Back in the mid-1990s, South Park was flicking the ears of political correctness, declaring that actively caring about things was wrong and stupid. This attitude bled into the 2000s with 4chan, an online community dedicated to one-upping each other with casual racism and misogyny where nothing was off-limits when it came to jokes. But what began as performative shock value soon became fertile ground for the far right.
The ‘Gamergate’ campaign of 2014, supposedly arguing for ‘ethics in games journalism’ while directing harassment at female creators, helped establish an effective game plan for the right in the ongoing culture war. This involved playing victim to an imagined censorious left, caricatured as hellbent on exerting control over individual liberty by arguing that racism and sexism are bad. Recently this same tactic has been tried with a new subject – comedy.
One-time Jonathan Pie co-writer and deeply mediocre comedian Andrew Doyle has recently rebranded himself as a free speech activist while running Comedy Unleashed, a club night that recently hosted Toby ‘progressive eugenics’ Young’s first stand-up gig. Doyle likes to paint himself as ‘the true left’ despite writing for the Koch brothers-funded Spiked, giving talks at the Adam Smith Institute, and palling around with neoconservative writer Douglas Murray. His biggest success so far is the Titania McGrath twitter account, which helped turn ‘woke’ into a one-word punchline for sociopaths.
McGrath is Doyle’s attempt at satirising leftist activists, and, like all right-leaning satire, it reveals far more about its author than its target. McGrath’s posting style usually consists of entry-level sarcastic regurgitation of leftist theory aimed at discrediting it. A recent post quoted the Metropolitan Police tweet asking victims of racist attacks to come forward and read: ‘I was worried that all this “pandemic” business would distract the police from tackling hate. It’s a relief to see they’ve still got their priorities in order.’
The arts are dominated by the wealthy, so we need to champion underrepresented voices, celebrating those who can make us laugh while challenging the status quo
Even by Doyle’s standards, the reactionary logic behind Titania is thinly disguised. Quite how he expects the police to deal with the current pandemic I don’t know, but during a time when assaults on East Asian people have risen sharply because of it, this tweet perhaps looks a little…dodgy? That’s the trouble these days – you can’t even call an objectively shit joke racist anymore.
One of Doyle’s contemporaries is Konstantin Kisin, co-host of the podcast TRIGGERnometry (their emphasis, ho ho ho, PTSD, right?), who recently made headlines complaining about being asked to sign a behavioural agreement that forbade bigoted material being performed at a fundraising gig. It’s a strange world when a comic makes himself into a martyr over being denied the chance to perform the bigoted material he supposedly doesn’t have, but this is the upside-down logic by which reactionary comedians operate: claiming they’re being silenced in rambling magazine columns, and claiming to defend free speech while themselves silencing the mildest criticism. A recent Vice article about Comedy Unleashed prompted reams of angry tweets from free speech comedians whose definition of free speech doesn’t seem to extend to their critics. Like the lead character of a sitcom, they’re crucially lacking in self-awareness.
Much has been said about comedy’s right to offend, but that debate doesn’t take into account who the target is. The thing about ironic bigotry is that, no matter how well intentioned, it’s a mask that can eat your own face. Is it still ironic if it reinforces those beliefs? It’s not enough to say you attack everyone equally – if you’re punching down on the already bruised, then you’re siding with the bully.
It’s not enough to say you attack everyone equally – if you’re punching down on the already bruised, then you’re siding with the bully
As a socially awkward teen and twentysomething, I asserted my presence by attempting to shock people I’d only just met. If they didn’t like it, then it was their problem. There was a thrill in the transgression of casually making jokes about murder and rape. In my head I was shattering taboos, but really all I was doing was shielding my own ignorance about social power dynamics. Rather than railing against the status quo, I was maintaining it.
A common thread in comedy that proudly labels itself anti-PC, anti-‘woke’, or free-thinking, is weaponised apathy: the premise that compassion is a burden to be cast off. The thought process behind all the ‘I identify as an attack helicopter’ jokes is an inability to imagine existing beyond arbitrary boundaries of gender and finding a weird pride in that. By upholding rather than subverting the norm, this goes against the very ethos of comedy.
Anti-establishment and funny
Thankfully there still exists genuine anti-establishment comedy that fulfils both roles. A new wave of women comedians like Laura Davis, Luisa Omielan and Sophie Willan all have unique and proudly feminist voices, their material covering mental health, existential crises and sex work. Alexei Sayle’s recent radio series Imaginary Sandwich Bar is both angry and inventive, his aggressive delivery undulled by age. The US series Superstore has a pro-union subtext at its heart, showing the reality of working for a massive corporation that exploits its workers within the confines of a 22-minute sitcom. YouTubers such as Contrapoints/Natalie Wynn and Hbomberguy/Harry Brewis thoroughly debunk rightwing narratives with well-crafted, nuanced and – most importantly – genuinely funny video essays.
The debate surrounding comedy and the right to offend will always be with us, but that debate is far too binary to be of any use. The arts are dominated by the wealthy, so we need to champion underrepresented voices, celebrating those who can make us laugh while challenging the status quo. Some of the most controversial moments in comedy are among some of the most well-crafted and insightful. Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the Brass Eye ‘Paedogeddon’ special skewer their targets with wit and innovation, combining the silly and the serious. There’s none of the playfulness of Alan Parker Urban Warrior, or Rik from The Young Ones, in the likes of Titania McGrath, just bitter spite.