Tag Archives: political correctness

In defence of racial jokes, Bernard Manning and Jimmy Carr but not this British Asian bloke I saw

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

I once put on a show at the Hackney Empire theatre in London where a top-name comic refused to introduce or be on stage with comedian Jimmy Carr because, in the preceding week, Jimmy had been much criticised in the press for jokes about gypsies. Especially one gag:

“The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth up to seven miles away – and that fact also works if you remove the word ‘moth’.”

I had no problem with Jimmy Carr nor with the joke. Told in his particular dead-pan persona, it is a beautifully-crafted joke. From some other comic, it could have been very ethnically offensive. From the Jimmy Carr on-stage character, it did not seem to me to be offensive. It is/was a joke.

In a Guardian interview in 2006, Jimmy said, “If you’re doing wordplay, there is no real place to take offence. It’s like taking offence at a crossword puzzle… People don’t come and see my show and go, ‘That’s what he thinks’.”

I think if the late Bernard Manning’s live act – much attacked by knee-jerk PC supporters who never saw it – were performed today, word-for-word, by Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz, then trendy journalists would give it a four or five star review. Because they don’t believe (despite the gypsy jokes) that Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz are actually themselves bigoted.

But people do believe in retrospect and without having seen and heard him deliver jokes live on stage, that Bernard Manning’s live act was racist. Because they’ve read or heard other people say it’s a fact.

I did see Bernard Manning perform live three times. He was very funny. I also once had lunch with him. It seemed to me he had a bit of a superiority complex – he thought he was a bit better than the other Northern Comics of the time – but then he probably was. And he was very funny in a hard-edged, cynical way not un-reminiscent of the current Jimmy Carr on-stage persona.

The first time I saw Bernard perform live, at his own Embassy Club in Manchester, was probably in the early 1980s. It was one of the slickest professional shows I have ever seen in my life, performed in tacky, glittery decor like a cheap Hong Kong Christmas party that Butlins had staged for holiday campers in the mid 1950s.

The room was filled with ordinary down-market punters who clearly seldom went out and were be-suited and dolled-up for their Big Night Out. The only comparable thing I’ve seen was a Sunday night show at a Masonic hall in Easterhouse, Glasgow, which felt like it was set in South Vietnam circa 1968. The exterior (the walls were topped with barbed wire & broken glass) and location of the venue (a lone building in the middle of what felt like and very possibly was a free-fire zone) looked like something out of Escape From New York and the punters were middle-aged blue-rinsed women in over-tight sparkly dresses and dark-suited men looking uncomfortable wearing tightly-collared shirts and seldom-used ties.

What struck me about Bernard Manning’s act at the Embassy Club in Manchester for his very mainstream, very middle-of-the-road, probably Labour-voting but very conservative early-1980s audience was that, for the first third of the act, he used the word “cunt” very liberally. It was all over the place. This was at a time when the word was unacceptable in alternative comedy shows (which were only barely starting) and never heard on feature films, let alone in straight middle-of-the-road live punter shows. The use of the word “cunt” tailed-off after the first third of the act and had disappeared entirely by the final third.

It only struck me the next day that this was part of Bernard’s professionalism.

The show had been due to start at 8.00pm.

At 30 seconds before 8.00pm, Bernard appeared on stage and briefly introduced the first act. There then followed competent singers, competent comics. Nothing hyper-special. But satisfying. There were two breaks. In one, there was a charity raffle. In the other, chicken-in-a-basket. Throughout the show (as was the way with Northern clubs) you could order drinks at your table and there was a constant flow of staff bringing drinks from the bar to tables. It was a visible money-making machine and the paying punters got value -for-money. They got what they paid for.

At the climax of the show, they got Bernard Manning doing his stand-up act – he was the one they had come to see – and they expected his act to be rude and shocking. That was why they had come. He delivered. It was cunt-this and cunt-that and cunt-the-other at the start. After he had established the act was rude and shocking, he just got on with good, solid gags and had no need to say “cunt”. He had delivered what they expected and, next day, those punters would be able to tell their friends and workmates: “Ooh, our Bernard, he were so rude. It were proper dirty.”

Even there, I am perpetuating a stereotype.

The second time I saw Bernard perform live, there was a young honeymoon couple in the very front row who foolishly admitted the fact to him. He, of course, went for sexual jokes throughout. They loved it. At the same show, there was a black couple in the audience. He went for them as well. They loved it. Afterwards, they were laughing and joking with him.

I also saw him make anti-Semitic jokes.

He was part-Jewish.

I have seen the brilliant Jerry Sadowitz make what most people would consider anti-Semitic jokes.

He is Jewish.

The London-based New York comic Lewis Schaffer tells the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

He is Jewish.

Recently, I saw a new-ish comic, a British Asian, make an anti-Indian joke.

It should have felt OK – like a Jew telling a Jewish joke against Jews – but, to me, it felt racist.

It is relevant that he is a new-ish comic.

It’s the way they tell ’em.

A joke is a joke is a joke.

It’s the way it’s told that makes it funny. Or racist.

There is a difference between racial and racist jokes.

The sign of a non-racist society is that anyone can be the butt of a good joke.

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Filed under Comedy, Racism, Theatre

Racism and sexism in television and in comedy

On Thursday, I went to Bethnal Green to see the multi-racial comedy sketch group the United Colours of Comedy at the Oxford House venue. Three were very talented.

On Friday, I met a man who almost appeared on Mastermind on BBC1.

The man told me his specialist subject had been ‘Cricket before 1914’. He had gone through all the preliminary applications and tests and got to the final full-scale dry-run tryout. He triumphed, got the highest points and won it. The tryout, that is. A few days later, he received a phone call which told him he would not be on the actual televised Mastermind show because he mumbled. This sounds like a bad TV producer to me: you can direct people so they don’t mumble.

But the point is that a few months later this failed Mastermind contestant was talking to a lawyer friend he knows in Birmingham. The lawyer had handled the case of another potential Mastermind contestant who had been similarly rejected. She, too, had won her dry-run tryout. She had been very nervous and had been rejected – she was told – because, in her nervousness, she had waved her hands about a lot and been overly ‘twitchy’, which was very visually distracting. However, this failed contestant was black and she believed she had been rejected because of racial discrimination by the BBC. She unsuccessfully searched around  for a lawyer to handle her case. All refused until, eventually, she found this one in Birmingham. The claims and lawyers’ letters dragged on for months and, as my chum later heard it, in order to avoid a public court case, the BBC paid the woman a “substantial” out-of-court settlement.

I don’t believe it was racial discrimination. The real truth, in my experience, is that usually TV companies and producers fall over themselves to try to get non-white faces on screen.

I remember a production meeting for the Birmingham-based ITV children’s series Tiswas in which the then producer Glyn Edwards said he was uncomfortable because every Saturday morning – and this is in a city in the West Midlands, an area with a wide ethnic mix – the studio audience was a sea of totally white faces. I was delegated to get non-white children to apply to be in the audience, which I did by approaching regional and national ethnic newspapers and groups; but it was a fairly slow process.

Later, I worked on the long-forgotten BBC TV series Joker in the Pack in which the absolutely wonderful Marti Caine, at the time in remission from the cancer which later killed her, was dragged round the country to listen to groups of ‘ordinary’ people telling jokes in their workplace and in social groups. At the start of pre-production, I asked the producer if he wanted to specifically approach ethnic groups to get a mix of white/black/Asian faces on screen. He said, “Oh, it’ll happen naturally.”

“No it won’t,” I told him and it didn’t. Halfway through recording the series he suddenly asked for non-white faces on-screen and it was not something that could be arranged quickly, because non-white faces then as now tend not to apply to appear on TV shows; you have to find them and/or publicise in the ethnic media – both of which take time. The potential punters don’t see many non-white faces as TV contestants nor in on-screen audiences, so they don’t automatically apply.

The same thing seems to happen in comedy clubs, certainly in London. The audiences are mostly 100% white faces. Why? Presumably because anyone who goes to comedy clubs sees almost 100% white audiences and that non-racial-mix is self-regenerating.

Small comedy clubs can do little about this although they should perhaps try. On TV shows however, in my experience, producers do actively want non-white faces which reflect the UK population (although they are often too lazy or too tardy to do anything about it). And this can also be a problem where women are concerned. There are, for example, not enough female comedians on TV. But thereby hangs the potemtial problem of being too desperate.

And that brings us to Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on BBC1, which records in different cities around the UK and has very few women and very few non-white comics appearing on it. Which is where good intentions have turned into bad practice.

One black female comic bombed so badly during the recording for an edition of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow in one city that the producers had to drop her from the televised show but allowed her to perform again in a subsequent recording in a second city so that she could be transmitted in the series. Whether this was because she was black or a woman or both I don’t know. I suspect it was because she was a black woman. But I have also been told two other English female comics who initially bombed during recordings for Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow were also re-recorded in a second city a second time (one was even booked to record a third time in a third city) to try to capture any acceptably successful comedy performance. This is not something I have heard being done for white male comics.

It says several things to me, one of which is that you can take PC too far – if they can’t be funny the first time, drop ‘em – and the other is that the producers of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow have, in the past, been choosing the wrong female comics to appear. There are good female comics working out there.

For another view on what it’s like to be a female comic, read Janey Godley’s blog “A weird thing happened at the gig” about performing at a comedy club in Glasgow last Friday. The Daily Telegraph has quite rightly called Janey “the most outspoken female stand-up in Britain… The most ribald and refreshing comedy talent to have risen from the slums of Glasgow since Billy Connolly”. Inevitably, she has never been asked to appear on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.

Life.

Tell me about it.

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Filed under Comedy, Television