10. Is it OK to Laugh Now?
Written December 2020
( This is another essay which has nothing to do with science, but everything to do with stupidity. It follows on, in a way, from my earlier one on political correctness. )
A few weeks ago, at the time of writing, a British TV channel showed a “tribute” programme to the late Dick Emery, a much-loved comedian of the 1970s. Viewers were given a “warning” – not only at the start of the programme, but tediously repeated after every commercial break – that it contained “historical adult humour” and “offensive and derogatory language, which some viewers may find upsetting”.
After watching the entire programme, I was utterly baffled as to what the second half of that warning referred to, as I didn’t hear a single word which could possibly be regarded as “offensive”, let alone anything which anyone could conceivably find “upsetting”! It obviously didn’t mean offensive language in the sense of swearing, as unlike many of today’s foul-mouthed “comedians”, Dick never did. His material was never in any slightest way “offensive”; it was merely mildly risqué, to about the same level as that of the even more loved Two Ronnies. Indeed, someone in the programme likened it to “saucy seaside postcard humour”.
Historical dramas are often preceded by warnings that they contain “language of the time, which some viewers may find offensive” – which usually means old-fashioned racial language, or that relating to other prejudices. But nor was there anything in this programme which even remotely fell into that category.
And what in the name of sanity does “historical adult humour” mean? That’s a new one on me! I can only assume that it refers to material which we used to find funny back in the day, but are no longer allowed to – and that’s a concept which I find deeply disturbing.
A friend of mine, of similar age, frequently reminisces about comedy of the past, such as the Two Ronnies, and laments the dim and distant days “when comedians were funny”. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment! There isn’t a single one of today’s so-called “comedians” whom I find the slightest bit funny – and a major part of the reason is that none of them are allowed to say anything which could conceivably cause any slightest offence to anyone. It’s a simple fact of comedy that if it isn’t at least mildly insulting to someone, then it probably isn’t very funny! Most of the popular stand-up comics and sitcoms of days gone by are never shown any more, because they don’t conform to today’s standards of political correctness.
It is of course the self-appointed guardians of political correctness who now unilaterally decide, on behalf of everyone else, what is and isn’t acceptable. Around thirty years ago, when PC was in its infancy, the comedy duo Little and Large lampooned this, with a sketch in which they were supposedly writing a script for a sketch. It began with:
“Morning, Mr. Brown.”
“Morning, Mr. Patel.”
“Oh, hang on – we can’t call a character Mr. Patel any more; it’s not politically correct!”
It went on in similar vein, repeatedly saying that “We can’t say such and such any more.” After they had cut out everything which “you can’t say any more”, they were left with:
Elsewhere in this section of the site, in my essay “Please can we Have our Language Back?”, I shared my thoughts on the ridiculous mutilation of the English language by what I call the Political Correctness Thought Police. Perhaps the best ever lampoon of this was that of the late, great Ronnie Barker – the Grand Master of word play – in his iconic “Ministry of Sex Equality” monologue. If you have never seen it, you can find it on YouTube:
Ronnie Barker: The Ministry of Sex Equality
Anyone who doesn’t find that utterly hilarious is simply beyond hope! But it will almost certainly never be shown on TV again now, in case someone somewhere considers it “offensive”.
Note that this masterpiece dates from 1976; Ronnie was taking the mickey out of political correctness a decade before the term was even invented!
( Not for the first time, something which Ronnie made up as comic absurdity has almost become reality. At one point in the monologue, he says, “The other day, I almost fell down a personhole.” I’m not aware of anyone - yet! – actually saying “personhole”, but a city council in California really has banned the word “manhole”, saying they have to be called “maintenance holes”! )
Much of the Ronnies’ material, which back in the day was prime time Saturday evening family entertainment, would never be allowed on TV today; thankfully, much of it has been preserved on YouTube. A prime example is the sketch in which Ronnie Barker plays a man who is trying to insure himself “against becoming Jewish” – which he clearly already is.
Two Ronnies: Insurance against becoming Jewish
How this would be received today can be judged by reading a few of the comments in the associated forum. There are lots of outraged people claiming that it’s offensive and antisemitic – to which several others reply that they are Jewish, and think it’s hilarious. But the clue is when Ronnie Corbett, as the salesman, says, “The whole principle of insurance is that you, the insured, pay us, the insurer, large sums of money. That’s it!” The sketch isn’t making fun of Jews; it’s making fun of insurance salesmen!
One of the best-loved comedies of the 1980s was the wartime sitcom Allo Allo, which is still being repeated on one of those “comedy gold” satellite channels, but has not been shown on the BBC for many years now. It’s hard to imagine that offending anyone, as it was just thoroughly silly – but some people did campaign to ban it, because they claimed it ridiculed the French and Germans. Yet as anyone who has ever seen it knows, far and away the stupidest characters in it were… the British ones! Duh!!!
Every discussion of TV of the past, which wouldn’t be acceptable today, will inevitably mention the 1970s sitcom Love Thy Neighbour - “in which racial name calling was presented as comedy”, to quote a derogatory comment from a recent article in a TV magazine. I’ve frequently heard this brought up as the ultimate example of something “disgusting” and “racist”, which “they could never get away with today” – often by people who are too young to have ever even seen it!
For the uninitiated, this very funny series was about the constant feuding and bickering between a racist bigot and his next door neighbour, who was from Trinidad – to the eternal exasperation of their wives and their mates at the pub. It did indeed use a lot of racial insults, on both sides, which are rightly considered taboo today. But the critics invariably miss the point; the whole point of the series was not to condone racism, but to ridicule it! The racist character was the idiot and the butt of the jokes; he invariably ended up making a prat of himself, and the black guy had the last laugh. ( I wrote a letter to the aforementioned magazine, making that point; it was as predictable as the Sun rising that it wasn’t printed. )
This year, in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” protests, we have seen a multitude of attention-seeking minor “celebrities” ( I always put that word in quotes, as 90% of the people to whom it’s applied today have done precisely nothing to merit it ) making whining, self-pitying and thoroughly cringe-worthy public apologies, for anything they have ever said or done in the past, which could conceivably be construed as racist. This has gone to an absurd extreme, with a number of British so-called “comedians” apologising for telling Irish jokes! One such, now in his 40s, has even made a grovelling apology for the fact that he once told some Irish jokes… in a children’s talent contest at Butlins, when he was nine years old! Give me strength!!!
Er – what??? Since when are Irish jokes “racist”? Does it not occur to these idiots that almost all Irish jokes are originated by Irish comedians? While most people pick on another race, nationality or culture to make fun of, the Irish are the world’s masters – equalled only by Australians – of the art of laughing at themselves! The Master of them all, the late Frank Carson, must be spinning in his grave!
That said, the ability of the Irish to laugh at themselves comes with one caveat; many of them have a collective sense of humour bypass when it comes to the subject of religion. The late, great Irish comedian Dave Allen was renowned for his religious jokes; he was an atheist and proud of it, but had been brought up and indoctrinated as a Catholic, so he revelled in observing the absurdities of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. His famous “Adam and Eve” monologue was sheer comic genius.
Dave Allen: Adam and Eve
But his TV shows were banned in the Republic of Ireland, and he actually received death threats from aggrieved Irish Catholics!
Dave’s lack of any malicious intent to offend anyone was indicated by his signature signoff; he ended every show with the words, “Goodnight, and may your God go with you.” The vital phrase was “your God” – meaning whichever one you believe in, if any. But of course, there’s absolutely no way his material would be allowed on TV today, as offending anyone’s religious beliefs, maliciously or otherwise, is now regarded as the ultimate taboo. We are all expected to bend over backwards to “respect” people’s religious beliefs, while there is no reciprocal requirement for them to respect the right of others to disagree with them! So yet another comic genius is consigned to history.
I’ll end by returning to where I began. One of the interviewees in the Dick Emery tribute programme said something to the effect that no-one could “get away with” Dick’s kind of humour and characters today, because “humour has moved on”. Regarding the latter point, I very much beg to differ. No, humour has not “moved on”; it has been stifled and all but killed by today’s culture of over the top political correctness and nanny state dictatorship, whereby a handful of po-faced, self-righteous whingers somehow assume the right to tell the rest of us what we’re allowed to find funny.
And that’s disturbing indeed. George Orwell was nowhere near.
Postscript – January 2021:
Just a few days after I wrote this essay, its subject reached a whole new level of utter idiocy. You would have to look a very long way to find anything less offensive than Dad’s Army - the funniest, most iconic and best-loved sitcom of all time, which is still being regularly repeated after more than fifty years. Yet the BBC has now begun preceding it with a ludicrous “warning” that it contains “discriminatory language which some viewers may find offensive”!
This refers, of course, to Corporal Jones’ use of the term “fuzzy-wuzzies” for the enemy he fought in Sudan in the 1890s. When have soldiers ever not used derogatory nicknames for their enemies? Yet that term, which was actually used by British soldiers in that war, wasn’t particularly derogatory; it simply referred to the tribesmen’s traditional hairstyle. It was used in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which praised the bravery of the Sudanese warriors – who on two occasions were among the very few enemies ever to break a British infantry square.
In the very first episode, when Jonesy first used the term, he referred to those events – so he was in fact admiring the courage of his old enemy!
My brain has just imploded.
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