Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Comedy means never having to say you're sorry

In my penultimate post I made a promise I didn’t keep: I said I would explain why George Lopez should not have apologised for his piggie jokes about Kirstie Alley. I began to construct an argument making this case, and then abruptly turned my back on it and walked off with the casual insouciance of a preacher exiting a massage parlour with bloody fingers and a slight limp.

It is tempting to apologise for not keeping this promise, especially after Sven’s outburst in the comments section. Why do we apologise for not keeping promises? Steven astutely pointed out that George Lopez “accepting” a kidney from his wife implies a transaction, in which Lopez contracts to, say, keep his side of the deal, like, say, not divorcing her once her kidney is no longer filtering her blood and is now filtering his. A promise is a kind of contractual obligation, based not on legal technicalities but on honour and the conventional balustrades of a social relationship: trust, the enduring significance of words, the value of intent. An apology for a broken promise is an attempt to restore those social virtues. I can acknowledge my failure and humble myself in a dignified manner; my words do have enduring meaning; my intentions are good.

So what is the problem with a comedian apologizing?

Let’s clear one hurdle: if a comedian, in the course of his or her daily life, runs over your dog, pukes in your lap, steps on your foot, stabs you with jake shears, or lets one rip in the elevator, an apology is in order (although if I were in an elevator with Steve Martin and he let one rip, I’d take the hit and apologise. Even if it was only the two of us.) I’m not saying that a comedian qua human being has carte blanche to go through life without saying sorry; I will say that a comedian qua comedian has carte blanche to go through life without saying sorry.

So perhaps this might be rephrased: what is the problem with a comedian apologizing for a joke, a gag, a routine, a caricature, a comic reference, an act of comedy?

Okay, there’s another hurdle. I suppose that if a comedian makes nobody in the audience laugh, he or she might consider apologising for failing to deliver a chuckle, for being unable to incite even a bemused glance across the table at one’s dinner date. At least on the surface it makes some sense: an audience pays money to be amused, the entertainer fails to amuse, an apology of sorts might be in order. This doesn’t quite stymie our concerns: jokes, gags, routines fail; a killer joke one night leaves the comedian dead the next. Furthermore, comic performances of all sorts involve the audience as part of the context: the audience is not a passive crowd of innocents being strafed by funny thought-bullets; the audience is prompting and provoking, reacting and responding, the individuals in the audience incriminating themselves with laughter. The failure of a joke is not entirely the responsibility of the comedian.

And please note, therefore, that we have already discovered two things through these caveats: the comedian is not responsible, which is not to say the person is not responsible; the failure of a joke is not entirely the responsibility of the comedian. Do these statements remind you of anything? Do they remind you of some questions? (Here's a hint: Does it matter who tells the joke? What is it to be funny?) In any case, we'll go on, but we'll refine the issue further: what is the problem with a comedian apologizing for a joke, a gag, a routine, a caricature, a comic reference, an act of comedy, if it offends somebody?

Let’s face it: when comedians are called on to apologise, or feel the urge to apologise, it’s usually for offending people, right?

But what if the social promise you are making is to offend? How can you "misjudge" offence if this is what you have promised to do? How can you say you have no malicious intent if you intend to offend? Whenever comedians get in trouble, we get to hear the yawn chorus chirping about how funny comedians used to be; how their jokes were as gentle as a newborn lamb's lips and as sweet as a Yorkshire ewe's milk after a feast of sugarsnap peas; how you’d have been proud to bring your mum to see them, and now the only place anybody respectable can take their mothers is to a gay bar. Of course, this is all phony nostalgia. Obviously, not every comedian makes scatological, racist, misogynist jokes in public; but one doesn't have to be a Freudian or Bakhtinian or Shakespearean to be aware of the fool's license, of comedy's transgressive powers, of how the illicit is conventionally packaged in comedy: all of which mean that someone, somewhere will take offence.

We'll pursue this further with a gag by one of the funniest, most brilliant comedians presumed alive :

Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012.

Here's a snippet of his subsequent apology:

. . . I’m sorry if anyone was offended but that’s the kind of comedy I do. . .

Jimmy Carr, as we will see over the next few days, gets caught in a number of (instructive) traps. But if an apology means I can acknowledge my failure and humble myself in a dignified manner; my words do have an enduring meaning; my intentions are good, how can this be consistent with comedy: a proud celebration of the loss of dignity, playfulness at the expense of conceits of enduring meaning, and where intentions are always ambiguous at best and at worst, far worse? How can one be sorry for causing offence is that is what one does?


DJ said...

According to Stephen Fry it is not just comedians that don't need to apologise for offending people - it just isn't a serious enough transgression to require an apology. I hope no-one finds that suggestion offensive ...

sw said...

You are hereby blacklisted from the site for being offensive by virtue of making a very important point: that it isn't just about comedians apologising, it's about the culture of apology itself. I'm sorry: you've got to go!

(But thanks for the Frylink, which I will watch during my lunch break!)

sw said...

The first sentence of my response includes the words "from", "for", "by", "of", and "about" twice. That is not good writing, I'm sorry to say.