Tag Archives: misogyny

The road to Hell – my defence of sexist, racist and (yes certainly) rape jokes

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by India’s We Speak News)

Frankie Boyle’s autobiography

As I write this, comedian Frankie Boyle is still in the High Court. He is suing the Daily Mirror for libel after they called him a “racist”. His barrister says it is perfectly OK to call him “vile” but not a racist.

His barrister told the jury that, during his Channel 4 Tramadol Nights show, Frankie had told a joke which contained the word ‘nigger’. The thrust of his argument was that racist words do not necessarily mean racist thoughts. Frankie Boyle, his barrister said, was attacking racists in the joke. Context is everything.

Almost a fortnight ago, I wrote a blog headed In Defence of rape jokes though, in fact, it said that I do not like rape jokes, as I have known and worked with three women who were raped as children and, by and large, the people who tell rape jokes are bad comedians going for a cheap (shock) laugh.

I wrote: “Trying to ban rape jokes is like trying to put sticking plaster over a symptom to hide an unsightly abscess, not cure the problem. It is the wrong target. The aim, surely, should be trying to stop audiences laughing at rape jokes.”

My So It Goes blog was picked up and reprinted a week later by the Huffington Post (though dated by them as 4th October).

In response to that Huffington Post piece, I got this e-mail from the people at ‘Rape Is No Joke’ (whom I had not named):

___

Dear John Flemming, (sic)

I am writing to correct a number of inaccuracies in your article ‘In Defence of Rape Jokes’ regarding our campaign ‘Rape Is No Joke’.

We are not advocating a ban on rape jokes and we do not believe a ban on something will fundamentally tackle an issue.

We are not calling for the subject of rape to become a taboo that is never mentioned in comedy. We are against jokes that trivialise the issue and the victim (which the vast majority of jokes about rape do).

Our pledge is asking comedians and venues to voluntarily sign up to say they won’t tell rape jokes or have them told in their venues as part of our campaign.

Our aim is to educate and tackle the, increasingly common, attitude that rape is something to be laughed at.

Obviously comedy isn’t the biggest offence facing women. However, comedy doesn’t exist in a bubble, it often reflects and has an effect on attitudes in wider society. Rape jokes add to the culture of dismissal and trivialising of rape that exists all too often in wider society. Whilst 80,000 women in the UK are raped every year, only 15% of them report it. Many of the other 85% are scared they won’t be believed or taken seriously. We want to start to tackle that culture. And we want to be able to enjoy comedy without misogyny.

We would be grateful if you could edit your article accordingly and remove the claims we want to ‘ban’ rape jokes.

Yours Sincerely,

_________

Now, far be it from me to criticise well-intentioned people, but this e-mail says: “We are not advocating a ban on rape jokes… Our pledge is asking comedians and venues to voluntarily sign up to say they won’t tell rape jokes or have them told in their venues”

If that ain’t advocating a ban on rape jokes, then daffodils are fish.

Good intentions. Bad idea.

The problem with banning any joke about anything is that who defines what the subject or the object of a  joke is? No rape jokes would, presumably mean no jokes – or sarcastic comments – about some of the late Jimmy Savile’s appalling activities. And, as I said in my original blog, where does it end? If rape jokes are banned then, surely, you must also ban jokes about murder. And, if you ban jokes about certain subjects told live on stage then, logically, you have to ban those same jokes on television and ban them in books, magazines and newspapers. Pretty soon, you will be trying to avoid people reading unacceptable comments previously expressed by burning books.

Today, comedian Rowan Atkinson is in the papers attacking the Public Order Act and “the creeping culture of censoriousness” and the “new intolerance”.

Rowan Atkinson attacks – in the Daily Mail today

According to today’s Daily Mail – not a publication known for criticising the police – a 16-year-old boy was recently arrested under the Public Order Act for peacefully holding up a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult Scientologists.

In 2005, the Daily Mail points out, an Oxford University student was arrested for saying to a policeman: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” Thames Valley police said he had made “homophobic comments that were deemed offensive to people passing by”. And a 16-year-old from Newcastle who growled and said “Woof!” to a labrador within earshot of police was prosecuted and fined £200 (later over-turned on appeal).

If the policing of public morality is happening at this unimportant level to this ludicrousness, then how much more oppressive would be the policing of any ban on more serious things – like jokes about rape?

Frankie Boyle’s barrister has been saying in court that the comedian has been called “racist” for telling jokes which were actively aimed against racists.

In a comment on my Facebook page about the Frankie Boyle court case, comedian Richard Herring observes:

“In none of the examples I have seen is Boyle using the words in a context other than to highlight other’s racism. If he is racist for just using the word, then anyone saying, ‘saying the word Paki is racist‘ is racist. So presumably everyone involved in the court case can now be called racist.”

Rowan Atkinson said yesterday: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm… can be interpreted as insult.”

The same can be said of jokes about rape. In my original blog, I linked to a superb piece of comedy by Janey Godley in which she referred to the fact that she herself was repeatedly raped as a child. This could, very clearly, be labelled a ‘rape joke’ though, in fact, it is not in any way making a joke of rape.

Banning any jokes about anything is a bad idea. Trying to get comedy club owners to ban comedians who (they believe) tell or have told or may tell ‘rape jokes’ is not just a bad idea, it is actively dangerous. Where does the censorship end?

Freedom of speech includes the right to be offensive.

The road to totalitarianism – to a police state – is partially paved with the good intentions of well-meaning people.

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Legal system, Racism, Sex

Comedian Lewis Schaffer gets attacked for his allegedly woman-hating blogs about TV presenter Justin Lee Collins

Lewis Schaffer – sexist or vulnerable?

Last night, I got a call from Lewis Schaffer.

“The shit’s hit the fan,” he said. “I don’t want to be Frankie Boyle. I don’t want people to be mad at me. Well, just a little bit. That’s my default position. My parents were always mad at me. That meant they were paying attention.”

Last Friday, Lewis wrote a blog which started:

According to the Daily Mail, British comic Justin Lee Collins is on trial for “Harrassment (Causing fear of violence)” for calling his girlfriend a “fat dog” and telling her she was “riddled with cellulite”.

The blog was headlined: No man ever used the words “riddled with cellulite”. A defense of Justin Lee Collins.

The next day, Lewis followed it up with a blog headed: Justin Lee Collins attempts murder while Alan Carr watches. Believe it or Not!

“People are complaining that I’m defending violence against women,” Lewis told me. “That I’m a woman-hater, that I don’t understand what domestic violence is.”

“So what is your view on domestic violence?” I asked.

“That it’s best kept in the home,” said Lewis. “On stage, that’s funny. Maybe in print, people don’t know it’s a joke.

“People are viewing me like some archaic male chauvinist. I’m not. I don’t like people getting upset with what I write. My goal is to make people like me. The trouble with comedy is that, if you try to get people to like you, they don’t like you; and if you try to get people to hate you, then that doesn’t work either. Some people are saying to me – John, you yourself have said to me – I should be like Frankie Boyle and get into arguments, but I don’t want to get into arguments with people.”

“But,” I said, “that’s your schtick. On stage, you are confrontational. You tell the audience they are crap; you tell some audience members you don’t like them; you tell them you hate Jews, then you explain you’re a Jew and tell jokes about the Holocaust. That’s confrontational.”

“It isn’t confrontational,” Lewis argued, “because it’s interactive. They can see my face. The trouble is I write my blogs in the privacy of my own home and people can’t see my face when they read a blog.”

“So,” I said, “if you tell a live audience they’re crap, that’s OK because they can see your face and your eyes when you say it and you can see them, so you can control their perception of you?”

“Yes. It’s a very complicated situation,” said Lewis.

“I’ve seen you say on stage that you don’t like women,” I told Lewis. “But, of course, the audience knows that’s not true because they can feel the comic attitude. But a lot of your act on stage superficially is about how awful your ex-wife was and women are.”

“Yeah,” agreed Lewis, “it is about that but I think, at the end of the show, people realise who the real loser is – and it’s me. They walk away thinking I feel sorry for that woman being married to that man.”

“You have had some people walk out of your stage shows outraged, though,” I said.

“I have had many people walk out of my shows,” said Lewis, “and usually they walk out not after what I say but in anticipation of what I’m going to say because they think Oh my god! I can’t listen to this!”

“And in fact,” I suggested, “if they stayed and listened to more, they would realise it’s more balanced.”

“Yeah,” said Lewis. “It’s balanced. I don’t blame my ex-wife for everything. At the end of the show, people see that. They see I’m a flawed human being.”

“So your basic problem,” I suggested, “is that you’re used to saying things in a conversational way… You tend to talk WITH the audience in your shows, not just talk TO them… It’s a dialogue… But, when you put the same words down in cold print, people can’t read between the lines.”

“Yeah,” said Lewis. “A lot of what I do is tongue-in-cheek and most people realise that when they see me.”

“But they don’t necessarily see that in an individual blog?” I asked.

“If they read all the blogs, they realise that. The problem is I do care. I never do a blog that everyone agrees with. If I were to do a blog that says women are oppressed, some people would disagree. When I write a blog about Justin Lee Collins being pilloried and that no-one is speaking out for him…

“What I was reacting to in my blog was the sense of imbalance that’s being projected about Justin Lee Collins. I don’t know the guy. If I met him, I might not even like the guy. Anybody who screams at women… I’ve never done that… I withdraw into my own shell when people are attacking me. I’ve never ever screamed at a woman.”

“So give me an example of how people are criticising you…”

“Well, they’re saying that I’m… Well, one well-known female comic didn’t even have the nerve to say what she didn’t like… She asked if any comedians were going to speak out against me. It was one of the Tweets. But she didn’t come out and say I don’t like what this guy said. She didn’t say that, but she was thinking that, probably…”

“So,” I asked, “have people actually said to you in the flesh that you are blogging bad things?”

“No, just on the internet,” replied Lewis. “It’s the power of the Tweet. The irony is that, behind closed doors, I went a little mental and crossed a line I shouldn’t have done and, behind closed doors, they’re going all mental on me. Everyone’s in the privacy of their own little iPhones and iPads so they can say and write and do things that they wouldn’t say and do in real life. If they spoke to me, they’d know… They know me…

“Yeah, I am bitter. I do hate women. And I love women too. Women hate women. Life’s complicated and I’m even more complicated. I am famous for my bitterness. I’m bitter about men too. This blog happened to be bitter about women. There’ll be a future blog that’s bitter about men. Just wait…”

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Filed under Blogs, Comedy, Misogyny, Performance, Sex

There are some nasty people in comedy …Is Lewis Schaffer one of them?

For a short period last night, I thought I was going to write a vitriolic blog today, but then I remembered some advice I gave to a comedian several years ago.

Last night, I was invited to an event organised by a comedy company. I arrived. I could not get in. I had the invitation in my hand. It was bad PR. Especially as I bear the company no good will. They have a surprisingly good reputation considering the guy who runs it is a vicious, amoral little shit.

I thought. That will make a good blog. I will slag ‘em off. I will tell tales.

But then I decided not to. And not for legal reasons. No. I decided not to because I remembered my advice to the comedian.

A few years ago, this comedian wanted, very justifiably, to bitch online about another (in my opinion clinically psychopathic) comedian.

My advice was: “Don’t name the other person. If you name the other person in print, it just gives them publicity. Even if you slag off the person with a very good story, people will remember the name attached to the story longer and stronger than the actual shittiness of the story you are telling them. If you name the person in print, you would just be raising their profile.

“It’s like most TV commercials. They cost zillions and they’re very visual but, basically, all they are really trying to do is impress the product’s name on punters’ brains so that when people go into a shop and see four brands, one of the brands’ names will feel more familiar to the punters than the other three.

“They could put the name of the company up there on screen in black letters on a white background for 30 seconds without music and it would have much the same effect for less money.

“All publicity is good publicity unless it involves a sex crime.”

There are some nasty people and companies in comedy, but there is no point naming them in print because it would simply increase the people’s profile and the companies’ macho standing.

At one Edinburgh Fringe, I paid at the box office of a venue to buy a full-price ticket for a highly-regarded comedian’s show. Instead of giving me a ticket in return for my money, the guy at the box office picked up a half-price newspaper voucher for the show, tore it in half, kept one half and gave me the other half. He had a pile of these half-price vouchers. My assumption was and is that, when giving the comedian a percentage of the box office returns, the venue was skimming off money claiming that a lot of tickets were being bought at half price when, in fact, the full price had been paid.

On another occasion, someone was opening up a new comedy club in a city (not London) and, for some reason, asked the advice of the owner of a competitor club. The competitor had had a vicious long-running feud with a particular comedian. “You don’t want to book XXXX XXXX,” he told the new club owner. XXXX XXXX’s an alcoholic. Unfunny. Unreliable. An alcoholic.” The guy knew that, in fact, the award-winning, highly reliable comedian was a non-drinker. But it was a double whammy. Bad advice to the other club. Damaged the comedian.

If you name the baddies in print, though, it simply publicises them.

The point is that, last night, instead of attending the event I had been asked and invited to attend, I went off in a huff (or it might have been a minute and a huff) to see American comedian Lewis Schaffer‘s rolling Free Until Famous show which, I knew, started at the same time and was only a three-minute walk away.

Look, “a minute and a huff” was funny when Groucho Marx said it.

Maybe it has dated badly.

Anyway, last night’s show was bizarre even by Lewis Schaffer’s high standards of oddity.

In the full-house audience, for one thing, were two Italian students studying comedy in Britain. Quite what they learned from a night of titters with Lewis Schaffer, I don’t know. But, after the show finished, he stayed behind with them and seven others for a special re-telling of his “award-winning Holocaust joke”.

It took 20 minutes.

The translations did not speed things up.

But it was the funniest part of the evening.

Afterwards, in his traditional after-show Soho ice cream parlour, I told Lewis Schaffer (always include both names when referring to him) about my non-vitriolic upcoming blog.

“There is no point quoting names,” I said to him. “All publicity is good publicity, right?”

“That’s what I told the captain of the Costa Concordia after it hit the rocks,” he replied.

“Mmmm…” I said.

“Look,” he said. “Never say bad things about anything or anyone. It comes back to bite you. You think you’re beating up a nobody but he’s got a million friends and one day you’re gonna need the guy. The key thing is that, if you trash one person, everybody thinks you will trash them too. They think, Well, he’s going to say bad things about me too.

“I’ve made enemies in this country,” he continued, warming to the self-criticism, as he always does. “I’ve only been here 11 years and already people hate me. I’m not even being paranoid. I don’t think people like me.

“Every day, I have a fight with someone. Every day, there’s somebody I’m really, really angry with and I wanna go on Twitter and every five minutes say something bad about the guy. But, as soon as I write my first Tweet, I realise it makes me seem like a twat.”

“Ah!” I interrupted him. “What did you say that venue owner in Edinburgh called you?”

“She called me a dreadful, dreadful man,” he replied, perhaps slightly irritated at having his flow of self-criticism interrupted.

“Why did she say that?” I asked.

“Because she’s a friend of my ex-wife and refused to listen to my side of the story about how horrible my ex-wife was… If my ex-wife was horrible at all… She’s probably no more horrible than any woman and…”

“Ah!” I interrupted him again, “On stage tonight, you joked that you’re trying to get away from racism in your show. You want to put in more misogyny.”

“Because there’s a bigger market for it.” Lewis Schaffer explained, exasperated, “Maybe I’m the horrible one. Maybe that’s the problem… But women stick together like a Romanian village. They fight with each other to the death until someone from a neighbouring town comes in. Then they just join together to… I dunno, they’re just horrible people – women. They’re loyal. I respect them for that. They’ll stick up for each other.

“My problem,” Lewis Schaffer mused, “is I’m not nice enough to be nice and I’m not nasty enough to be nasty.”

“Nice sentence,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“It means I’m… It means… For someone who people think of as a strong personality, I’m like white bread.”

“Mmmm…” I said.

“I don’t know what it means. What d’you think it means?” Lewis Schaffer asked me.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “You’ll figure it out eventually.”

“You’re not going to get anything out of this for your blog,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

“I dunno,” I said.

“I know,” Lewis Schaffer said.

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