Saturday 21 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'You having a laugh? Joke farce reminds us comedy's not a safe space'

Funny bones: It was only a matter of time before Swedish surrealist comedian Olaf Falafel received criticism over his 'Florets' gag
Funny bones: It was only a matter of time before Swedish surrealist comedian Olaf Falafel received criticism over his 'Florets' gag
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Did you hear the one about the comedian who walked into a bar and told a joke?

Well, he got an award for the joke - and even more criticism and condemnation... for the same joke.

We all know that humour is subjective and in the ear of the beholder, but the ruckus in which Swedish surrealist comedian Olaf Falafel now finds himself is both grimly amusing and rather disconcerting.

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Every August sees the Edinburgh Festival, but it's really the Fringe, and the comedy, that people talk about. Each year, as well as choosing the best overall comedian (previously won by the likes of Irish stand-ups Dylan Moran and the late Sean Hughes) and the best newcomer, there is also a category for the best joke.

Falafel won the best-gag prize this year with: "I keep randomly shouting out 'Broccoli' and 'Cauliflower'. I think I might have Florets."

Like most of the gags included in the top 10, it's a quick and clever pun; a play on words that is as likely to have the audience groaning at the archness of it all while laughing.

But as soon as the news came out that Falafel had won with his Florets gag, it was only a question of time before the criticism started and, in truth, you could have held your breath without fear of passing out, such was the speed of the condemnations.

The support group Tourette's Action were quickly on the case and their chief executive, Suzanne Dobson, has demanded an apology from both Falafel and the TV channel, Dave, which hosted the competition.

Ms Dobson then went on to complain that: "Humour is a great way of educating people - but not only is it not funny to poke fun at people with Tourette's, it's not even that funny as a joke, is it?"

Well, a poll of 2,000 people disagreed with her, although I find it hard to believe that Ms Dobson would have been happy if she had found the joke funny. After all, it's not in the interest of any activist to admit to finding anything funny - because a sense of humour is not to be trusted these days.

Of course, the joke wasn't poking fun at people with Tourette's. It was simply a play on words created by a comedian who asked himself the only question that should matter to a comedian.

That all-important question, which keeps comics up at night, isn't whether a joke is inclusive, or whether it is sufficiently sensitive to people's feelings.

No, the only question that matters is whether it's funny or not. Falafel thought it was. Several thousand people agreed with him. That's what counts.

Obviously Ms Dobson is coming from a place of sincerity and it's undoubtedly unfortunate that she was offended by the pun. But that is on her, not the comedian who crafted the joke.

We're sleepwalking into an age where even comedy is now rigidly policed by people who seem to prefer being annoyed than being amused.

There's a reason why even comics as bland as Jerry Seinfeld refuse to do college gigs in the States anymore - the audience is simply too eager to hop on any transgression or modern thought crime and it's just not worth the hassle.

But let's be honest for once - when it comes to humour, someone is always the butt of the joke. Even the old ones about a guy slipping on a banana skin are potentially offensive to people who have hurt themselves when they tripped over something - personal injuries are not a laughing matter!

Whether we find a joke funny, or obnoxious, or offensive is entirely down to how we choose to respond to something. Let's put it this way, the only comedy gig I ever walked out of in a huff was Roy Chubby Brown a few years ago.

It wasn't just that material was beyond crude, it was more the fact that the gags were so old they could have been carbon dated and life is just too short to waste an hour watching him. No drama, no fuss - his style of comedy just isn't my cup of hemlock.

This current cultural paralysis is the enemy of all art; and comedy is arguably the most important artistic endeavour there is - when we forget that we need jesters to hold a black mirror to society, then that society is in deep trouble.

It's the same with movies, of course. The old reliables such as The Life Of Brian or Blazing Saddles are often cited as examples of films that would never get made today. But what about Some Like It Hot?

Perhaps the greatest comedy of all time, it featured a cis-gendered, hetero-normative (ask your kids) actor pretending to be a woman. That would be shot down before it was even green-lit in today's hysterical climate. Just ask the actress Scarlett Johansson, who had to pull out of a role as a transgender man last year because of the inevitable backlash from activists who objected to a straight woman playing a transgender character.

A lot of the best comedy isn't for everyone and people have the right to get annoyed by whatever they want. What they don't have is the right to demand apologies, or force cancellations of comedians, or writers, or movies or bands, whenever their own feelings are mildly irked.

Comedy has never been a safe space, and nor should it be.

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