Only a Joke (But I Mean It)

Posted on Sat 19 November 2022 in misc

As someone who works on ancient comedy and satire, it's obviously exciting for me to see that the nature and effect of comedy on social and political topics has become a matter of public debate. From online TV specials by Ricky Gervais and other transphobic men, to Jerry Sadowitz waving his genitalia at the audience and being banned from the Edinburgh Fringe, to John Cleese claiming on all channels that he is being ‘cancelled’, to a billionaire declaring that Twitter is once again safe for comedy before promptly banning parodies, you can't move for comedy being weaponized in a bad-faith defence of free speech.

One of the striking things in all this, for me, is is how reluctant the comedians and themselves are to articulate why comedy should have a free pass. For some, such as Sadowitz, it's more about the shock than the comedy anyway (and, let's face it, wrinkly old willies are not that exciting). For others, like Gervais on the daytime TV sofa earlier in the year, there is a curiously self-sacrificial line being pushed—that comedy is only a joke, and that minorities should be willing, indeed happy, to laugh at themselves. We have been here before, with the notoriously racist, sexist and homophobic comedy of the 1970s, which had, it once seemed, been consigned to the dustbin of history. The new incarnation is no more convincing, attractive or persuasive than the old.

I don't want to focus here on the harm—the comedy of stereotypes, in-groups and out-groups is well understood, and I am not going to repeat that here—so much as the mismatch between the insistence on being platformed and of having unrestricted speech, while also insisting that there is nothing of importance or significance to say. It is strikingly at odds with ancient comedians and satirists who defended their freedom of speech precisely because they had something important to say. My suspicion is that the modern comedians don't actually believe in their insignificance and innocuousness. How far this is a conscious evasion, self-deception or simple confusion is difficult to tell.

It is not a new phenomenon, either, in terms of modern comedy. Cleese, in particular, has a long history of being unable or unwilling to own his own material. It was a crucial component in undoubtedly the most significant controversy over comedy and freedom of speech in British cinematic history, Monty Python's Life of Brian. Unlike Gervais, the Pythons were not just punching down on embattled and vulnerable minorities (although Cleese does feature prominently in extensive scenes of both transphobic and anti-feminist material) but were taking on a still-powerful cultural and political institution, the church. The ensuing public controversy led to the film being banned in many British towns and cities (including, for decades, in my adopted town of Glasgow).

‘We Were Only Trying to Make People Laugh’

So I have been reminded of the famous confrontation that took place in 1979 following the release of The Life of Brian between on one side the Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin, and on the other the Christian broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood. I've written about this before (in my book Politics and Anti-Realism in Athenian Old Comedy) but I have to confess that there I had only seen the latter part of the debate. Now that I've seen the full discussion, I might modify some of my analysis, but not the essential point. It is also, more than 40 years on, quite an extraordinary episode: not only for the racism and xenophobia (non-Western or pre-Christian culture might as well not exist for the religieux), casual, low-level homophobia (the Pythons) and sexism (it is indeed, an all-male discussion, and unsurprisingly men speak for women—bizarrely, the main yardstick for measuring the film is what Mother Teresa might say about it) but also for how spectacularly rude the soulless minions of orthodoxy are. Plus ça change.

The debate is also striking for just how disingenuous it is, on all sides. Muggeridge and Stockwood insist that the film is mocking the figure of Jesus, even though they know full well that he appears in the film in a studiously respectful way (as Palin points out); they are very reluctant to spell out how the film mocks Jesus, for good reason. They also, very oddly, object to the depiction of crucifixion as a regular form of capital punishment, which is (as again pointed out by the Pythons) part of the point of the Christian story (again, Palin). On the other side, there is an acute tension. Although the Pythons ‘only wanted to make people laugh’ (Palin) and emphasise that laughter comes first, they were actually engaging in some pointed observations, and wanted to encourage people to think and be critical. Cleese singles out Brian's key thoughts, ‘You've all got to work it out for yourselves‘ and ‘Don't let anybody tell you what to do‘, and cites as targets closed systems of thought such as Marxism or Catholicism. Both Cleese and Palin emphasise the need to be critical and open-minded, and that the followers are the target, not the spiritual leader. This is, of course, precisely the problem for the followers of organised religion, where there is a dogma that has largely been invented by followers over a period of time. What's clear from the debate is that the critics are anxious that religion (and not just the figure of Christ) is being undermined and the performers are not, in fact, just out to make people laugh.

For classicists and historians of comedy, an amusing footnote is the supposedly devastating put-down, ‘You wouldn't mock Socrates’. Admittedly, they had not yet had the benefit of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and the inconvenient truth that the Pythons had mocked Socrates (he is the star striker of the, but it betrays a spectacular ignorance of the fact that Socrates was mocked repeatedly in his own time, and that Plato presents Aristophanes' caricature in Clouds as a major factor in prejudicing the Athenians against him. I will come back to this.

Bloody Romans—Can't Take a Joke

Clearly, the Pythons were reluctant to come across as preachy, and the film really isn't. Even Brian's words to the crowd are set-ups for a gag: ‘You're all individuals.’(Chorus) ‘Yes, we are all individuals.’ (Lone voice) ‘I'm not.’ ‘You've all got to work it out for yourselves.’ (Chorus) ‘Yes! Tell us more!’ To generalise wildly, humour works best when it is implicit, and encourages audiences to make connections and draw parallels: successful because and not in spite of being funny. But it does mean that it's rarely straightforward (even more so in drama than in stand-up).

Both the difficulties of humour, particularly offensive humour, and its consequences are actually a theme in the film itself. Eric Idle's character, ‘Mr. Cheeky’ (not named in the film but in some of the supporting material) recurs at several crucial points, making jokes at the expense of all and sundry. He starts a fight at the Sermon on the Mount by calling a spectator ‘Big Nose’; most participants are consequently arrested and feature in the crucifixion scenes. Brian, meanwhile, has repeated anxiety about his nose size (clearly playing on anti-semitic tropes). He insults a saintly passer-by who offers to shoulder his brother's burden and is left holding the cross (‘He had you there, mate’). At these moments, he claims to be sincere, whether the joke involves truth or not (the noses in question are not obviously big; the disruption of polite discourse, the repetition and escalation drive the humour). At other times he makes apparently absurd statements that appear to be true (‘You being rescued then?'‘It's a bit late for that, isn't it’ ‘Nah, we'll be up here for a couple of days. My brother normally rescues me ... ’) or humorous but meaningful simile (his sexually distracted putative rescuer ‘up and down like the Assyrian Empire’). But he's also a wind-up merchant: to the distressed centurion (‘Nisus Wettus’) checking off prisoners for the crucifixion death march, he claims to have been let off (’Crucifixion?’ ‘Nah, freedom for me. They said I could go off and live on an island somewhere. ‘Oh jolly good, off you go then.’ ‘Nah, I'm only joking. It's Crucifixion for me.’ ‘Oh very good ...’). The culmination off this running joke is when Brian is on the cross, and a centurion comes with an order for his release. Brian is distracted, ranting at the sanctimonious officials of the People's Front of Judea and their prepared statement on the occasion of his martyrdom for the cause. Mr. Cheeky says ‘I'm Brian’, initiating a general Spartacus parody. Mr. Cheeky tries furiously to walk back the joke, but is forcibly released (‘I'm not Brian! I'm only pulling your leg. Put me back! Bloody Romans, no sense of humour’).

The Pythons often included self-conscious elements in their humour, and this is, I think, just one such sequence. A superficial glance at its culmination might suggest to some a parallel between the humourless Romans and the humourless oppressors of brave freedom-of-speech warriors, but that's clearly not what's going on. Rather jokes have consequences—not necessarily for the annoying tosser who makes them (‘Mr. Cheeky’, after all, is released), but for others, including, as here, the butt of the joke (Brian clearly is the victim of the joke). But the bigger point, really, is that jokes involve all kinds of statements which may be true, false, sincere, insincere (‘How about a retrial? We've got plenty of time!'), plausible, implausible and non-literal; usually there's a mix of these elements, as there is throughout Mr. Cheeky's annoying interventions. The simple lie, the practical joke, is part of his oeuvre, but not the most conspicuous one: it's not surprising the Romans take him at face value, and that's an important contributor to the broader humour of the scene.

Of course it's entirely possible that Ricky Gervais, like Mr.~Cheeky, is engaging in a barefaced lie, and there is no meaningful content; I would certainly welcome that clarification. I rather suspect his comedy is more meaningful than that.

‘Even Comedy Knows What is Right’

Although some modern comedians are reluctant to embrace the implications of being a political or social comedian, the same cannot be said for the comedians of the fifth century BCE under the Athenian democracy. For most of the 420s, Aristophanes presented his comedy not only as satirising the leading populist politician Kleon (amongst others) but as engaging in a struggle with him. In his first surviving play, Acharnians, he has one of his characters explaining what happened ‘last year’ when (he claims) Kleon dragged him into the council chamber and dumped on him; later, launching into his big speech on the stupid reasons why Athens went to war with Sparta in the first place, he does not claim not to be speaking truth to power, but simply that Kleon won't be able to claim that he's bringing the city into disrepute in front of foreigners (because it's a winter festival and they're not around yet). The explanation is not literally true, manifestly, in its details, and is also a wild parody of Euripides' tragedy, Telephus (and probably also of Herodotus), but it does stand in some relation to the truth (Pericles was responsible for sanctions against Megara, but probably not in retaliation for the kidnapping of sex-workers pimped by his partner, Aspasia). In terms of self-presentation, comedy is the lowly outsider, but even comedy knows what is just. There is self-deprecation here, in particular that it is not-tragedy, but only up to a point.

So while the comedians of this period might present themselves as put-upon, misunderstood, engaged in a life-or-death struggle with monstrous politicians or simply unlucky, they never claim to be irrelevant. One character, the very Thatcherite character of Poverty, complains about characters resorting to mockery rather than being serious, but then she is the one being mocked. At their most expansive the comedians claim a mixture of the clever and the funny, and it's up to the audience to decide which is which or how they relate. And on the whole, the handful of (unreliable and unsympathetic) witnesses agree: they wish comedy wasn't effective, but it is or was. My point is not that comedy engineered the downfall of Kleon (it clearly didn't) or that it fundamentally disposed the Athenians against Socrates, as Plato claimed (it may well have done) or that at least two political targets of Greek comedy were assassinated (is this getting uncomfortable yet?). Rather, it is that there was never a suggestion that comedy couldn't be effective.

Nor indeed did the Roman satirists profess not to be taken seriously, whether they were, like Lucilius (mid-second century BCE), part of the political and social elite and embedded (it seems) in practical politics, or were active in later periods where political engagement was trickier. Indeed, precisely at the point that they start swerving aside from the hotter topics, we find Horace professing ideals of freedom (libertas) that draw on both Lucilius and the traditions of Greek (‘Old’) Comedy of the fifth century BCE. Admittedly, Horace, after surviving the politically dicey 30s BCE had a long and successful career working under Augustus and it is perhaps unsurprising that later on he starts distinguishing between freedom (libertas) and outrageousness or too much freedom (licentia). I'm not saying that Horace was the Russia Today of ancient Rome, but, well, you get the idea. Later on, Persius stuck to philosophical themes (not always a safe bet under the early Empire) and Juvenal sought to distance his satire by various means, one of which was locating it in the recent past under a suitably bad emperor. Neither claimed that they were insincere—frustrated, exasperated, obsessive and sometimes implicated, but the problem is that people don't listen. There is a view that the point is to laugh at the narrator and his characters, but that puts us back on the problem of irony, about which I have written before. Given that British tabloids have traded on just such voices for years, in all apparent seriousness, does not reconcile me to this more comfortable view.

Does It Matter?

The Roman satirists may have protested too much, but they were after all operating in a far less comfortable environment than any of the other writers and performers I have mentioned. After all, autocrats and despots have rarely been under any illusions about the potential for comedy to matter, and rarely take any chances. Both the populist Kleon and the representatives of institutional religion are under similarly no illusions, and had enough political and cultural capital to force a very public reckoning. Aristophanes' play suggests that the ideals of parrhēsia (freedom of speech) and isēgoria (equality of speech) fell some way short of reality, but that this mattered because comedy matters, no only for entertainment but because of what it says. The Pythons were evidently more conflicted, and both their claims in debate and the implications of their self-reflexive comic practice they were highly ambivalent. The contrast with Gervais and other anti-LGBT comedians is very noticeable. Some of this may be down to individual temperament or clarity, but it may also have to do with the power dynamics in the respective comedy. While the Pythons and Aristophanes were both willing to attack minorities and other vulnerable groups, their principal targets in the works I mention here were politically central to their respective societies (even at the end of the 1970s, the role of institutional religion in the UK was still significant). Comedy matters because the target matters. And this goes to the heart of the pitch of Gervais and other anti-LGBT comedians: they can insist that we 'take‘ the joke, in a revealingly violent metaphor, but it doesn't matter because to them we don't matter.