06 Feb 2014
basac's picture

So now that you’ve decided that a life of comedy awaits – performing stand-up or writing, or both – what are you going to joke about?

Many writers and performers, starting out, look at the blandness of much of what they see on mainstream TV, and reckon they could be much harder, edgier, sharper and funnier. Sometimes they are. I am totally sympathetic to this view – so much of the best comedy, the best anything really, comes from angry people tearing up the old rules and starting from a new place.

So when you see mum and dad in yet another middle class sitcom arguing about whose turn it is to put out the rubbish, I can understand your urge to go away and write a sitcom about chlamydia http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/scrotal_recall/ or a threesome bringing up a baby http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/threesome/

I read, frequently, that you can – and should – joke about anything. Billy Connolly, Ricky Gervais, Al Murray are among those who have stated publicly that there is no subject that a comedian should avoid.

To be fair to them, they all said this before the Jimmy Savile revelations, and the truth is, you can’t do jokes about Jimmy Savile. This is not me making a moral judgment, it’s proven fact. Don’t ask me, ask any club comedian who has tried to do material about Savile in the last year or so. All the topical TV shows avoided it, with the honourable exception of ‘Have I Got News For You’, bravely keeping five laugh-free minutes at the top of an opening episode of a new series.

You used to be able to make jokes about Savile all the time. In the 80s, when everyone knew what he did but no one was allowed to write about it for legal reasons, you couldn’t move for jokes about him on the comedy circuit. Not just Jerry Sadowitz, many comedians had material about Savile, and for many in our audience, it was where they first found out about that side to him.

The comedy circuit was the same then as now, in that it was the place to ‘say the unsayable’. Only back then it wasn’t jokes about rape, because they were old hat, we’d seen them on family TV sitcoms like ‘Butterflies’ and, like racist jokes, our audiences weren’t interested in hearing them.

Back then I would almost have certainly have counted myself in the 'joke about anything' camp. I prided myself on how sick I could be about recently dead famous people, quite a few of us did, I remember the air of excitement in the room (and the reams of material created) the afternoon we turned up to do 'The Cutting Edge' hours after Robert Maxwell had plunged mysteriously to his death.

Recently I've found that harder to do, I see it on Twitter and part of me is itching to join in, but since the death of a slightly well-known mate my heart's not been in it. Classic hypocrisy of the first order, I accept.

But I also found myself on the opposite side to the one I would normally be over the recent banning of the French comedian M’Bala M’Bala Dieudonne. Because this was a news story that included the words ‘Jew’ and ‘comedy’ I was asked, thanks to my appearance in the 'opinionated Jewish comedians' section of the office roladex, to provide the rented mouth to talk about this on the telly. I wrote about that experience here, and if you're interested in the topic there's quite a long and (I thought) worthwile discussion that follows in the comments section. http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2014/01/15/19410/banning_comics_...

That I should be holding these views now is especially ironic, since bad taste about Jews and the Holocaust was probably the thing more than any other that got me into comedy in the first place.

‘You don’t make jokes about the holocaust’ was, in the world I grew up in, up there with ‘don’t run into a busy road’ and ‘never pour boiling water on your genitals’ as a given. The last two made sense, but from the age of 12 or thereabouts I had a feeling, without knowing why, that I’d have trouble with that first statement.

I still remember that seminal Sunday afternoon in the early 1970s, pretending to be revising for my exams, homework laid out in front of me on the living room floor, watching ‘The Producers.’

Now best known as a massively successful musical, and for the gloriously bad taste 'Springtime For Hitler' song, when the original movie came out in the late 1960s it tanked. Nobody in America was ready yet for jokes about the Holocaust. But seeing that film on TV a couple of years later, I immediately identified with the seemingly sick and twisted place Mel Brooks was coming from.

This was a film that didn't just make jokes about the Holocaust, it reclaimed the subject matter and gave a message to me about how comedy could help us come to terms with all the terrible things in the world. It may have had me clutching my sides in hysterics, but it was as sharp and hard an attack on Nazi Germany as any serious book or drama. For me, laughing at racists remains one of the most potent ways of undermining them.

So I believe you can joke about anything, providing the context is right. I don't find it hard to distinguish between Mel Brooks singing 'Springtime For Hitler' and the French comic Dieudonne saying with regard to a Jewish journalist, how he can understand why the gas chambers might be a good thing.

I know I'm never going to be able to stop you from writing what you want. And if you're challenging a consensus viewpoint you will inevitably upset people on the way. Also as Mel Brooks proved, a commercial disaster in one era can become a blockbuster hit in another.

All I'd say is that if you want to write about something 'edgy' or 'dark', it helps if you at least have a reason other than 'I'm deliberately trying to annoy the politically correct brigade'. You never know, it might turn in to a big smash hit, in around 40 years or so.