THE BLOG

Comedy, Politics and Free Speech

12/02/2016 16:39 GMT | Updated 10/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival is in full swing and there are rave reviews about so many of the performances. Prominent so far has been the UK Pun Championships of 2016. The event has been reported on YouTube as being "an absolute knockout". The festival is clearly going from strength to strength.

Yet let us pause, and consider the extent to which comedians can say - or joke - about whatever they like. Are there any boundaries as to what can be the subject of comedy? There are clearly boundaries of taste, but who judges what is considered "tasteless"? But pushing this line further, should comedians be limited by political or ethical responsibilities? How much 'free speech' can, or will, be tolerated? Some comedians push the boundaries, rounding off with a bland "but you know I'm only joking" statement. To what extent is that acceptable? In such circumstances, are comedians abrogating their social responsibilities?

What forms of comic entertainment are deemed acceptable? Back in the 1970s, there was the television programme "The Comedians", which featured much of Britain's best comic talent at that time, including Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen and Russ Abbott. Most of the jokes told by the comedians on those television series would not get broadcast today, and not just because of issues of race or sex. Many of the 'jokes' were downright offensive. But they were comedians, and no harm was meant by what they said. Obviously, the more extremist jokes were edited out of the television show. That left the censorship in the hands of the editors and the producers (and, quite possibly, the lawyers).

There were other comedy series, including "Love Thy Neighbour", "Till Death Us Do Part" and "Mind Your Language", which were very popular in the 1970s and 80s. These series would not get broadcast today because of, among other things, the overt racial and sexual stereotyping.

Warren Mitchell, who played the bigoted, racist, misogynist Alf Garnett in "Till Death Us Do Part", would receive cheers from people in the street, supporting Garnett's twisted view of the world. Mitchell could not understand why people were so enamoured with Garnett. Garnett was a nasty man, and supposed to be a figure of ridicule. Garnett's views of the world, as well as the language he used, were abhorrent.

So, what is deemed acceptable in the world of comedy? Should comedians be allowed to act in whatever manner they like, in order to get a laugh? Or comic writers the same? After all, members of the public can choose what they wish to see, be it on television or on stage. If you might be offended, don't watch.

But what of those who do watch, and take the comedy seriously. Could comedians be promoting racial hatred or the abuse of women through their comedy? The character Alf Garnett is a case in point. So many people expressed support for his thoughts. The supposed figure of ridicule was seen as the norm. Comedy backfiring. As for the stand-up comedians, the "it's alright, I'm only joking" excuse does not really wash in such circumstances.

There is, however, another side to the coin. Just over a year ago, there was the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. Much of the world was horrified at the attack on the offices of this French satirical magazine. Such an attack cannot be condoned under any circumstances. There was an outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo, although the vast majority of people had little awareness as to the content of the magazine. Jokes, cartoons and satirical writings are there to provoke fun. Such a vicious assault on the magazine offices was clearly an over-reaction. Yet, much of the content of Charlie Hebdo could be described politely as bigoted and racist, not to mention Islamophobic. None of it would get published in the UK. What the French are willing to tolerate, the British would not. Is that censorship of comedy in the UK? Or the acceptance of near absolute free speech in France?

As part of Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival, there is a panel debate on Comedy, Politics and Free Speech, organised by the Centre for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR) and the Magna Carta Institute (MCI), both of Brunel University. It will feature comedians and public figures, at Peter Pizzeria, 9 Welford Place, Leicester LE1 6ZH on Sunday 14 February at 1pm.