Two stories connected for me over the last week: one is the apparently trivial story of Laura Payton, who got £125 from the Halifax when one of their staff made a clumsy comment about her red hair. The other is the Hillsborough enquiry findings – or rather, the Sun’s reaction to it. The Sun, you will remember, under the editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie, printed a front page that purported to tell ‘The Truth’ but managed to tell the complete opposite.
I do think reasonably carefully about what I say onstage. Last night, a few people approached the only free seats in the Zetland – which were the ones at the front. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, gesturing towards the empty chairs, ‘I don’t pick on the audience – at least, not until I’ve finished picking on myself. And I’ve got a lot of material.’ An empty front row is something of an occupational hazard for comedy clubs; audiences always have a perception that they will be targeted, a fear that isn’t often realised. Speaking for myself, there are a good few lines in my show where I make people in the audience look good, often at my expense, interaction unnecessary; they just have to sit back and accept the compliment.
As it turns out I did have to deal with a heckler, though mopping up after headliner Ben Morgan had had a good go is perhaps a better description. Hate to sound childish, but, well, the heckler (Rocky) started it. In reality, a high percentage of material I see is either self-deprecating, or picks on legitimate targets. Not all of the jokes are good jokes (Eric Pickles is fat – he’s the new John Prescott – David Cameron is an aristocrat, etc.), or are fair (whatever your politics, it isn’t David Cameron’s personal fault that he went to Eton), but they are public figures and would probably rather be talked about than not, and joked about than photographed with a long lens camera.
But then there are a lot of jokes with a target that feels uncomfortable to me. You wouldn’t get jokes about black people, but red-headed people are fair game. It would be a brave comic who started a joke with ‘This Pakistani walks into a bar…’ but change the word ‘Pakistani’ for ‘Welsh’ and carry on with all the jokes about sheep you like. (My Pakistani school friend now lives in Wales. Imagine the possibilities!)
This is not, by the way, a frustrated writer calling for a return to the days when you could do jokes about [insert minority] without any comeback. This is a frustrated writer with higher expectations. When Eric Pickles waddles off into the sunset, there will be another rotund politician we can recycle our Pickles/Prescott/Cyril Smith/George IV jokes on. You wouldn’t know from my set, but I regularly look on Sickipedia, because I quite like humour that pushes the boundaries of taste. Why is this funny? Is this a justifiable joke? Would I do this onstage if I had come up with it? But I don’t find the racist jokes funny, because they’re often just repeating a supposed feature of racial stereotyping my experience doesn’t bear out.
I think we do need to be a little bit more careful about the targets of jokes. Laura Payton is entitled to her apology, and I think she’s done well to get £125 out of the Halifax (you are absolutely morally obliged to take money from banks when they make a mistake as it is literally the only language they understand, the amoral, avaricious bastards). On Any Answers last weekend, a caller on the subject of topless photos being taken of the Duchess of Cambridge speculated – without any embarrassment – ‘if that cameraman had been a red-haired Irishman he could’ve easily been pointing a gun, not a camera.’ You have to wonder what significance the hair colour has. People are bullied about their skin colour and hair colour – though one is regarded as ‘acceptable’ and the other not. ‘It was a joke,’ is inevitably the bully’s first line of defence when their behaviour is called into question.
Likewise, I wonder if The Sun would have run their front page if the newsroom hadn’t enjoyed years of ‘healthy banter’ about Liverpudlians all supposedly being feckless, thieving, chippy, drunks? And have such jokes contributed towards a culture that has allowed 23 years to pass before we make the first steps towards justice over Hillsborough?
I don’t like censorship. I welcome freedom of speech. But I also welcome thought, and whatever the subject – racism, rape or red-headedness – by all means make the jokes you want. Just think about them first.