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Tuesday, January 13, 2015 

Comedy, satire and subjectivity. Oh, and Charlie Hebdo.

Watching Emily Maitlis interview Dapper Laughs, aka Daniel O'Reilly last year in the immediate aftermath of his ITV2 show being cancelled after everyone realised his act was fairly repugnant, I was left incredulous at how O'Reilly refused to defend himself.   Perhaps we should have been tipped off by his wearing of the black turtleneck of regretfulness, but nonetheless.  Maitlis, reasonably enough, clearly felt nothing but utter contempt for Mr Laughs' brand of humour, and so went in for the kill.  His response to Maitlis using his own gags against him was to visibly shrink, mutter the odd apology and then explain he was killing off Herr Laughs with immediate effect.

The obvious retort to Maitlis and everyone else was, you might not like my act, but who are you to say what is and isn't comedy, as you seem to be?  One of the very qualities that make us human is our ability to make a joke out of anything and everything, whether it be murder, rape, the Holocaust, or indeed toasters.  Criticising stand-ups is very different to saying an entire subject cannot be joked about; just as it ought to have been apparent Senor Laughs' shtick wasn't worthy of a TV series on quality grounds, that's quite separate to demanding his tour be pulled also.

Most of us will have experienced being the only person in a group not laughing at some grand cultural soiree we've attended.  It happened to me when I by chance saw Kunt and the Gang in a local pub, whose act revolves around much use of naughty words in songs about sex.  His best known is "I have a little wank and I have a little cry", Mr Kunt's lyrics accompanied by little more than Bontempi keyboard.  I'm as easily amused by a stream of filth as the next man, but I was left entirely stony-faced by it all, baffled as to the uproarious response he was getting.  It might be that I like my crude humour to be delivered along with something approaching pathos, the exact thing Viz has been doing now for nigh-on 30 years.  Not so much from the titular (boom boom) Fat Slags, but definitely from 8 Ace or the Drunken Bakers.  Without that subtext, a song about giving in to demands for anal sex remains just that.

I was reminded of this on reading the Graun's panel verdict on Charlie Hebdo's front cover.  To Myriam Francois-Cerrah the very depiction of a brown man in a turban is racist, without so much as going in to how the caricature is meant to be Muhammad.  Her kind of satire is "the type that punches up".  Leaving aside how the vast majority of us are relying on differing accounts of Charlie Hebdo, with a former writer claiming it to have become racist, while others disagree, the best satirists aim their barbs at everything that is deserving of being laughed at.  If that's politicians, then great.  If it's religion, regardless of how that might also involve "mocking the faith of the descendants of immigrants largely locked out of power and experiencing acute levels of prejudice", then so be it.

As for Nabila Ramdani, to her the cover is "dated, tired ... and vaguely insults one of the most revered figures in Islam".  She doesn't explain how it vaguely insults Muhammad, probably because for the life of me I cannot see how it can be taken as such unless the very depiction of Muhammad is deemed insulting.  Or is it that Muhammad holding the "Je suis Charlie" banner is insulting when he would never have ascribed to the paper's values?  If it's the former, complaining about the style of the caricature is a bit like saying Private Eye's jokes are the same every fortnight; well, duh, that's rather the point.  It's also "a hugely provocative reminder of how muddled the debate ... has become".  It rather depends on just how outraged you want to be: there's nothing there to say it's Muhammad except that was the artist's intention.  The very fact it's drawn in the same way as the previous caricatures of Muhammad, which all had a satirical message targeting extremists, along with the text all is forgiven ought to make clear the intention is to be both defiant while not blaming anyone other than the killers themselves, and even their actions are not to be held against them.

There is naturally an argument to be had over whether the wider media would reproduce caricatures scatologically mocking other religions say, especially in the United States.  It seems odd however that even here the likes of the Graun feel the need to carry a warning that some may find a mere thumbnail of Charlie Hebdo's cover offensive.  If they do, isn't that rather their problem?  Is there not something completely irrational about taking offence at what is just a drawing of a man in a turban, nothing more, nothing less?  To Joseph Harker this is "trumpeting your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities".  That view might hold more weight if this was being done for the sake of it but the artist, Renald Luzier's, explanation of how it came about surely demonstrates that wasn't the case at all.  Charlie Hebdo's cartoons have always been about something, rather than meant to just provoke, as say the Jesus and Mo strips are.  Hebdo's cause was never taken up by the same dullards and self-promoters as Jesus and Mo was, further bringing home this is something different.

The more anally retentive have spent the last few days pointing out how there is no such thing as a complete right to freedom of speech, nor should there be.  There are laws against incitement and hatred for good reason.  Is it too much to suggest we have perhaps moved too far against a presumption in favour of free speech though, such has been the wish not to offend, to respect sensitivities, without those good intentions being the same thing as political correctness?  The vast majority of people in this country seem to have no problem with the prosecution of Matthew Woods say, who didn't get the celebrity backing afforded to Paul Chambers, while others got very agitated over idiots burning poppies.  Should it come as a surprise others reject notions of freedom of expression when our approach itself comes across so frequently as contradictory or hypocritical?

In the same way as comedy is always subjective, so too is satire.  If you don't like it, you don't have to watch, read or look at it.  How utterly absurd it seems that obvious sentiment has to be repeated even now.  At times, it really does seem like we haven't made a lot of progress in the last 40 odds years, only now it's the left rather than the right which seems more comfortable with censorship.

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