On the 7th of January in Paris, two individuals opened fire in the offices of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. This publication has been no stranger to controversy because of what it chooses to publish in the name of satire. This devastating event prompts many questions about the role that satirical journalism and comedy plays within society. As Dave’s Comedy Festival returns to Leicester, bringing with it evidence of the value we place on comedians in Britain, the question needs to be asked; should there be any sacred cows when it comes to comedy?
Some forms of comedy do not have to deal with the problems of causing offence but much of the mainstream comedy that is found in Britain, especially on TV, uses people and society as its focus and immediately runs the risk of causing some sort of outrage in how it chooses to handle certain content. The expression of outrage and offence is often perceived as an attack on freedom of expression and has been received by the media recently in a way that highlights that we seem to be struggling to determine whether causing offence can ever be defended in comedy.
Naturally we turn to comedy to find answers, to gauge what people find acceptable and what they do not. It can be all too easy to condemn offensive material and call for censorship, and all too easy to support anything regardless of its merit the name of freedom of expression, but nothing of value lies in either of these options and in choosing to sit firmly in the position of either corner does not help in furthering the debate whatsoever.
In Britain, one does not need to channel flick for long at any given time before finding some form of comedy show from repeats of Fawlty Towers to The Mighty Boosh, and showcases of new stand-up comedians on shows like Michael Macintyre’s comedy road show which is indicative of the different types of comedy we consume. This is the thing about comedy; it is all to do with taste.
We use it to navigate situations we are not sure of, to try and understand people and concepts that we are perhaps unfamiliar with or identify in a certain way. Comedy often unites more than separates, so unless a comedian has set out to deliberately provoke any sort of hatred, then causing offense needs to be called into question. People’s feelings have to always be taken into consideration and if there is a risk of distortion as a result of an ill-fated portrayal then comedians, satirists and the public at large need to reassess.
Censorship has no place in comedy just as it has no place in the press, but if we are to continue to be able to defend free speech then we need to be mindful of how we use it and what for. The more comedy uses freedom of expression to justify a desire to provoke just for the sake of it then it will be used for the wrong reasons.
Sometimes things can be found offensive and funny depending on the audience and just like when something published in the Daily Mail causes outrage, according to editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye and participant on BBC’s long running comedy news show Have I got News For You, ‘we can’t ban the paper because of it, but we can stop buying it.’
The most important power comedy has is facilitating a very important debate about cultural sensitivity and opening up discussions and providing insights into our society. We should not allow causing offence to become a legitimate justification for the removal of rational criticism of any aspect of our society as the things which dictate our interaction in the world must always be subject to scrutiny and intelligent debate if we are to progress. This is where the right to cause offence in comedy can be defended.
By Katie Stanton