'My friend recently told me he wanted to live his life as a woman.'
That, although I paraphrase for the sake of simplicity, was the opening to one of Reg D Hunter's jokes at his recent show at the Hammersmith Apollo. The punchline following this could have been chosen from a myriad of possibilities. Hunter's known for being a pretty intelligent guy, who uses the stage as a place to philosophize and debate, so there was every chance he could have been about to deliver a unique point of view on what is a current hot topic -being transgender- whether that be negative or positive. Surprisingly though he didn't. 'Well if being an average looking man isn't making you happy, then maybe being an ugly woman will'. Whether you find his punchline funny or not (I'd say it was 50:50 on the night) it wasn't in any way Reg D Hunter, live at the Apollo, £25 a ticket material. It was unoriginal and, let's face it, pretty cheap.
The idea of what's acceptable to say onstage or in any other public arena, particularly in the name of comedy, is unclear. The public consensus seems to constantly waver between a belief in free speech for all and being as politically correct as humanly possible. These two are obviously mutually exclusive. But more and more often nowadays people demand apologies, retractions and censorship for those who cross what they consider to be a boundary. Is it a simple case of 'get a sense of humour love' or is there actually something to discuss here?
I'd say I'm pretty liberal. I have to be. I run a comedy club and I constantly come across comedians and audience members with wildly different opinions of what's okay to say. So I've learnt to let most things go without a second thought. Recently though, after working on a project alongside transgender people, I've noticed myself reluctantly tense up and purse my lips at transphobic humour. Or potentially transphobic humour. Or humour I might infer transphobia from. Look - I'm touchy now okay? For the most part I just shake it off and say 'It's just a joke. Free speech!' At the same time though I'd be misrepresenting my belief in comedy if I didn't admit that what's said onstage (particularly in large theatres, arenas and television) has a knock on effect out in the real world. We celebrate that comedy can satirise politicians, can say the unsayable, can effect change in thought. So why don't we acknowledge that it can go the other way?
In her book Yes Please, Amy Poehler talks about how she chooses what she's comfortable saying on stage. She says 'There isn't a taboo topic I can think of that I haven't joked about or laughed at. But I have an inner barometer that has helped me get better at pinpointing what works for me and what feels too mean or too lazy. I like picking fair targets. I don't like...comedy that relies on humiliation'. The reason she brings this up is due to a situation in which she, performing a sketch she didn't write herself on Saturday Night Live, ends up inadvertently making fun of Anastasia Somoza, a young activist with cerebral palsy. After a negative response (not directly from Somoza) and an eventual apology, Poehler receives a friendly letter from Somoza stating 'I was upset more generally speaking about the skit contributing to a severe lack of knowledge, awareness, understanding and empathy around disability. Too many people already fear, and are often disgusted or put off in other ways by disability and it saddened me to think of the impact the skit may have had in adding fuel to that fire.'
Okay so, following in Poehler's footsteps, here's my rule: If you're going to make a joke about a minority, a vulnerable group or whatever, just don't pass on ignorance.
There's a huge amount of misunderstanding about trans people. Reg's joke didn't bring up anything new, it just pandered to the base, and incorrect, comprehension of what it means to be transgender. And, worse, it's creating a shortcut between the concept of being transgender and laughing at someone. There's nothing politicized about it, nothing that makes you think twice. In his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson quotes documentary maker Adam Curtis' opinion that social media has turned into 'a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing'. The same goes for lazy comedy. The audience have a vague perception that something is odd or different or broken. Then this individual they've seen on the TV being famous and celebrated and knowledgeable confirms their suspicions. And so on.
Comedy is an art form that relies on harnessing the power of words and, in the majority of cases, trading off of the observed qualities of other humans. True, you can't censor it and part of its power lies in that simple fact. But let's not confuse daring with lazy. Let's not mix up hilarious with humiliating.
Note: Later on the gig blew up somewhat. You can read an actual account of what happened on a blog I found written by another audience member here: http://dfordalrymple.com/2015/06/28/reluctantly-calling-bullshit-on-reginald-d-hunter/
For me personally it made me think about the other people who have responsibility for the relationship between what's said on stage and how it's taken. The audience. So, part two tomorrow.