Tuesday 17 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: Apu controversy is another sign of the comedy-police

Backlash: Apu from The Simpsons with a copy of The Problem with Apu
Backlash: Apu from The Simpsons with a copy of The Problem with Apu
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Like many people, I now watch The Simpsons with a mixture of sadness and a sort of subdued anger - sad that it has become so incredibly lame, and angry that it's still being made.

Enduring each new episode is a bit like buying an album by a band you used to love - you still want them to be great, but each release just gets worse and part of you just wishes they'd break up.

But of all the words that spring to mind when thinking abut the residents of Springfield, would 'offensive' be one of them?

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Even more starkly, would 'racist', 'problematic' and 'bigoted' be on the tip of your tongue?

You could say it has become boring - the biggest crime of them all - and you could say it has become safe and you could, just as equally, say that it just needs to be given a decent burial.

But I doubt many people feel that they're watching an animated hate crime every time they tune in.

Yet the controversy over Apu Nasapeemapetilon, the Indian shopkeeper, now threatens to put a stain on The Simpsons from which it may never recover.

For those of you who reside in blissful ignorance of the depths to which some people are prepared to stoop, allow me to explain the background.

Last year, an Indian-American activist/comedian called Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called The Problem with Apu.

He objected to the way Apu was a 'stereotypical' Indian shop owner and said that people from the Asian subcontinent would never be taken seriously as long as Apu was smiling on screen and saying 'come again'.

The documentary picked up a lot of traction and the creator said he wanted to 'raise awareness' of the issue, which is usually just shorthand for someone saying they want to raise awareness of themselves.

Now, as a result of the social media storm, it has been announced that The Simpsons is going to get rid of Apu.

Interestingly enough, this still didn't make the activist-comedian (two words which should never go together) happy and he complained that - surprise, surprise - he had actually written a script about Apu which he wants the producers to use.

Hank Azaria, the actor who voices Apu, has said he is happy to step aside from the role, and there has been a backlash against Kondabolu from his fellow Indian-Americans who say that they actually love the character, think the controversy is ridiculous and don't want their favourite Kwik-E-Mart owner to change.

The whole Apu story is a fascinating snapshot of the war currently being waged on comedy, in a society which is rapidly beginning to distrust humour.

None of us have lived Kondabolu's experience, so it's not fair to judge him from this far away. But the fact that plenty of people who have lived his experience think he's being an attention-seeking killjoy is an indication that he is little more than a fringe crank. But the cranks have come in from the fringes and are now looking to police comedy in all its forms.

It's a strange state of affair when even Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most inoffensive stand-up comedians you could ever encounter, has said that he won't do college gigs in America because the students are too censorious and quick to take offence. But the whole point of comedy is knowing which topics some people may find offensive - and then saying it anyway.

There are numerous examples of comedy clubs bringing in speech codes for the performers, with lists of topics which are considered verboten.

Indeed, even our own Tommy Tiernan was shocked at the restrictions placed on performers when he went on tour in America.

Comedy is the first line of defence against authoritarianism and that's why it's so important to keep it as a very unsafe space.

Would Monty Python get away with The Life of Brian today? Would Mel Brooks be allowed to create Blazing Saddles? Unlikely, as even Brooks himself has said. Apu is merely the tip of the iceberg and it's depressing to see so many comics talk about how a good stand-up should be inclusive and inoffensive.

That nonsensical position tends to come from the type of comedian who is more interested in receiving applause than generating laughter - which is why so many bad comedians think that saying Trump is a tosser passes for edgy material. It doesn't.

At its best, comedy is dangerous, profane, offensive and shocking - and I don't mean shocking in a Brendan O'Carroll kind of way.

No, I'm talking about the likes of Dave Chappelle, the comedy genius who returned from his self-imposed exile and was promptly condemned for being transphobic.

We live in a scared, timorous culture but comedy clubs, going back to the cabaret of the Weimar Republic, have always been places where you can say the unsayable and upset the people you're not meant to upset.

Ultimately, comedy is a vital safety valve in any healthy society and whether it's the nonsense about Apu, or punishing stand-ups, these attacks on humour are no laughing matter.

Pamela Anderson is guilty of speaking her mind. She must be punished

Stuck for something to read the other night, I rooted out The Handmaid's Tale.

I first read it as a kid and while I wasn't quite as impressed this time around, there were a few strikingly prescient elements.

The fact that the Government phased out all forms of cash and forced people to rely on credit cards was something that appealed to my cranky bones - I've been banging on about the dangers of a 'cashless society' for years because it opens the door for State intrusion and surveillance and, ultimately, control over your finances.

The other thing that struck me was mirrored by the trouble that Pamela Anderson walked into this week. The former pin-up was critical of the #MeToo movement.

Cue the predictably hysterical fits of outrage from younger feminists who were quick to call the former Baywatch star a 'bimbo' and a 'dumb bitch' and, in what was apparently meant as an insult, 'just a sex symbol'.

So why did it remind me of The Handmaid's Tale?

Well, it's simple - all those young wans who liked to dress up as handmaids to make their protests don't seem to realise that they actually have more in common with the tyrannical Aunt Lydia of the book than the downtrodden young women being used as breeding cattle.

In one scene, Lydia talks about the dangers of pornography and permissiveness and warns that men can't be trusted so women have to be modest.

I imagine Aunt Lydia would have approved of the condemnation of Anderson's career choices, just as I imagine she would have approved of the campaign to end Formula 1 'track girls', or ads featuring women in bikinis.

In fact, I rather get the impression that Aunt Lydia would have been extremely happy in the #MeToo era...

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