke said: “At the end of the set he insisted on getting his bollocks out. But when an offended couple approached him after the show to demand why he got his bollocks out, Hardee ‘didn’t really know why.’” Clarke believes that if you are making a joke that may offend, you have to know why you made it - what the point of the joke actually is.”
Successful comedy often pushes boundaries and can provoke discussion on any number of serious issues. So as long as piece of comedy is well-written and has a point, should it ever be censored? Austin Harney, Chairman of the Campaign for the Rights and Actions of Irish Communities, thinks so: “Let’s be educated on the famine first, before we discuss satire” he says, calling for an education on subjects to take place in more sensitive and serious ways. He cites ROOTS as an example of how a serious drama can successfully educate the masses on the atrocious sufferings of a race without the need for comedy.
However, this seems to ignore the potential of comedy to educate. Eddie Doyle, Head of Comedy at RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster), claims:
“Satire is almost the second cousin of current affairs. Some of the best satire isn’t actually that funny, but adds to public discourse. This may be challenging for people, but that is a function of comedians to test the frontiers of what is say-able.”
Taking offense can easily provoke us into a discussion, which in turn, may change our point of view and increase our understanding on a subject. On the other hand, it can also make our blood boil, eyes water and fists clench. What we are offended by can be as subjective as what we are entertained by. According to Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive of the Index on Censorship: “there needs to be a distinction between offense, abuse and harassment” – what someone says may be offensive, but they are still entitled to say it.
Offensive uproar in comedy often results from joking at the expense of something, rather than joking about something, and there is a difference. Joking at the expense of something is disempowering, at all levels of society, and is more likely to cause offense. Even the most clever, well written jokes will be interpreted differently by certain people in certain contexts. If you are offended by something which you are not willing to try and understand from a different point of view, then perhaps the best reaction is to ignore it and change the channel, but try to avoid throwing the remote control through the screen. There is plenty of offensive material out there regardless of how anyone feels about it. But comedy exists within a bubble, with the freedom to say things on a public platform which politicians, journalists and other public figures cannot. That is something worth celebrating, not censoring.