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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.

You can visit the Jewish News website here.

10 Responses to “Heard the one about Hamas? Thought not…”

  1. The Fogel says:

    Spot on son. You are correct about Boyle, the man’s a legend.

  2. Highnlonesome says:

    Frank Skinner, back in the early 90′s when he was doing stand-up, was once asked in an interview about his supposedly politically-incorrect brand of humour and the controversy it had caused. He said, “I won’t tell a joke on stage unless I feel I can justify it”. He went on to give an example of a joke that many people would consider racist, involving black men, mugging and basketball. “That joke feels okay to me,” he continued, “but I would have a really hard time justifying it.” This seems like a good rule of thumb.

  3. Chas Newkey-Burden says:

    What’s comedy like in Israel, does anyone know? The little I’ve seen suggests it is often close to the bone. Which would make sense in a society facing those kind of threats.

  4. blahblahblah says:

    The only guaranteed way to avoid selling out is have something nobody wants to buy.
    Make them buy your product then,soft lad.See Simon Cowell,Celebrity Big Brother.Oh,and Kirsty’n'Phil.

  5. Duvid Crockett, King of DeLancey Street says:

    You have hit the nail on the head as usual, Chas. They should all take a cue from the eventual fate of Jonathan Ross and take their canned laughter tapes with them.

  6. Steve R says:

    Bernard Manning, Chubby Brown and Jim Davies all good racist and sexist comedians what you see is what you get, HONESTY. Anyone is a potential target. The new wave are just a bunch of hipocrites. Up untill now white hetrosexual males were fair targets ( one female Bernard Manning lookalike started her career doing this, now she’s a BBC fixture ). But with a fair deal of British media indoctrination we can now experiment with the oldest hatred. It can only get worse.

  7. JtM says:

    Which is more than you can say for the likes of Jeremy Hardy, with his egotistical film ‘Jeremy Hardy vs The Israeli Army’.

    I’ve seen that film, egotistical is definitely one way of describing it. Desperate bullshit is another. You can read his naive thoughts on the conflict here, including him thinking Rachel Corrie is called Rachel Curry.

  8. blahblahblah says:

    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.
    I don’t think you’re a wimp,Chas.I heard about Mitchell’s joke and I didn’t like it either.Carr also did some some stuff about the Roma,but maybe that kind of bigotry isn’t your main concern.The main defence seems to be “but it’s ironic!” which has replaced “it’s a joke!lighten up!”.I recommend that you watch Spike Lee’s brilliant film Bamboozled.

  9. Chas Newkey-Burden says:

    Thanks blahx3

  10. Stephanie Gutmann says:

    What’s comedy like in Israel, Chas? Rightly or wrongly, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable because of how it may be used, it is dry, self-mocking and satirical. I don’t know about stand up. I never saw any there. But you can see some videos in Hebrew about young Israels in India that are send ups of young Israelis in Israel that are pretty typical. In the movie Walk on Water the Mossad agent protaginist played by the gorgeous Lior Ashkenazi has what I think of as a very typical Israeli sense of humour. It is dry, mordant, and self-depreciating. Israelis do what I think of as preemptive humor, i.e. “We are not going to be caught being laughed at…We will have the first jokes…We will make the jokes about ourselves.” Yes, it’s a kind of arrogance, and a survival mechanism, as in “we will not be caught napping.”

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