As usual, this year’s British Comedy awards were not a hugely useful barometer of where comedy is at, based as they are on public polls of magazine readers largely unaware of how the art form may be flourishing beyond their TV sets, or influenced by the lobbying of industry insiders anxious to increase the market value of their programmes, or of their writer-performer clients. But we can take two things away from last week’s televised awards ceremony. One, it’s not enough simply to bring a giant snake on stage, you have to have some idea of what you are going to do with it. And two, the crop of high-profile comic successes such as Borat, Little Britain and the writing team of Ricky Gervaise and Stephen Merchant, broadly lumped under a banner of the comedy of shock, bad taste and outrage, show no immediate signs of disappearing. But reading about these shows in print and on-line, they are often described in a way that makes me, for one, feel as if I have been watching different material to everyone else. For many viewers and critics, Borat, Little Britain and The Office and Extras represent blows against the monstrous, and perhaps largely imagined, regiment of politically correct thinkers, who impinge upon our basic freedoms on a daily basis.
“Little Britain makes no apologies for being highly offensive and preying on the sensitivities of even the slightest politically correct sensibilities, which in an ever sanitised society should be applauded,” writes Michael Byrne, of Time Out Dubai, where society is considerably more sanitised than it is here. “Borat raises an index finger to political correctness and all its exponents,” claims Mail On Sunday reader Colin Veitch on-line, who obviously feels that were Borat to raise his middle finger, the finger traditionally used for giving offence, he may have been overstating his case. Meanwhile, an Extras fan-site lauds “Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s mockery of political correctness”. I’m thirty-eight, and old enough to remember comedy, and life in general, before political correctness. At secondary school in the midlands in the early 80’s, our maths teacher, who was a genuinely nice man, would routinely refer to the one Asian boy in our class as ‘The Black Spot’, fondly imagining this was in some way inclusive, like some pocket calculator wielding version of David Brent ™ . And the idea of a comic performer like Little Britain’s Matt Lucas being openly out would have been unimaginable, however absurdly camp his onstage persona.
There’s a vast difference between the casual, inadvertent offence prevalent in my childhood, and the choices made today by performers and writers of my generation, operating in a post-PC world, where they are aware of the power and meaning of the taboos they chose to break. Linguistic theorists who define the terminology of political correctness suggest that grammatical choices made in language influence both the speaker’s and the listener’s ideas and actions. This would seem to be common sense, so it would be churlish to argue against the idea of attempting to ensure basic levels of politeness and consideration in official, public discourse. I am a great fan of political correctness, even though as one of the writers of Jerry Springer The Opera I was routinely praised for apparently attacking it, and feel that any indignities we suffer from PC’s overzealous policing are a small price to pay for all that it has achieved. Is anyone apart from Robertsons’ jam really lamenting the extinction of the golliwog? So why then, do some sections of the viewing public insist on seeing attacks on PC where there perhaps are none?
Stephen Merchant, who co-writes The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. “We’re endless cited as being non-PC and yet we sit and agonise for ages over what we put into the scripts,” he says, the day after picking up another British Comedy Award, “and over whether our choices can be defended, both morally and intellectually. We may push things, but we’re always motivated by satirical imperatives.” But the duo’s scripts do use non-PC language? “Yes,” explains Merchant, clearly slotting back into a tramline he’s had to follow many times before, “but we deal in taboos and hot areas by appearing to approach them from a non-PC standpoint, but as soon as you even introduce topics that PC has declared off-limits people assume you are trying to be dangerous and politically incorrect. Often we’re all unsure of what to say, for example, in the company of someone who is disabled. These are areas ripe for comedy because of social anxiety, not because the subject itself is intrinsically funny. A joke about race, and about how we react to race, is not necessarily a racist joke. That is fundamental. Political correctness has made the world better for those who might otherwise have been unfairly marginalized, but there is the problem of the idea that you cannot discuss different areas for fear of being politically incorrect.”
Peter Baynham is one of the unsung heroes of British comedy over the last two decades, wrote the famous ‘Michael Heseltine Is Dead’ bit for Chris Morris’ radio show, and helped sculpt Patrick Marber’s Alan Partridge character from its chat show incarnation into its fully-realised sit-com version. But it is as one of the co-writers of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat movie that he has finally won a British Comedy Award, the industry’s least valuable honour, and earned enough money to buy David Hasselhoff’s hair from him, and wear it as if it were his own. According to Simon Dillon, of the Christian film review website The Greatest Trick, “Borat is a monstrous creation designed to fly in the face of every politically correct notion you can possibly think of, yet despite being misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and worse, Borat has proved hugely popular, possibly because people are sick and tired of politically correct comedy (surely a contradiction in terms in any case).”
Bayham is philosophical about the way in which Borat has occasionally been received. “It’s weird to see the film seized upon by people that hate political correctness, and think it’s a bad thing, when PC was clearly just an understandable reaction to 70’s racist awfulness,” he says, on a rare trip home from Los Angeles to the native land he now scorns. “In my own pretentious, terrible opinion, which may not be shared by the other writers, the Borat movie is not anti-PC at all. When Borat says a black politician has a ‘ genuine chocolate face’ he is a) clearly an idiot and b) from a naïve fictionalised foreign culture. But it’s also a good thing to do because that bit absolutely wouldn’t have been funny twenty-five years ago, precisely because that sort of thing was more openly said by people. It’s a little kick, a little reminder, of why we don’t say those things, and it’s weird when you read people saying it was deliberately offensive. The laugh is a laugh of ‘oh my god you can’t say that!’ People are laughing with shock, because we’ve reminded them of why it’s wrong to say that black people have chocolate faces.” At this point, Baynham seems to be approaching something profound and timeless about comedy, that stretches beyond petty concerns about political correctness.
At the end of September, I was lucky enough to attend the St Geronimo feast-day celebrations at Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, whilst helping out on a Radio 4 documentary about clowns. For a long time I had fondly imagined that the clowns of the pueblo Indians, who take over the village for the afternoon on the second day of the festival, might be a key to understanding, on some essential level, what comedy is, and what comedy is for. I’d seen a recreation of the mediaeval fools’ day five years ago near Beziers in Languedoc, when the bouffonnades, a clown troupe which was traditionally assembled each from the village’s mentally and physically handicapped outcasts, were given free reign to mock the citizenry, but research suggested the pueblo clowns seemed to have a more pronounced philosophical dimension. Just after lunch, ten figures appeared, silhouetted against the blue sky on the roof of a stack of brown adobe buildings. They are naked but for loincloths, their bodies painted in rings of concentric black and white stripes, their hair decorated with jagged stalks of corn. They scream and bellow. Children run away, afraid. After a while, the clowns made their way down into the plaza, where they spent the next three hours running between the stalls and houses, intimidating and entertaining, overturning every social norm at hand, and re-shaping the rules of pueblo life. Babies were snatched from their parents and thrown into the river. Food was stolen from stallholders and redistributed. We were shouted out, shoved and shocked. Our drinks were flung on the floor. We followed the clowns into the chief’s house, were an absurd Indian dance was performed at the dinner table for the benefit of his white guests. Back outside, white men were forced to face off in mock cowboy gunfights, and white teenage girls were forcibly press-ganged into ungainly Britney Spears dance routines. Beautiful pueblo women were mocked and made to wear different sized shoes, so they struggled and stumbled as they walked. Handsome young men were clad in dresses and forced to skip. Elderly women were gracefully wooed or crudely propositioned. And, when confronted with someone in a wheelchair, or a mentally handicapped onlooker, the clowns would fall before them on their knees in worship.
Despite our BBC credentials, Native American commentators were reluctant to explain the theory behind any of this practise in detail, partly because when the white settlers moved into the South West one of the first things their delicate sensibilities required them to suppress were the pueblo clown ceremonials, but gentle pressure revealed the suggestion of a social, maybe even moral, purpose at work. By reversing the norms and breaking the taboos, the clowns show us what we have to lose, and what me might also stand to gain, if we step outside the restrictions of social convention and polite everyday discourse. This core idea holds whether it is played out up close in the plaza of a New Mexican pueblo, or miles away by the tiny dots of television stars on the stage of a vast arena. Comedy is about funny faces, and funny noises, and silly words and stupid fun, but it’s also about this more profound idea. To say that the taboo-busting antics of current favourites like Borat, Little Britain or the boys from The Office and Extras is somehow bound up explicitly in contemporary cultural negotiations with the ephemeral, late 20th century notion of Political Correctness is to miss the point on a massive scale. This stuff is justified, ancient and righteous. It is not there to be appropriated by Daily Mail editorials as evidence of mass disillusionment with the soft-left, nor by disgusted liberals as examples of society’s collapsing values. It’s comedy, the noblest of all the arts, and it goes way back.