Friday, April 1, 2011

Carr Stereo

As I was saying . . . Here’s Carr’s statement again:

I’ve got nothing but respect for the young men and women who put their lives on the line for this country. I’ve visited the military hospital in Selly Oak, Birmingham, and the rehabilitation centre in Headley Court on many occasions to meet seriously injured young men. I will continue to support them in any way I can. My thoughts are with the servicemen and their families, especially on Remembrance Sunday. I’m sorry if anyone was offended but that’s the kind of comedy I do. If a silly joke draws attention to the plight of these servicemen then so much the better. My intention was only to make people laugh.

Carr begins his self-negating apology with an explanation of who he is: a man who has actually gone out of his way to meet with wounded soldiers and to entertain them and cheer them, a man whose support for them has been to offer a different type of lip service: he probably made them laugh (and I suspect few would think that those laughs were trivial, unimportant or inconsequential). The language he uses is respectful, it is sincere and earnest, and he makes uses a common, somber political platitude about one’s thoughts being with the suffering (even if one’s fingers are twitching across an X-box console and one’s eyes are glazed); the argument is rational, conventional, gilded with good intent. And then he moves to comedy, and his arguments skew into divisions, contradicting one another. Reverence and pieties for victimhood followed by split arguments and contradictions. It is an interesting pattern, and a familiar one.

The overall impression one might have is that he’s saying, Look, I’m really a good bloke; when I’m doing my stint as a comedian, then I might say things that aren’t okay. The person is not the same as the comedian, and they are responsible to different moral authorities. Bill Hicks put it rather differently: “I don't mean to sound bitter, cold, or cruel, but I am, so that's how it comes out.”

In an interview with the Guardian after the kerfluffle, we read the following:

Is there any subject he wouldn't touch? "No is the short answer," he says after a moment's hesitation, "if it was funny enough. If you come up with a joke about something that's uncomfortable to talk about – abortion, there's a good example – it's not a difficult moral decision not to do the joke if it isn't that funny. But if you come up with a joke about abortion and you tell it to your friend, and your friend goes, 'Oh my God, you can't say that on stage – but that is fucking wicked,' then suddenly morals go out of the window and you go, 'We're definitely doing that.'"

It’s quite quaint applying a moral threshold argument to comedy, weighing funniness against morality as though they can be understood separately. Part of what makes so many jokes funny is precisely that they are so wicked; vaulting moral thresholds is well within the nature of comedy, of course, but it’s not as though moral thresholds are there only as a barrier: vaulting them is the athletic accomplishment, the acrobatic choreography of comedy.

The disavowal of responsibility can take a number of forms. There’s the Comedian’s Two Bodies (the bloke in the pub vs the person on stage; the man who entertains the troops vs the stand-up under the spotlight); comedy’s two moralities (we can shed light on serious subjects in a way that nobody else can vs it’s just a bloody joke for a laugh; morality as something that gives comedic is transgressive frisson vs morality as something that can be tossed out the window if the joke is good enough). Then there's comedic form.

"I do a lot of jokes about rape," he admits, "but it's not a discourse on rape. I do jokes to get laughs. I happen to think the construct of '99% of women kiss with their eyes closed, which is why it's so difficult to identify a rapist' is funny. It's not really about the act of a serious sexual assault. You have to go out of your way to take offence over, 'I bought a rape alarm because I kept on forgetting when to rape people.'"

Yes, it’s the construct that is funny. No, it’s not really about about the act of a serious sexual assault, it’s about . . . clever constructs that get laughs? Comedy is splayed away from its content as a clever form, a style that can be admired, appreciation of logical twists and maneouvres.

I don't really object to any of this. Comedy is already a duet with itself, it's stereo with Kanye West and Katy Perry coming in one ear, and T.S. Eliot reading a poem in the other; comedy is not so much parasitic on the serious (which is why in the comments to the previous post, I was not so concerned about withdrawing some of my over-egged claims which dealt with the relationship of the comedic comment and the expression of the serious) as symbiotic with its Other, whatever that Other might be at the moment. When the Other is "rape" or "these servicemen amputees", we can't pretend that the comic symbiote can survive without it, but then disavowal is perforce inscribed into comedy, which is constituted already by its Other, for which it bears no responsibility; and you can't formally apologise for something if you are disavowing responsibility for it.

("I'm sorry it was an accident" - the chorus of toddlerhood.)

Does that answer any questions?


Daniel F said...

I've been enjoying this thread sw.

Carr's doing some OK work on Channel 4s "10 o' Clock Live" show at the moment. I couldn't find his Berlosconi impression on Youtube, but here is his (no longer very) topical monologue from about seven weeks ago. There is a joke at 2:34 which I found quite amusing, and a joke at 3:03 which is problematic:

sw said...

Thank you very much for the link. I was, I'll admit, a bit shocked by the overall poor quality of the gags and, having grown up as it were on The Daily Show, a little bit embarrassed by the "headline" puns running for each segment.

Regarding the joke at 3:03 - one reason it's problematic is identified by Carr himself: not when he says "Too much?" (which of course it is) but when he says "Too late?" Laying (some of the) blame for 9/11 with the Saudis is hardly farfetched, but with a decade of turbulent, violent history between the joke and the reference, it's really struggling to the finish line.

Daniel F said...

Like you, when I first heard the phrase "too late", I thought it was a rather nice way of acknowledging how dated the reference was. But I think you'll agree, on further viewing, that he is in fact saying "You think I've gone too far? Well, it's too late, I've said it, and this is live TV. If I've misjudged this line, there's nothing I can do about it". Which I also quite like. I think I just blank out the headline puns, which are poor. But did you not like the suicide line?

sw said...

You're quite right about "too late". That's what is meant.

Thanks for reminding me about the suicide line. My take on it was precisely this: I really wanted to enjoy the line, and I would have loved it if Carr had been able to construct it and deliver it in his typical on-stage persona. As it stands, my sense is that Carr's timing is off because the whole gig is just emulating a SNL, Two Ronnies format "straight bit of news, beat, witty twist", which works under very, very few circumstances (all the fewer, considering how common a format it is), and even less when the ersatz newsreader/commentator is smirking at how funny these lines are (I liked it when Ronnie Corbett corpsed on The Two Ronnies, because I always had the sense that Ronnie Barker had done something funny, which made it much more pleasant than having some slick overpaid entertainer pay back a handjob from the writers by pretending to crack up over an overworked line so the producer thinks it was a good one and will use more of that writer's lines). The whole schtick doesn't play up to Carr's persona either: being smug is really funny when you're a complete, ruthless shit, which is how it plays out in his acts; being smug when you're reading tacky jabs at celebrities and politicians is just a bit too superior? The last thing I have any interest in is phony "English humour"/"American comedy" debates, but what little I've seen of the "10 o'Clock Live" show, which has much better comedians than The Daily Show, is that it suffers badly in comparison.