Should comedians have a conscience?

chris mNow here’s something I wrote a few years ago and the theme of it still obsesses me. Whether comedy has a morality or not. Recently I’ve been thinking about whether it’s acceptable to make jokes about the Holocaust. As a Jew, maybe I can get away with it. It occured to me to do a show about this when at one gig I was handed a note backstage before the start saying “We are a bunch of Holocaust survivors from Auschwitz. Could you please say hello to us during the show”. It was a comedy show, what was I meant to say? “Anyone in from Auschwitz?… My kind of town”.

Now you may disapprove of me writing that, may have laughed uncomfortably at that, may not even be reading this any more which is possibly the most sensible option,  but for me it’s an interesting area. Anyway, I wrote this just particular thing below just after Chris Morris’ Brass Eye special on paedophilia had aired.

There’s a question that’s been worrying me a lot lately. I’m ashamed to say it’s nothing along the lines of “where now for the Kyoto agreement?” or “can private sector financing of the NHS ever be justified?” It’s this: “Do comedians have a conscience?”

I’m a comedian myself and I’ve just finished filming some links for a new series called “The Horror of…”. As part of the filming we decided to try out some “hits” (also known as “stunts” or “stings”), where a hidden camera films some piece of comedy chicanery involving a celebrity or member of the public. You know the sort of thing: “Trigger Happy TV”, Ali G, “Brass Eye”, and so on. Sometimes it seems like everyone’s at it. Just after he was named the new England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson was rung up by a radio DJ pretending to be Kevin Keegan. The Downing Street switchboard fell for a similar stunt and put a false William Hague through to Tony Blair. It’s getting to the point where no self-respecting celeb will speak on the phone unless the person on the other end can tell them their password and mother’s maiden name.

It’s no surprise that hits are popular. They appeal to our most basic, playground instincts. Someone’s being picked on and it’s not us. That makes us feel good. We’re in on what’s going on, we’re part of the gang – only in this case it’s not a gang of five or six or the rest of the class, it’s a gang of 5 million or however many are watching. That’s a big gang.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Because a hit takes place in the real world with real people, it has an element of unpredictability and danger that a sketch or sitcom can never have. On one episode of “Noel’s House Party” – so the story goes – they were about to go to the NTV section of the show, where a hidden camera in someone’s TV allows us to see them watching telly at home. When the producer checked the NTV picture just before transmitting it live to the nation, he saw that the unsuspecting TV watcher was masturbating in front of “Baywatch”. Sadly, the item was quickly dropped and a major milestone for mainstream telly remained unachieved.

This sense of danger can be very appealing. Obviously hits aren’t dangerous in the way that putting out oil fires can be dangerous, though there are exceptions: look at Chris Morris wearing nothing but a nappy and a belisha beacon, asking drug dealers in Notting Hill if they’ve got any “clarky cats” or “triplesods”. It’s this feeling of risk which ups the comedy ante and makes the material funnier. Imagine how dull “Trigger Happy TV” would be if there was no risk, if everyone involved was an actor. By doing a hit the performer can show that they’re quick on their feet, that they’ve got a bit of bottle, even if this is slightly disingenuous. I’m never more courageous than when I’ve got a burly camera crew hidden round the corner ready to sprint over and rescue me at a moment’s notice.

But just because hits are funny doesn’t necessarily mean it’s alright to do them. My colleagues and I have all taken the vows of non-sexist, non-racist humour. We would never tell a joke about an Irishman being stupid, but that doesn’t seem to stop us making an Irishman (or anyone else) look stupid in the street. Can that be right? Isn’t the hit merchant just an office prankster writ large, a playground bully on a national scale?

At the core of the hit, as with the office prank, is the concept of the “good sport”. When it’s finally revealed to you that your elderly parents haven’t actually died in a freak bowling accident, you’re expected to laugh it off, to be a “good sport”. If you don’t laugh it off, you will have failed. It used to be the same with racist jokes. Once upon a time, if I as a Jew didn’t laugh at a joke about Jews being tight I’d be accused of “not having a sense of humour”, of not being a “good sport”. Nowadays, at least in the PC world I inhabit, that’s not the case. It’s the joke that’s at fault, not me. Shouldn’t it be the same with hits? Shouldn’t we extend our right-on charter to victims of pranks, so they don’t feel obliged to grit their teeth and be a good sport?

You could easily establish some rules. Go for people in power. Do hits on celebs rather than members of the public: at least they’ve already chosen to be in the public eye. Always make sure you’re “saying something”, as with Chris Morris’s live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword hit on Noel Edmonds, where the BBC1 prankmeister made a heart-felt plea for kids to keep away from “cake”, a “made-up drug”, and then had a famous sense of humour failure when he found out he’d been duped. The joker outjoked, hypocrisy exposed. Perfect. If only all stunts could be played that way.

But comedy doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t like rules. Good comedy should have the right to be amoral, challenging, even offensive. It should know only one law, the law of Funny: does it make us laugh? There are some massively un-PC jokes I’ve laughed at a lot because they’ve been funny enough to overcome my moral objections. It’s the same with hits. It was morally indefensible for Chris Morris to announce the death of Michael Heseltine on the radio, but who cares? It was funny.

Of course, my idea of Funny may not be the same as yours, so it’s up to the comedian to decide where, if anywhere, to draw the line. Every comic who’s ever done a hit knows that there’s at least one point in every hit where you know that, morally, you shouldn’t twist the knife any further, it’s just too cruel. But as the saying almost goes, you’ve got to be cruel to be funny, and it’s a sad truth that pressing on beyond that point is sometimes where the best comedy is to be found.

Halfway through a recent hit, the person I was “hitting” told me how much he was enjoying the conversation. He’d just done a spell for depression in a mental institution and it was, he said, so refreshing to have a decent chat. The hit had been going well up to that point, the guy was clearly ripe for the taking and his admission could easily be edited out. But the guy was suffering from mental illness and thankfully, on this occasion, I found some moral fibre and bailed out. At other times, I’m sorry to say, I haven’t. I just carry on like some comedy pimp, procuring innocent victims for the enjoyment of a dodgy, voyeuristic public. I feel bad about it – hence this confession. But then the show goes out, people tell me they liked it and – you know what? – suddenly I don’t feel so bad any more.

I’d like to think I’m not beyond redemption. I try now to only do hits which leave my victims some dignity but I suspect that ultimately my first and only allegiance will always be to the Law of Funny. So do comedians have a conscience? I don’t know, but I rather fear the answer could well be: “not if they’re any good”.

This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday.

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