The great Groucho Marx once joked that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. How sad that the greatest club Groucho belonged to, the ‘Comedians’ Club’, is rapidly declining in numbers as political correctness takes its toll on laughter.
Comedians are becoming an endangered species. Of all the crimes committed in the name of political correctness, its effect on comedy must rate as one of the most egregious. Comedy as a genre has been largely transformed into a sermonising irritation, a serious business that must be put into the service of the greater good. Lard has replaced soufflé. What passes for comedy today is a cacophony of sound, with all the lightness of touch of Cromwell dismissing parliament, without his humour. The jokes are predictable and aimed at any position to the right of Robespierre. Politicised talking heads pushing their own agendas are inadvertently funny, in the way a flat tyre is funny, tolerated but you just want to move on. Meanwhile, their fellow travellers police the airwaves laughing at their own cleverness and ensuring a diminishing audience of humourless foot soldiers.
Comedy is one of life’s staples and its clearance from the landscape depletes us all. Its passing has been a slow one, a whimper rather than a bang. A gradual extinguishing of embers that have sustained and warmed and threaded their way through the fabric of countless lives and made them bearable. The metaphors may be mixed, but the sentiment is there, we need laughter, and it’s to be found now only in rare pockets that have to be nurtured and protected from the gaze of political correctness.
To paraphrase another Marx, who had a number of good lines, ‘Comedians of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’ – and the rest of us have everything to gain. Lovers of comedy must support comedians in reclaiming God’s (insert whatever you wish) gift to humanity. Laughter is compensation for what being human entails.
Comedy has become formulaic, following the approach of the old Socialist Realism paint-by-numbers school of artistry, and has been made predictably stultifying and boring in the process. It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Political correctness is suspicious of individuality, of anything that can’t be tamed or coerced or shamed into regimentation. Comedy by its nature is anarchic, it springs from a well inside some people who have been endowed with the gift for making others laugh. Its distribution is inequitable, that’s its first crime. Comedians are a rare species and rather than celebrate and give thanks when one pops his/her head above the parapet, the political correctness brigade must bring them into line. Laughter is a powerful force for unity and breaking down the melancholy barriers of identity politics. When a crowd erupts in laughter they are for that moment expressing only one identity, that of their shared humanity. Laughter knows no ethnicity, no gender, no boundaries, no allegiances, it simply is – a product of evolution or creation, depending on your point of view. I’m sure cavemen and women sat around the fire at night doodling in the sand and making atrocious jokes, hopefully without PC input from the busybodies in their midst. Oh, how they needed laughter, with life expectancies of zero, and so do we.
Where do we go for laughter now? The usual sources have been chastised into silence. Jerry Seinfeld has said he will no longer perform on college campuses because of freedom of speech issues, its absence being the main one. Perhaps we’ll be reduced like the characters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to memorising jokes and telling our grandchildren that there used to be people called comedians, who made a living from laughter.
Trigger warnings and speech codes have killed comedy and forced bigotry underground, where it festers far more potently than in the cold light of day. The best way to combat all the isms, racism, sexism, religious and class intolerance is to expose them. To let them be seen for what they are, stains on those who espouse them.
Humour, from Voltaire to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor makes the ridiculousness of discrimination apparent. It opens the proponents of such views to examination and ridicule far more successfully than the re-education edicts that pervade every aspect of life now, and which run the risk of promoting the very thing they are supposed to expunge. Reverse racism and sexism don’t make converts. If we really cared about discrimination and bigotry we’d send in the clowns. Laughter has a caustic effect on the racists, the sexists and the extremists of any cause. Charlie Chaplin showed the power of comedians to call out evil and hypocrisy far more effectively in The Great Dictator than any PC warrior looking for a cause to champion. We need the vision of Charlie, a man who experienced poverty, neglect and the tragedy of a mentally-ill parent, more than ever. His comedy is a balm for us all and his life a reproach to anyone looking for victimhood.
Richard Pryor is another comedian who followed his own drum and the world is grateful that he did, and that he lived at the time he did. It’s doubtful he would have survived the PC onslaught of today, although it would be magnificent to watch him in action. The cover of his album, Is It Something I Said?, has him at the stake about to be martyred for the words he uses, nothing has changed, except for the worse. His comedy tells it as it is, he doesn’t patronise us with what should be. We recognise the truth in what he says and laugh at the stupidity of bigot-ry, which is weakened every time we exercise that right. He saves our souls from the despair of thinking we’re the only ones who’ve noticed the chasm between what’s prescribed and what’s practised in life, and the knowledge that there are experiences for which the only rational response is laughter. His intent is not to teach, but to express the God-given talent that bubbles up from within and that produces his unique take on what he sees and experiences.
He tried a tamer type of comedy at the beginning of his career, being careful not to offend anyone. It was only when he got rid of these restrictions that he could be himself and let his gift run free. Comedians are true individualists, they can’t be herded into neat categories, each has his/her own approach, they really are non-binary. This is anathema to the PC brigade whose cookie-cutter ‘We have ways of making you laugh’ mould induces torpor. Thank God for Richard Pryor.
We all know the Fool is the only one in Shakespeare’s plays who can speak the truth and still be breathing at the end. We need Fools for this reason, and as mortals we need them for relief from the truth. The mindset that crushed Boris Pasternak and Alan Turing, that prevented any expression of non-conformity and individualism, any divergence from the party line, is still alive and well, it just morphs into different versions of itself. Political correctness is a type of control that deludes itself into thinking that a bit of authoritarianism is justified in a good cause. The best response to this is from the poet John Donne, who expressed the belief four hundred years ago that we all belong to the same tribe and we all matter. I’m not offended by his language and I don’t need trigger warnings and guidance to prepare me for reading his words. Donne wrote ‘Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in Mankind, Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for Thee’. Donne peeled away the divisions and got to the heart of what matters. Comedians do the same thing, via a different route, but the outcome is the same – we’re better for having encountered them and we know they’ve fed our souls.
A world without Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Mo Rene, Barry Humphries, Martin and Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Peter Sellars, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder, Eric Bana, Magda Szubanski, Chris Lilley, Sascha Baron-Cohen and the writing of P. G. Wodehouse is not worth contemplating. But what about so-and- so you’ll say, you missed Danny Kaye or Ricky Gervais or Tony Hancock or Little Britain? And that’s the beauty of comedy, there’s always someone who’s been responsible for a smile on your face and for that moment, you love them.
It’s apparent we don’t turn to comedy for instruction, we turn to it for relief and replenishment and a soft place to fall. If comedy is instructive, it’s not in a pedagogical PC manner, but rather in a subtle outlining of our human foibles, that brings a smile to our lips, relaxation to the shoulders and the comforting realisation that we’re not alone in trying to make sense of it all. Comedy is the great uniter. It’s in comedy that we find relief from the inevitable disappointments and losses of life and the energy to keep going. To laugh is to momentarily experience the lightness of being. In saving the comedians, we are saving ourselves. The next great hashtag, #SaveOurComedians.
Joan McCaul is a former social worker and teacher who enjoys writing, history and reading biographies.