When it is funny and when it is not

There is a cartoon, a wicked satire on the moribund John Major government, which had suffered, by that time, an ignominious departure from the ERM, known as Black Wednesday. It shows the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, dressed as a dominatrix, laying into the Prime Minister with a whip.

This needs some explanation. The picture appeared on 10th June 1993, the day after Lamont gave his resignation speech to Parliament, in which he described a Government that "gives the impression of being in office but not in power". It did not go down well in Tory ranks. Why the dominatrix? You will have to look up the story but it relates to a former tenant of Lamont's, professionally known as "Miss Whiplash". The fetish theme re-emerged sometime later during a notorious moment at an awards ceremony, when camp comedian, Julian Clary, made a reference to a meeting with Lamont on Hampstead Heath, a venue for gay cruisers. It was probably the funniest moment in TV history.

Years later, July, 2008, in fact, another satirical cartoon appears on the cover of the New Yorker, at the height of the Presidential race. It depicts Barack Obama in Muslim garb, with his wife who is drawn carrying a rifle, the implication being that they are terrorists. The editor of the New Yorker said it was meant to be a satire on the crazy rumours surrounding Obama. The reaction of the public was somewhat different. They didn't think it was funny and it disturbed the liberal sensitivities of the NY demographic. Maggie Van Ostrand, an American humorist/columnist, describe the cover thus:

If you haven't seen the cover of July 21st issue of The New Yorker, you're lucky. It's the most gross, sick and pathetic attempt at satire I've ever seen in my life.

I can't describe it to you because that would only add to the disgrace. Fox will show this more often than they did the Wright byte, and call it "humor."

As a (former) subscriber of that publication all my adult life, I will miss the way it used to be.

Not Lenny Bruce nor George Carlin nor even rap lyrics made me think that Freedom of the Press could go too far.
This cover does.

Shame on The New Yorker for stooping so low to increase their circulation, which must be in the toilet, where it belongs.

She certainly nailed her colours to the mast.

I am possibly guilty of not understanding the parameters of American humour, but I find it hard to agree with Ms Van Ostrand. It looks like a bit of silliness; a jape, a jest, a not very funny take on the daft paranoia of survivalists and KKK members.

In an attempt to understand it I looked into what American comedians were saying about Obama in July last year. Not a lot it seems. It looks as if none of them could bring themseleves to be funny about a black candidate. The International Herald Tribune (the international version of the NY Times), in a piece entitled "Comedians find Obama a tough sell" declared,

When Stewart on "The Daily Show" recently tried to joke about Obama changing his position on campaign financing, for instance, he met with such obvious resistance from the audience, he said, "You know, you're allowed to laugh at him." Stewart said in an interview by telephone on Monday, "People have a tendency to react as far as their ideology allows them."

It continues:

Of course, the question of race is also mentioned as one reason Obama has proved to be so elusive a target for satire.

"Anything that has even a whiff of being racist, no one is going to laugh," said Rob Burnett, the executive producer for Letterman.

Sure, nobody is going to laugh at racist jokes, but audiences are very insecure on this issue.

Still, perhaps the two cartoons provide you with an illustration of the vast spectrum of what is and what is not acceptable.

Now I come to the news that, in reaction to the controversial Bishop Richard Williamson's views on the Holocaust, an Israeli TV comedian has done a satirical skit on Israeli TV which by any understanding of the word is blasphemous.

The Sydney Morning Herald:

SANGUINE is not a word that rushes to mind when appraising the current state of relations between Israel and the Vatican.

First, Pope Benedict made the unwise decision in January to rehabilitate Bishop Richard Williamson, who a week before the lifting of his excommunication had gone on Swedish television to affirm cheerfully that no Jews had been gassed by the Nazis.

As could be expected, Bishop Williamson's bizarre take on the Holocaust didn't exactly endear him to many Israelis and, after a few agonising weeks, the Pope offered a scant apology.

Trying to make light of the Vatican's clumsy mishandling of a predicament that it should never have found itself in, Israeli comedian and late-night TV host Lior Shlein went to air last week with a skit that sarcastically "denied" a few Christian shibboleths to teach the Curia a lesson.

Titled Like A Virgin, the skit denied that Jesus had walked on water and claimed that not only was Mary not a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus but had had sex with many men.

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, and yes, if this was Mohammed being satirized, things would have been a whole lot more serious.

So we can now come to some sort of overview of controversial subject matter and the question of what can be funny, or more specifically, what is "allowed" to be funny. It can be personal and scurrilous. It can be vaguely obscene, like the Lamont example, as long as the subject is ludicrous, as Lamont easily became. It cannot depict black people in anyway that is disrespectful - that is not my assumption, it is the declared will of white liberal consensus.

So all that leaves is the question of Religion and whether you can not only make fun of it, but whether you can ascribe serious vices to its spiritual figureheads in the name of humour. I don't know the answer to that.

On reflection, it seems to me that what constitutes safe humour and proscribed humour, depends very much on where you are and who you are - in other words it is extraordinarily relative and thus impervious to any meaningful legislation. Thank God.


Ted Foan said...

You are an interesting man, Mr Weasel but I will not be able to sleep with that image of Norman Lamont in fishnets in my mind. Damn you!

Anonymous said...

I think the New Yorker cover made some of us uneasy because it spoke to our unspoken doubts. I remember when I first heard of Obama thinking 'why did he have to have that middle name? And the surname rhymes with............'
This is why we couldn't laugh, fearful for our own feelings. So far, he seems to be doing ok though, better than our Mr Brown.