Trust Jack Dee, the laureate of mordant humour, to light upon a deeply uncomfortable truth about British comedy. “There’s nothing you can say that won’t upset someone,” he tells the Radio Times. “I can’t be bothered. It’s harder to convince people that if you say something unappealing, you’re being ironic.”
Typically of the 55-year-old comic, this declaration is itself ironic. He affects not to care, to have yielded to fatalism. That, as they say, is his “shtick”, familiar to all who love his stand-up act, his sitcom, Lead Balloon, and his deadpan appearances on panel shows. But it is clear that, in fact, he cares very much. What’s more, he is right to.
The phrase “political correctness” has been debased by over-use, to the point that it is now almost meaningless. Often, what is lazily scorned as “PC gone mad” is no more than simple decency or the encouragement of civility. But what Dee identifies is more specific, and more dangerous.
In contemporary liberal democracy there are few sins more grave than the causing of “offence”. What began as a legitimate attempt to acknowledge modern pluralism and to embrace a broader range of voices in politics, art and humour has become something quite different: a tendency to steer clear of contentious themes, or to address them only in the most narrowly defined way. Examples abound: the Lolitics club night in Camden warns comedians not to engage in “racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia/disablism/etc” and imposes an “enforced niceness”.
Last September, an eight-year-old skit about transgender people was removed at Ofcom’s behest from a repeated 2008 episode of Harry Hill’s TV Burp. Ricky Gervais was recently pilloried for a joke about “dead babies” — the whole point of which was that he would make a terrible parent.
The alternative comedy of the Eighties was liberating and rebellious. In the past 30 years, however, what started as a great emancipation has hardened into something dreary and confining. In this era of “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions” comedians are constantly told what they can and cannot say. It has become orthodox to argue that all speech, including so-called “disparagement humour”, is an expression of power structures that potentially reinforces political subjugation, social injustice and “privilege”. Comedy, it is argued, must conform to a strictly-defined progressive agenda, policed by self-appointed guardians of the oppressed. This amounts to a huge and depressing mute button: don’t say that, lest you offend someone — anyone.
To say one thing while meaning another is much more than a rhetorical device. It is a celebration of the real-life complexity that ideology never captures
As Dee argues, what has been lost is a grasp of irony, and how precious it is. To say one thing while meaning another is much more than a rhetorical device. It is a celebration of the real-life complexity that ideology never captures: the paradoxes, nuances and absurdities that make life worth living.
Irony is also a weapon against the dead hand of authoritarianism. As Christopher Hitchens put it in a consideration of the Rushdie affair: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind.”
It is precisely this distinction that is so often neglected in today’s po-faced culture. In defence of his often outrageous comedy, Jim Jefferies puts it thus: “You can joke about anything. A joke doesn’t mean intent… Not my opinion. It was a joke I said, not my opinion. Not something I think, something that I think is funny. There is a big f***ing difference between things that I think and things that I think are funny to say.”
If irony has a social function, it is to bond speaker to listener in its gift of unspoken assumption. When Jefferies jokes about Bill Cosby and sexual assault, the audience knows (or should know) that he is not offering a defence but precisely the opposite.
In probing and mocking the reaction to Cosby’s alleged crimes — the impulse of his fans to make excuses for decades-old offences — he excoriates the older comedian and his champions. But that has not stopped some feminists protesting that Jefferies should not make such jokes at all.
At its best, irony encourages complicity and camaraderie. The master of ambiguity, William Empson, said “an irony has no point unless it is true, in some degree, in both senses”. The skilled comedian takes a proposition that has earned traction or become commonplace — about anything — and then undermines it by restating it in a certain way.
When Frankie Boyle jokes that Michael Jackson’s demented hope to build the biggest children’s hospital in the world reflected his possession by a sex-crazed demon, he is mocking those who turned a blind eye to the pop star’s behaviour to the bitter end. When Dave Chappelle says “the only reason all of us are talking about transgenders is because white men want to do it”, he is making a point — as true as it is witty — about the snail’s pace at which black civil rights have been advanced in the US. Only the literal-minded would interpret his remarks as an attack on transsexuals.
Can you imagine Donald Trump trying to be ironic? That in itself explains why this is more than a niche argument about comedy
Can you imagine Donald Trump trying to be ironic? That in itself explains why this is more than a niche argument about comedy. Literalism goes hand in hand with witless power. It drains the energy from democratic discourse and establishes no-go zones for speech. Irony forces its way through those crash barriers and fosters shared understanding and intelligence.
As one of Kingsley Amis’s characters says: “The rewards for being sane may not be very many but knowing what’s funny is one of them. And that’s an end of the matter.” It is indeed, or should be.
Good comedy, however abrasive, tasteless and shocking, is part of what makes us human and what makes us happy. That it should take a comedian as dour as Jack Dee to remind us of this is just another wonderful irony.