This is my latest column for Jewish News…
BBC executives at a corporation seminar were once asked to rule on a theoretical broadcasting dilemma. They were asked how they would react if a guest on BBC2′s Room 101 show nominated the following items to consign to the dustbin of history: some kosher food, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Bible and the Koran. The response from the executives was that all the items would be allowed with the exception of the Koran, for fear of offending Muslims. This is ironic because their verdict is actually offensive to Muslims, suggesting as it does that Jews and Christians can take a joke but Muslims cannot.
Comedy is a funny world – and not always in the way it intends to be. I grew up as a wave of so-called ‘alternative comedians’ vowed to sweep away the old-school comics and truly shake up the establishment. Naturally, as their waistlines expanded their rebelliousness withered away. Many of them were soon parking their considerable behinds on the primetime television schedules and becoming fully paid-up members of the establishment. Fair enough. The only guaranteed way to avoid selling out is have something nobody wants to buy.
For the current comedy generation though the aim is often not to follow the ‘right-on’ humour of the 1980s, but rather to shock and offend. I’m not worried about offensive humour per se, but I’m sick of jokes about the Holocaust. It’s always wrong, all the more so given the younger generation’s regularly revealed ignorance of the issue (one in six British schoolchildren recently polled thought Auschwitz is a theme park). Jimmy Carr cracked an inappropriate joke about the Holocaust live on stage, prompting roars of laughter. But the memorable part was not the joke, nor the laughter itself but the round of applause that followed the laughter. It felt unsettling.
Not that Carr is alone in making such jokes. David Mitchell made one about Anne Frank, so too have Ricky Gervais and Russell Howard. Perhaps I’m a wimp but I don’t like it. And in my experience many of the comedians who like to push the boundaries of humour by making such quips prove less courageous when it comes to other sensitive areas, particularly extremist Islam. But then if you offend the Jewish community the worst that will happen to you is a few letters of complaint and perhaps a statement of condemnation from the Board Of Deputies. No bloodcurdling mobs, death threats or worse.
Not that I’m suggesting the latter response would be a good idea. But I do think that comedians should stop kidding themselves that they’re being brave by joking about the Holocaust or even Israel, when their comedic courage is so selective. The only comedian I can think of who will ‘go in studs-up’ consistently is Frankie Boyle. He’s made tasteless jokes at Israel’s expense but also at the expense of militant Islam and a range of other targets. You might think that being universally offensive is a bad thing, but at least he’s consistent and he’s actually very funny.
Which is more than you can say for the likes of Jeremy Hardy, with his egotistical film ‘Jeremy Hardy vs The Israeli Army’. Plenty of comedians make repeated quips at Israel, Bush, Blair and the war on terror but rarely speak about Hamas, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. It’s easy to sneer at Blair in a London television studio, would any of them would be brave enough to stand on a street corner in Kandahar or Baghdad and poke fun at the extremists that our troops are bravely fighting?
If comics want to carry on slamming Israel and sniggering at Anne Frank then they can prove how taboo-breaking they are by fearlessly tackling some other sensitive areas like Islamic extremism. Until they’re willing to do that their jokes about the Holocaust and Israel will be doubly contemptible.
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