PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF THE LAST LAUGH

Humour Tribunal

As always, this topsy-turvy world just keeps on getting topsier and turvier. There are so many contradictory things confusing me right now that I don’t know where to begin. As good a place to start as any is the mainly Hindu nation of India which has recently legalised gay sex. Meanwhile, the mainly Muslim nation of Malaysia sentenced two Muslim hijabi lesbians to be lashed for their crimes of passion, only to have the 93 year old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad say this was too harsh a sentence. In a video posted on his Twitter account Mahathir said the caning “did not reflect the justice or compassion of Islam.” He said since it was the women’s first offence it warranted a lighter sentence such as counselling. “This gives a bad impression of Islam. It is important that we show Islam is not a cruel religion that likes to impose harsh sentences to humiliate others.”

Another example of the world teetering on the collective edge of darkness involves America whose military have now stopped giving some $300 million dollars in aid to Pakistan due to Islamabad’s lack of “decisive actions” in support of American strategy in the region. The US has also stopped all funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body responsible for Palestinian refugees, and to USAID development and infrastructure projects in the Palestinian Territories. This is Trump’s way of continuing his diplomatic war on the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, in the historical heart and home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, arguably the richest country in the Middle East, continues to use American made weapons against the Muslim population of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East (for more details on the use of American weapons in Yemen please see the excellent comic What America’s Weapons Are Doing to Yemen).

America might be divesting money from Pakistan, but the Chinese are pouring billions into the Islamic Republic, all in the hope of building a super highway that will reduce shipping times and costs for their mass produced global items. But at the same time the atheist Communist Party of China are detaining more than 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims, along with other Muslim minorities, within its own borders. And how does China defend such actions? In a move that would have made George Orwell give a wry smile, China claims that the Muslim detainment camps are in fact “educational centres.” It almost seems like Muslims at home bad, Muslims abroad good.

In a similar vein, we have the Syrian town of Idlib, the last anti-government stronghold, bracing itself for a potential genocide by the Assad regime. And then we have our old friends the Saudis who, instead of trying to use their powerful influence to end the conflict, are doing more important things such as arresting a man for having breakfast with a woman. Confusing times indeed.

A final example of this encroaching madness is the political hysteria in Britain currently affecting both major parties. Labour, and their leader Jeremy Corbyn in particular, are being hounded for the alleged anti-Semitism that exists within its ranks. Yet there is nary a media flutter regarding the blatant Islamophobia that exits within the Conservatives. Case in point are recent comments made by the Conservative MP Boris Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary.

In a recent column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson wrote that while he doesn’t support a burqa ban he does think they are “ridiculous” because they make women look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” Johnson went on to write “If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” He also said that if “a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber,” he would ask her to remove her face covering in order to speak to him. He added that humans “must be able to see each other’s faces.”

In case you missed it, there you have a sitting British MP making an intolerant and Islamophobic comment, which goes against his own party’s definition of British values taught in secondary schools up and down the land, values that demand mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. And he openly made these comments in a newspaper article. The comedian Zahra Barri responded by saying:

I can’t believe what Boris Johnson said about the burka. If anyone needs to cover their hair and cover their face, it’s Boris Johnson. – Zahra Barri

And I shall for the time being ignore Johnson’s more recent comment where he compared prime minister Theresa May’s Chequers plan (related to Brexit negotiations) to having “wrapped a suicide vest” around Britain and handed the detonator to Brussels.

Boris Burka

Boris Johnson may have said such Islamophobic things but Rowan Atkinson then tried to defend them. The British actor, best known for his portrayals of Mr Bean and Blackadder, said Boris’ comments were a ‘joke.’ Atkinson wrote to The Times newspaper, saying:

As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required. – Rowan Atkinson

However, according to journalist Nikesh Shukla, this form of defence leads us all down a dangerous path:

Whether Boris Johnson considers his comment a joke or not, the fact that it is being defended as such sets a dangerous precedent. It makes the comment itself beyond criticism and beyond reproach, because the context around humour is still that if you don’t get the joke, it’s your fault, it’s my free speech to say whatever I want. And that is not what good humour should do. Good humour should punch upwards, never downwards, nor sideways, further pushing people into the margins. If comedy is universal, and funny is funny, a joke should bang every time to everyone. But funny is not always funny. And rather than looking at who’s laughing, look at who isn’t, and why. You might learn something. – Nikesh Shukla, 10 Aug 2018, metro.co.uk

The words of Johnson are just another example of how throughout 2018 the boundaries of satire have been pulled, pushed, extended, contracted, and contorted. Comedy and the limitations we place upon it are being tested like never before. These are confusing times indeed, especially for people who are on a stage, standing in front of a microphone, staring at an audience, trying to tell a joke.

Kathy Trump

So far this year we have seen the quiet return of Kathy Griffin, a comedian who thought her career was over because in 2017 she posted both a video and a photo of herself holding the bloody head of Trump. Both pieces went viral almost immediately and created an uproar as planned. Griffin emotionally apologised for the distress the photo caused, and she was subsequently fired by CNN as a result. But then 2018 saw Griffin slowly return to the limelight, beginning with an appearance on the weekly talk show Real Time With Bill Maher in March, where she seemed to almost take back her initial apology. Her comeback continues when in November she is to be named Comedian of the Year at the first Palm Springs International Comedy Festival.

The #MeToo movement quite rightly slayed the comedian Louis CK, and perhaps more controversially fellow comedian Aziz Ansari, and now former senator Al Franken, who had to resign and did so rather controversially. Whilst the hoopla around Franken and Ansari has died down somewhat, the controversy around Louis CK continues to rage due to his attempt at returning to stand up. Louis received a standing ovation at New York’s illustrious Comedy Cellar when he performed an impromptu gig last month, a gig that has divided fans and critics alike.

And then you have the controversy surrounding comedian Mark Meechan, aka Count Dankula, who made a video of himself training his girlfriend’s pug dog to do a Nazi salute. Meechan was then convicted in a Scottish court of “inciting racial hatred.” The terrifying thing about this conviction is the judge sided with the prosecution who said “context and intent are irrelevant” in a joke. If ever context and intent are relevant then surely it is within something as subjective as a joke. The conviction caused fellow comedian Shappi Khorsandi to make the following rather discerning point:

This sets a frightening precedence for all of us. Anyone who takes offence at something which is meant in jest could eventually have a case to take to court…But it’s not just Count Dankula we are defending, the picture is far bigger than that. We are fighting not for this individual, but for the principle of free speech which right now is being fought for more robustly by the far right than it is by the left. This is a nonpartisan issue. You don’t have to agree with someone to fight for their right to say what they’re saying. Either you believe in free speech or you don’t. – Shappi Khorsandi

The American comedian Michelle Wolf was this year’s comedy speaker at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April. During her 19 minute set the comedian was scathing about Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his press secretary Sarah Sanders, who sat stoned faced throughout. Wolf stunned guests at the prestigious media dinner in Washington with a risqué speech that eviscerated members of Trump’s administration, some of whom were in the room. As expected Fox News hated every second of it, whilst liberals loved every word.

2018 was also the year that Roseanne Barr, 1980s TV show trailblazer, was going to make her big TV comeback. However, Barr, a vocal Trump supporter, ended up being fired after a rather distasteful racist tweet. Whilst Trump supporters were angry about such events, they were even more furious when Samantha Bee, a vocal Trump hater, was not fired for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.” For a while there, it looked like Bee might not survive the intense backlash that followed her use of the term to describe the first daughter and White House adviser during a segment about her failure to prevent the president from separating immigrant families at the border. In an interview Bee said “It wasn’t a great experience. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, and I was very regretful that that moment really took away from what I was trying to say with the segment.”

We also have the aforementioned Saudis who are officially threatening jail time for online satirists. 2018 saw the Kingdom pass strict new social media laws targeting dissent, which means anyone caught using online satire to “disrupt public order” faces up to five years in prison and a massive fine. In an announcement published on Twitter earlier this month, the public prosecutor’s office said “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media…will be considered a cybercrime.” I guess some people really can’t take a joke.

Someone who most definitely has been disrupting the public order for many years is Sacha Baron Cohen. The actor and comedian, famous for creating comedy characters such as Borat and Ali G, returned to our TV screens this year with the 7-part political satire program Who Is America? Perhaps Showtime, the network who created the show, were being a little facetious when, in the run-up to the July premiere, promoted the series as “perhaps the most dangerous show in the history of television.” The show ended up receiving mainly mixed reviews across the board.

In one of the episodes there is a sketch where Cohen interviews Roy Moore, the former US Senate candidate from Alabama. In the sketch Cohen, disguised as Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad, demonstrated what he said was a new device invented by the Israeli army for detecting paedophiles. The device beeped whenever it was held close to Moore. After it beeped several times Moore walked out of the interview. And just when you thought this could not get any stranger, Moore is now suing Cohen. A $95 million lawsuit has been filed in the federal court of Washington DC by Moore, accusing Cohen of defamation for duping Moore into appearing on the show. Moore has also brought defamation claims against Showtime and its parent, CBS Corp, over the sketch that clearly portrayed him as a sex offender. The lawsuit said the show mocked him with a “false and fraudulent portrayal” that harmed Moore’s reputation and caused “severe emotional distress” to his family. I guess some people really can’t take a joke.

However, the biggest pusher of comedic boundaries this year has to be everyone’s favourite politician Donald Trump, a man who continues to thwart national and international security in order to ease his own personal insecurities. On numerous occasions White House officials have explained away many a Trump comment by simply saying that he was “just joking.” It is ironic that a man who once claimed to have the “best words” has so many of his presidential remarks chalked up to being just jokes. In a brilliant article columnist Neil J Simon explains in detail the dangers of using the “just joking” justification:

Perhaps it’s all just shrewd politics. Trump gets to say outrageous things that please (and stoke) his base while White House staffers clean up the mess with the press by brushing it all off as simply the president ribbing his audience. That probably works for surviving a news cycle. But ultimately it’s a strategy that diminishes the presidency and imperils America’s standing with the world. Or maybe this is just another one of the privileges of white male heterosexuality – that nothing you say can be held against you, that there is no accountability for your words. Either way, a White House staff routinely engaged in dismissing the president’s words as only jokes isn’t helping Trump get out of uncomfortable scrapes. They are telling the American people over and over again not to take this president seriously. It’s one thing for Americans – not to mention leaders of other nations – to view Trump as a buffoon on their own assessment. But it’s an entirely different matter for an administration to so frequently present its own president as a jokester whose words don’t matter, a shocking development in the history of the American presidency. If, as it has been said, there is truth in all humor, the truth of Trump’s humor is all too clear. He is a racist. He is a demagogue. He is no respecter of persons, of principles or of democratic institutions. – Neil J Simon, 05 May 2018, huffingtonpost.com

Serena Cartoon

Despite all these incidents (and many more that I simply do not have time to mention in any detail, such as the racist Serena Williams cartoon in the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun, or the conviction of comedy legend Bill Cosby of sexual assault and his upcoming sentencing, or the free speech discussions related to the Trump and Sadiq Khan blimps that flew over London, or the savage satire of Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman) comedy and satire still have power to influence and change, something that satirist Bill Maher recognised in his show Real Time With Bill Maher recently. In his closing monologue Maher called for the return of former senator Al Franken, himself a comedian and satirist, back to the political limelight to take on Trump using the power of satire:

We need Democrats to keep a laser focus on the one issue that really matters: finding out what is Trump’s kryptonite. I think it’s ridicule. The one thing that gets under his skin, besides red dye number two, is being made fun of. Remember how he seethed when Obama made fun of him at the Correspondents Dinner? The hair on the back of his neck stood up, which was fascinating to watch since it’s been transplanted to the front of his head. We need someone who can shred Trump like a stand up takes down a heckler, because Trump is a heckler, and to fight him we need a comedian. – Bill Maher, 07 Sep 2018

He ends the monologue by adding that:

It’s time to get Al off the bench so he can come back to doing what he does better than any other Democrat: taking down right-wing blowhards. I want to see Al Franken debate Donald Trump. And, by the way, so do you. – Bill Maher, 07 Sep 2018

Alongside the TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, let us not forget all the other shows out there all trying their best to keep Trump and his cohorts in check, shows such as (big deep breath): Jimmy Kimmel Live! With Jimmy Kimmel, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Late Night With Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Late Show With James Corden, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Conan With Conan O’Brien, I Love You America With Sarah Silverman, The Break With Michelle Wolf, The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, The Jim Jefferies Show With Jim Jefferies, Saturday Night Live, Unspun With Matt Forde, The Rundown With Robin Thede, and the upcoming show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj. And that is just a list of TV shows, I am not even going to begin listing the dozens of successful online podcasts that regularly go after Trump.

The reason why I find myself looking so closely at the limitations of comedy is because of a documentary called The Last Laugh by Ferne Pearlstein. I saw this brilliant documentary only a few weeks ago and found it very thought provoking. The notion of what is acceptable for ridicule (which, let’s face it, will always be based on our own subjective moral values) is the subject matter of The Last Laugh. Can we make jokes about the Nazis and the Holocaust? Should we? Despite being made in 2016 it still fits in perfectly with all the ongoing discussions we have around the limits of satire. It opens with a quote from German novelist Heinrich Mann:

Whoever has cried enough, laughs. – Heinrich Mann

This statement on the strange pairing of tears and laughter is the focus of the documentary, which cuts between scenes with Los Angeles Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone and interviews with well-known comedians such as Mel Brooks, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, and others. It is well worth watching if you get a chance. Here are some of my favourite quotes from this brilliant documentary. Enjoy!

The Last Laugh

Comedy puts light on to darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo, because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and become dangerous. – Sarah Silverman

I speak about the Holocaust all the time, but I enjoy life. I am so happy that I have three great grandchildren. Could Hitler imagine that I will survive and have three great grandchildren? I mean, that’s my revenge. – Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor

Humour is the weapon of the weak. Think about the things that we make jokes about. We make jokes about our bosses, we make jokes about death. When I was in the army we made jokes about our commanders. Our commanders didn’t need to make jokes about us. They just order us to do whatever they wanted us to do. – Etgar Keret

A great joke really does trump all rules. But it’s got to be a great joke. And the higher the stakes, the higher the standard for how good the joke has to be. A joke about a mother in law can be only slightly good and pass muster. But a joke about this stuff, such as the Nazis and the Holocaust, has to be like, you know, you are ashamed that you laughed at it but you are laughing because you can’t help yourself. – Harry Shearer

You can’t control how your joke will be inferred. I had a friend, Tom Janice, who would call it mouth-full-of-blood-laughs, where they’re laughing at the wrong thing. And that’s hard but it’s just no longer yours. I talked about the Holocaust and I said “the alleged Holocaust” and that’s a joke about Holocaust deniers. And a sophisticated audience would understand that and maybe a less sophisticated audience may not. I’m not saying that I’m sophisticated. But what are the dangers of that? That maybe a group of people will think that the Holocaust didn’t happen? I think that’s worth the risk? I think it’s worth the risk. – Sarah Silverman

We have greed and guilt and wars and genocides, and there is nothing we can do about it. I’ve read God’s answers, I’ve read Spinoza’s answers. There’s no answer. They’re both dead! And so the only way I can deal with the reality of it, the reality of existence, is to laugh at it. – Shalom Auslander

When I was about 18 years old my father came home from a business trip. And out of this box comes this most beautiful bathing suit. It had a satin shiny finish, the most beautiful floral print. And I remember parading around in this bathing suit around the swimming pool. And the boys whistled at me! And when they [the Nazis] came and escorted us out of the home, I put this bathing suit under my dress. I put it on, I thought nobody will know. And that’s how I left, and that’s how I arrived to Auschwitz. And we were supposed to get undressed to take a shower, and all of a sudden I felt heat on my face. One of the Nazi soldiers slapped me. I started to cry and I peeled this bathing suit off my body, I folded it very neatly, and I left it on the pile of my clothing. And with that bathing suit I didn’t only leave those memories, I also left my family, my friends, my neighbours, and six million Jews behind. So this bathing suit is always on my mind. – Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor

It was very much the notion that we made it, everyone who made it was part of this survivor community, and the obligation was to live well, love, eat well, have fun, get loaded at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, and enjoy life. Because the true sin was if you didn’t, after that experience, then it was a waste and then Hitler would have had the last laugh. – Roz Weinman

Comics have a conscience of the people and they are allowed a wide berth of activity in every direction. Comics have to tell us who we are, where we are, even if it’s in bad taste. – Mel Brooks

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