Is political correctness killing comedy and free speech?

As comedian Daniel O’Reilly (aka Dapper Laughs) once again finds himself vilified on-line and by the media it’s timely to look at what “crime” he’s actually committed to find himself subject to so much mirth. “Is political correctness killing comedy and free speech or have the standards of acceptability simply changed?

Laughs gave an interview on 4th November 2015 for On Demand News claiming to be a feminist “as I believe in equality for men and women.” That seems a fairly harmless statement and believe him or not it’s a matter of record. However it’s clear a number of people have issues with him or more precisely, his former character Dapper Laughs, who found himself at the centre of a “rape joke” storm last November. Some might say it was just a publicity stunt for his new DVD, a huge billboard for which is ahem, co-incidentally, placed right next to him during his interview.

In 2014 Laughs became the poster boy for un-acceptable humour thanks to a vitriolic and if he is to be believed, totally misguided campaign against him for being a so called “pro-rape comedian.”

This joke and the whole idea of freedom of speech was also the premise for a fascinating debate at the Barbican Centre during the Institute of Ideas ‘Battle of Ideas 2015’ conference last month. Discussing this were Daniel O’Reilly, Barrister and Deputy Editor of Spiked, Tom Slater, with Barrister and Writer Rupert Myers.

As O’Reilly recalls it, he was in the middle of a gig when he repeated something a female audience member said to him, “my mate’s gagging for a rape.” That got reported as being something he initiated and supported. The resultant brouhaha led to ITV2 cancelling his Dapper Laughs show and venues pulling the plug on him performing. His tour ended up being cancelled.  As you can imagine this cost him a lot of money and not unsurprisingly he is particularly passionate and bitter regarding what happened.

Daniel O'Reilly

Daniel O’Reilly

People are too quick to believe what they read without first checking the facts by doing their own research was his mantra. To save you time here is the story and below is the video of the London Scala show on 16th October 2014. He actually says, “You can’t rape women.” Feel free to watch it for yourself and make your own mind up.

He is not the first person to fall foul of trial by the mob. In another Battle of Ideas debate, ‘We the mob, You the People’ he spoke on the subject of press and social media mob rule. He again referred to his situation and how it got blown out of all proportion. Similar high profile attacks were meted out on Sir Tim Hunt, the UCL Scientist forced to resign from an honorary position with UCL over an alleged sexist joke. What wasn’t reported was the speech in its entirety and the immediate comments after the joke that praised the contribution of female scientists. Here’s the truth for anyone interested thanks to former MP and Journalist Louise Mench and Academic Deevy Bishop who’ve really analysed in some depth what actually happened. As you will see anything taken out of context can be made to look really awful.

You wonder if “the people” have lost their sense of perspective. Dr Matt Taylor the scientist behind the Rosetta Comet project last November 2014 also fell foul of “the mob” who, rather than applauding his achievement in landing the Philae spacecraft on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, vilified  him for the loud, sexist shirt he sported during the mission and in media interviews. Was the superficiality of his t-shirt really more important than the achievement? Without a doubt, in terms of mass media coverage, the t-shirt got more coverage than landing a spacecraft on a Comet. Our planet’s gone mad!

When it comes to stand up comedy the reality is actually quite clear cut. A comedy loving audience generally has a much greater tolerance to matters which ‘some’ of the general public and media take real or faux offence at. Comedy fans know they’re hearing JOKES and know they may hear offensive comments made in the name of comedy. Even if there’s a clear sense the jokes reflect the comedian’s actual opinion it doesn’t usually matter too much at all. No one’s going to die hearing a bad taste joke. In fact, the only person who may die is the comedian, metaphorically speaking, on stage, if their joke(s) fall flat. So long as people are paying to see them, they’re not dying on stage and fans aren’t walking out of their gigs, then all is well as far as they and their fans are concerned.

As Dapper Laughs said, “the people paying to see someone are the only ones with the right to be offended.” According to him he has performed to 40,000 people so far this year and has yet to receive one complaint from an attendee.

We had a classic example of this with the Jonathan Ross – Russell Brand BBC Radio 2 scandal in 2008 re a show broadcast on 18.10.14 that passed without incident … only to be picked up a few days later when the Daily Mail and other newspapers highlighted the Sachs phone prank. Then middle England got upset and all hell broke loose. Why did their views matter? The listener’s weren’t. They’re making the show for their listeners not the whole of the country.

Incidentally in researching this article I realised that there’s something about comedians and working on 16th October that doesn’t always go too well. This show was actually recorded on 16.10.08. Dapper laughs performed his infamous “rape  joke” gig on 16.10.14, which co-incidentally was the very same day Hannibal Buress was busy “outing” comedy legend Bill Cosby, in Philadelphia. We all know how well that went for Mr Laughs and Mr Cosby!

Tom Slater said that Dapper Laughs tapped into a broader, working class, un-represented audience. Laughs admitted that his act does play on so called ‘lad culture’.

Laughs was offended by how the British public could have been so manipulated by the media.

His problem was that his rape joke tapped into the heated debate going on about those jokes doing the comedy circuit and the alleged ‘rape culture’ in society. “Jokes do not create a rape culture”, stated Tom. Laughs was not against rape jokes per se so long as they’re funny. His view was that if a comedian can’t make the joke funny they shouldn’t tell it.

In an interesting little ‘show of hands’ survey the results were quite revealing. The room was split around 50:50 in finding rape jokes offensive, less offended by alleged racist jokes and least offended by paedophile jokes. Obviously a quite broad minded audience was present.

Different class

There was reference to a class issue at play and a sense that there exists a prejudice against working class comedians like Laughs, Chubby Brown, Jim Davidson etc…

Laughs mentioned that someone like Jimmy Carr can do a rape joke and get away with it as he will have wrapped it in a layer of clever word play that gives him a superior air of intelligence. If he were to do the same he’d get panned by the critics. Again, the reality for Laughs is that a great many women attend his shows and presumably are not offended by him.

So who should be the moral arbiter here, the media/mob/critics or the fans that pay good money to see him? For me, that is always going to be the bottom line. If a line is crossed the fans will vote with their feet and Laughs or any comedian will be out of work. So long as an act is not inciting people to run riot, rape or create any other sort of havoc they have the freedom of speech to make whatever jokes they want. I don’t say everything goes – many are offended by gratuitous swearing or people insulting particular faiths or religions. Unless there are aspects of which genuinely merit challenging then I would steer clear of such topics.

Laughs argued that there seemed to be anti-male sexism going on as female comedians like Jo Brand (who he likes) don’t get told off for telling sexist jokes. “One rule for female comedians, another for the men.”

Freedom of speech

All of this is essentially an attack on freedom of speech. A case of the “nanny (twitter/media) state” telling comedians and public figures what they can and can’t say. It’s actually quite childish in a way to think the public need protecting from what for some might be offensive jokes or comments. The respected Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson faced a little heat in October for refusing to apologise to the family of the late Leon Brittan regarding not informing him before he died in January that the police had cleared him of child sex abuse allegations. He apologised for that but was steadfast in not apologising for going after public figures accused of historic sexual abuse.

The negative consequence of mob/media rule is that unless you have strong public figures not afraid to court controversy, heinous crimes go unchallenged and un-investigated. It’s this weakness in our public figures and institutions that allowed the likes of Jimmy Savile and the like to go unchallenged for so many decades.

Andrew Lawrence

Andrew Lawrence

Laughs quoted the management of Comedian Andrew Lawrence saying that he committed career suicide with his ‘Andrew Lawrence: Uncensored’ show. I saw and reviewed this. It featured quite a vitriolic attack on many of his well known, well established comedy peers. This was on the back of many of his peers turning on him for speaking up for UKIP and being outspoken on equality and comedy panel shows. I actually thought he made many valid points. Nothing to frighten the horses. He was fully entitled to his views. Nothing he said required censoring. The alternative is a world where everyone has to toe the comedy “left wing” line. What line? Who created this line and said no one’s allowed to cross it? I thought comedy’s all about crossing the line, breaking the rules and saying the un-mentionable – perhaps saying what everyone’s thinking anyway, a bit like the late, great Joan Rivers used to do all the time.

As Laughs said, “I wouldn’t ban a dish on a restaurant I’ve never been to, so why should someone be able to ban me if they don’t like my show and have never seen it?”

Power and responsibility

There was a telling story regarding a senior Music PR executive Justine Sacco who tweeted before getting on a plane to South Africa (20.12.13), “I hope I don’t get AIDS.” She alleges that she was clumsily attempting to mock the negative stereotype around Africa, but it created a twitter furore that she was unaware of and unable to respond to during her long flight. By the time she landed and knew what she’d done her PR career was virtually over. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it was a very ill advised comment from someone who should have known better.

Anything in the twitter sphere has the potential to go viral and as Laughs said “the mob” love to find a hate figure, a poster boy or girl to hang their hatred/prejudices on, never mind the facts or allowing someone a right of reply.

The problem with twitter is that there is minimal space for context and you need that for full, complex discussions or if making what can be construed as controversial comments.

We saw the same with the attacks on Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion earlier this Summer. You can understand people getting worked up about this, yet there isn’t the same fury and passion amongst middle America re the lives being taken of “their own” innocent African-American citizens by their police force. It was said that it was easier and more fashionable to jump on the Cecil the lion bandwagon. Incidentally, this was another story where the headline story got in the way of the facts as there was much more to that story than meets the eye.

John Coventry, Communications Director, Change.org bemoaned the fact that there isn’t enough considered thought in society.

I believe there is at times too much institutional cowardice such as displayed by UCL over Sir Tim Hunt. I think ITV2 should have done their homework on Laughs and when faced with the facts put them out there and defend him and their right to broadcast his show. It appears he was unfairly vilified and ITV2 supported that by dropping his show.

Sometimes the media do the right thing. One million people signed a petition to keep Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear after he punched Top Gear Producer Oisin Tymon but the BBC held firm and did the right thing in letting him go. They could not be seen to be tolerating serious workplace violence.

Returning to my opening question, “Is political correctness killing comedy and free speech or have the standards of acceptability simply changed?”

As many will have learnt all too painfully in today’s instant media world, negative and inaccurate or frivolous stories can take hold and solidify themselves in the public consciousness before the truth has even had a chance to express itself.  I don’t believe political correctness is killing comedy and free speech or even that the standards of acceptability have changed.  It is perhaps making people in public life more cautious about what they say and do. If you watch the Laughs video it’s clear he wasn’t condoning rape. If you look into the Sir Tim Hunt comments, it’s clear he did not attack women scientists. I think the media in search of a story like to create a drama where often there isn’t really one at all and that more than anything is there way of trying to stifle free speech. I think the general public welcome straight talking in public figures, be it Dapper Laughs, Jimmy Carr, Jeremy Corbyn or Jeremby Clarkson.

I hope through reading this people will realise there is more to a story than sometimes meet the eye and be prepared to do their own homework before believing everything that they read or hear. The onus is on ‘we the people’. Reader beware.

Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town

* It’s interesting to note that three major comedy related scandals all blew up from shows and recordings made on 16th October:

  • 16.10.14 – Hannibal Buress called out Bill Cosby as a rapist during a show at The Trocadero club, Philadelphia.
  • 16.10.14 – Dapper Laughs made a rape  joke/comment during a show at The Scala, London.
  • 16.10.08  Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand left those infamous voicemessages on Andrew Sachs voicemail for their BBC Radio 2 show.

Links:

  1. Andrew Lawrence: The man from A.N.T.I Un-censored – Tiemo review – 30.08.15
  2. How one stupid tweet ruined Justine Saccos life – New York Times magazine article – 15.02.15
  3. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie – Charlie Hebdo attack on free speech – Tiemo article – 11.01.15
  4. Mock the tweet: Andrew Lawrence: Things a comedian shouldn’t say – Tiemo article – 04.11.14
  5. Timeline of a BBC-Brand- Ross scandal – 2008
  6. Tiemo Entertainments Funny Ha Ha Store
  7. Battle of Ideas reviews 2015
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4 Responses to Is political correctness killing comedy and free speech?

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