Irony still exists, despite Jeremy Clarkson

9:35 am - July 29th 2009

by John B    

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Trying to understand what we find funny by dissecting comedy routines is roughly as effective as trying to do so by dissecting the brains of Jim Davidson fans. And slightly less funny. Charlie Brooker wrote a good, but not very funny, column to this effect on Monday.

In the same Guardian comedy special, Brian Logan wrote a bad, and not very funny, column about the ‘new offenders’ of comedy. It’s made worse by the fact that his initial thesis that sexism and racism are back, wearing an Irony Cloak that makes their attackers manifest themselves as Humourless Sandal Wearers, isn’t a bad one at all.

After all, Jimmy Carr could easily (dis)grace the end of a pier in the 1970s; the Top Gear cast seem to be in a permanent remake of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads without the self-awareness… and James Horne and Matthew Corden appeared in a Carry On-style dollybird pic that failed because it was too stupid (yes, too stupid to be a Carry On film. That takes elite skills). But it’s OK, because the racism, sexism and homophobia are ironic. Even though they aren’t actually being used to make a point about society at all, they’re ironic, because the people saying them are on TV and not in the BNP.

Meanwhile, the genuinely subversive and intelligent men’s magazine that introduced a new generation to Howard Marx, Hunter Thompson, excessive booze and drug consumption as a prerequisite to good writing, and the importance of trying to annoy everyone in the whole world all the time ever,  got overtaken by the halfwitted, porn-for-boys-too-daft-to-get-it-online brainfodder that real Humourless Sandal Wearers thought the original was. Worse, it turned into them. But it’s OK, because the witless sexist objectification is ironic. Even though it’s the only point of the magazines, and isn’t being used to make a point about society at all, it’s ironic, because it’s a magazine and looks a bit like Loaded did.

There’s a lot more out there that, although not as inexcusably witlessly bigoted as Carr and Clarkson, treads on dodgy ground without appearing to engage in much subversion of authority or of ingrained attitudes. Little Britain’s a good example: its treatment of race and sexuality has been hotly debated, but its treatment of class is painfully, obviously and one-dimensionally dodgy. And the fact that it’s seen as a kids show complicates matters, in that the race and sex aspects are capable of being misunderstood by children and idiots.

So, in theory, it’s a good time for a writer like Brian Logan to pull off some Irony Cloaks and show us the dribbling shrivelled sexists lurking inside.

Unfortunately, his finely honed journalistic skills, or possibly his lunch of pure gin, lead him to completely the wrong targets – Scott Capurro, Richard Herring and Brendon Burns, or the ones who, in front of generally-liberal adult audiences, assault lazy thinking and unconsciously bigoted attitudes (although he does, in passing, throw in a Jimmy Carr one-liner to tar all the others with the same brush).

This is the point where my article risks collapsing under the iron law of ‘trying to explain why things are funny’. But let’s start with a joke:

Q: What d’you call a Muslim flying a plane?
A: The pilot, now piss off you horrible bigot

If you think that’s actively funny, then you’re easily amused and should market yourself to insecure standups (i.e. all of them) as a readymade audience member.

But hopefully, you can see it makes a point about a type of comedy: it’s based on your perceptions as a listener, either of Muslims, of the comedian you’re listening to, of your fellow listeners, or all three. It’s a joke about racism, but it’s not a racist joke – it’s calling your listener out on the fact that they’ve been complicit in your apparently-racist feed line.

On the other hand, if you tell a racist joke about Muslims, and your audience laugh, and then you move on to talk about something else, and then you get accused of being a racist, and you say ‘but I’m being ironic’, then you’re either a racist and a liar, or someone who’s happy to make racist jokes to get a cheap laugh and a liar.

Capurro, Herring and Burns are about the first kind of routine. It’s a given that they’re performing to liberal centre-left educated audiences (if there’s a more liberal, centre-left, educated place than the natural habitat of the modern standup alternative British comedian – Edinburgh in August – then a black hole of Guardian G2s may actually have formed there) – and that’s why they’ve taken over the clever end of comedy from the earnest callers-out of Racist Are Bad, M’kay.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, mainstream politicans (and no, the BNP are not mainstream politicians: if the Daily Mail hates you for being too racist, you are not mainstream) would still make explicitly bigoted statements. Now, they don’t, which is a victory for all that’s good and decent – but an awful lot of the attitudes that could previously be justified explicitly are coded and internalised. While the worst offenders for this are obviously on the right (‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’), it’s easy for anyone to take on coded-bigot views without being consciously racist, sexist or homophobic [*].

So Logan’s conclusion, that these people take liberal audiences, perform “comedy that sneers at the vulnerable and the under-represented” at them, and hence should be opposed, is as off-base as is humanly possible. Opposing outright rednecks wouldn’t be relevant, because anyone who goes to a standup gig (aside from Al Murray and Little Britain Live, perhaps) does so as a definition. Mocking assorted far-right loons is briefly funny, which is why Sadly No! is a must-blog, but is pretty cheap, not that difficult, and gets wearing after an hour onstage.

But helping people realise and think about unpleasant truths concerning their own views is precisely what comedy is for… well, to the extent that it has any moral purpose at all beyond making you laugh. And whilst I’ve deliberately avoided the I-word in the setup because it’s been so tarnished by wankers, that’s precisely what actual irony in standup is about.

…and that is why heterosexual males should watch, at the very least, 3:20 to 4:40 of this video. Other demographic groups are welcome to do so, as in my opinion it’s quite funny, but heterosexual males actively should.

Related reading:
Herring’s blog on the subject
Shakesville: someone who, by not only not getting it, but not even getting the concept of not getting it, inspired this post.

[*] I’m fully aware that some of my attitudes and ways of thinking can be racist, sexist and homophobic, try to avoid them professionally and on most social occasions, consciously play around with them in some of my writing, and sometimes really offend people when drunk in the wrong company. If you think you’re free of bigoted thinking, then it’s pretty much certain that you’re even more bigoted than me.

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About the author
John Band is a journalist, editor and market analyst, depending on who's asking and how much they're paying. He's also been a content director at a publishing company and a strategy consultant. He is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy and also blogs at Banditry.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Humour ,Race relations

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Reader comments

1. the a&e charge nurse

Blimey – the agonies of the liberal mind?

Or maybe the sort of masochism one tends to find amongst certain catholics?

Who said the left can’t do humour? This is much funnier than Ben Elton at his peak!

I make people laugh for a living, being funny pays me bills, or at the very least entertaining them and as I’ve got older my attitudes have changed.

Now, I avoid bad language because it alienates people but my work gets more political but dressed in such a way that we can engage difficult topics whilst the audience has a laugh.

I’ll be reprising my stand-up show ‘Poles Apart’ about immigration in November, some of you should come along and have a right laugh.

Painful to read.

Thoughts on Ali G, who has triumphantly resurrected that British staple, the Comedy Bender, from the basement of Grace Brothers? (Not to mention the Comedy Foreigner With Silly Accent, last seen in Torquay)

Really panful to read. Gave up half way through.

Constructive-tacular. Maybe I should’ve used bullets, or put it in 40 point boldface. Or maybe if you’re too fucking dim to read an 1000-word article on a complex subject, you shouldn’t bother?

Indeed, what a bunch of ballbags.

But I was being ironic!:-P

10. Shatterface

(3): ‘Now, I avoid bad language’

(8): ‘Indeed, what a bunch of ballbags.’

Now, that’s irony.

I take my cue from Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais. I don’t feel the need to present myself as PC

Not in real life but on stage.

You ballbag.

It’s not hard to grasp.

Got to say I disagree about Jimmy Carr- the irony comes from him being fully aware (and indeed accentuating) his ‘upper-middle class’ image. It is also worth pointing out that he is simply a joke technician- his jokes are (in the main) very well constructed one-liners- the comedy is in the language, not in the content.

Just to clarify- he is not that good a comic and indeed is very dull after the first few jokes, but that doesn’t put him in the same class as Jim Davidson (who is very clear that he ‘doesn’t care who he offends’ and who writes un-clever jokes that contain a large amount of spite).

The fact is that offence for the sake of comedy is no bad thing- as Brendan Burns has pointed out…a lot. It is when it becomes offence disguised as comedy that its time end of the pier comics take a long walk off it.

13. Shatterface

Jimmy Carr’s book on comedy, ‘The Naked Jape’, is a fantastic read and gives you a clearer insight (for those who need it spelling out) into his motivation. It’s rather scathing about racist and homophobic jokes.

There’s always a danger in being misunderstood but that’s what gives comedy it’s edge: the ‘Oh, my god – what if he means it factor’. People have been failing to get jokes at least back to when Swift made his modest proposal. That’s where Bakhtin’s concept of ‘dialogism’ comes in: one speech genre embeded in another. Carr doesn’t mention Bakhtin but much of his comedy plays with similar ideas.

Good article, john b – I hope it develops into a more interesting discussion than people calling you a humourless lefty in a distinctly humourless way. I think the distinctions between different comedians are more nuanced than you allow for in the main post, though.

A Jim Davidson gig isn’t a comedy gig.; Jim Davidson isn’t a comedian. It’s a chance for maybe a couple of hundred people who actively hate people based on gender and/or race to get together in a safe environment where no-one will call them racist or sexist for expressing their hate. For some of them it’s a chance to pretend to themselves that their prejudices are acceptable, because here’s a whole group of people who think the same way without the liberal elite telling them off.

However, I’d say Bernard Manning was a comedian with incredidble timing who could be very funny at times. The trouble was he was also deeply racist, and that inveitably found his way into his routine. I’d say he was funny despite his prejudice, (and markedly less funny when telling jokes that were bigoted).

Which brings me to Jimmy Carr – I do think he’s funny. #12 is right that he’s mainly a joke technician. But he also has a style of delivery live (not discernable from tv and especially not the dull 8 out of 10 cats) that shows he understands exactly when to fire off a series of punchlines to get the most out of his audience, breaking their defences down & making them laugh. The cumulative effect of this is you sometimes laugh when the punchline is unexpected, not because the joke is necessarily funnier than the last. A joke playing on racist prejudices might come in the middle of one of these streams of jokes and through timing, delivery and wordplay alone, contribute to the overall effect even if the sentiment is unacceptable. And like Manning, the wordplay can sometimes be clever and even funny even where the sentiment is wrong.

Actually I think Ricky Gervais is much worse than Jimmy Carr in this sense, as Gervais often feeds on a sense of awkwardness that can sometimes just be the result of direct racism (which naturally, makes people feel at best awkward and rightly so).

Also it’s worth saying that whilst I don’t agree with the way Carr uses race in jokes, he’s expecting his audience to be shocked and disagree with the sentiment of the joke, whereas Clarkson is expecting his audience to agree – the Clarkson shtick is to side with the audience against the liberal elites, Carr has an antagonistic relationship with his audience.

16. the a&e charge nurse

[14] “I hope it develops into a more interesting discussion than people calling you a humourless lefty in a distinctly humourless way” – well. I couldn’t see too many gags in your post, Tim F.

And Jim Davidson gig’s as a pseudo-Nuremberg rally – are you sure really about that?

Britain used to be incredibly racist (in common with most countries I would imagine) so most of us grew up being indoctrinated in various ways.
It’s hard to undo that sort of conditioning, I ‘m afraid (ask Big Ron) – it’s probably why the inner racist is never too hard to find?

But I still refuse to go down the self loathing road – after all its not my fault Brits used to go round plundering half the planet, is it?

I deliberately avoided the comparison with Nazis, actually!

I agree with your penultimate paragraph, and I completely agree that there’s no point feeling guilty about it or hating ourselves. A recognition that the racism we grew up being indoctrinated with is not something intrinsic insides us should actually enable us to question our own attitudes without any self-loathing, because it isn’t “our fault”.

More defence of Jimmy Carr… when he was on HIGNFY with Ann Widdecombe, the result was one of the funniest episodes I remember.

Little Britain is for kids? Or is that an irony?

I would point people to use the interwebs to find a guy called Russell Peters, excellent comedian!

DHG – I thought you said you were a teacher?


My main job is an actor, writer, director but when not working in showbusiness I work with children and young people, the two careers have ran side by side.

DGH – well when your literary agent needs a new income stream send them my way – I am looking for one. Agent that is. And a new income stream.

I only have an acting agent, not literary, but I’ll keep ’em peeled.

23. Shatterface

Humour comes from a rapid mental adjustment. You have one thought which is then superceded by another which is related in some way. A pun is the most basic: the construction of a sentence sets up expectations about a word which is, in fact, a homonym and which is ultimately revealed as such. A good comedian can pace the joke so that a particular epiphany occurs at precisely the right moment. Like Ben Elton’s humour any initial ambiguity is resolved rather quickly, and safely.

The more complex comedy of Sasha Baron Cohen revels in ambiguity. There are layers and layers of homophobia (for instance) over levels of anti-homophobia over layers of homophobia, etc. like the skins of an onion. Each speech genre casts doubt on the layer beneath, never resolving itself. That’s not comfortable for viewers who want their comedy in nice, tidy packages. Cohen’s reticence to appear out of character is deliberate.

Carr and Gervaise are possibly even more immersed in their characters than Cohen and it’s harder to differentiate between persona and the ‘real’ person.

That’s not to say audiences have a clear self-knowledge either. A good comedian can tempt you into thinking the most absurd (or repellant) idea has merit. The shock of recognising where your own thoughts are leading you, the realisation a seemingly sensible idea merely resembles one produces laughter.

That’s Shaw Taylor’s line!

But, Shatter – comedy has to be very, very, very dark grey or very, very, very light grey.

Taking into account personal taste and that even though we find things repellent and still funny, sometimes, neither comes into it.

Brings us back to PC and urban myths – why can’t we call a chalk board a black board any more – and how bin liners have to be green, though plastic is still allowed.

Quirky thing is humour.

26. Shatterface

I’ve a taste for very light, silly humour (Harry Hill, for instance) or very dark and satirical (Chris Morris). A lot of the stuff in between is rather dull. Hill’s and Morris’s comedy isn’t really ABOUT anything though, it’s more a free play of signifiers.

I’m not against ‘worthy’ comedy on principle though: I like Stuart Lee and Rob Newman. But there’s a melancholic surrealism about Newman that sweetens the pill so I don’t feel I’m watching Melanie Klein do standup, and Lee’s ability to extend a joke so far beyond the point of tedium that it becomes funny again is quite endearing. Even Ben Elton can be funny – in print.

Dear John B,

I entirely agree with your position. The Top Gear team are perhaps the most worrying because they are so massively popular. As an ex-petrol-head who still hasn’t entirely kicked the habit, I still watch the lothesome trio ruin a potentially great motoring programme with their hateful homphobic and racist ‘humour’. They also have a penchant for pointless destruction that flies in the face of conserving our capital resources; never-mind their continual rubbishing of energy conservation and fuel efficiency.

The pity is, all three presenters are immensely talented and very good at what they do. Clarkeson’s programme on Brunel was excellent if flawed, May’s understanding of the cultural significance of toys and technology is likewise engaging if politically bland and Hammond’s light entertainment credentials should not be dismissed. And there’s the rub; the BBC is too keen to pander to a brand of humour that thinks that hitting minorities is brave in the face of what they perceive as too much political correctness, but it is minority groups who are put into the firing line and the perceived bravery of the BBC and the Top Gear team is nothing short of cowardly bullying.

If you want to see brave comedy and real talent, try Tim Minchin.

Best wishes


Why is Tim Minchin brave? Admittedly I’ve only seen his show on tv, and he seems talented, but he’s got a piano to hide behind as a crutch and there doesn’t seem to be much audience interaction.

Dear Tim f,

I too have seen one of Tim Minchin’s televised performances; very good but toned down somewhat for television. Try his DVD, “So Fucking Rock”. its on Universal DVD no.8258692. Brave (in my view) in terms of content and in the technical and creative requirements of the performance.

Best wishes


By the way, I forgot to say that far from hiding behind his piano, music is intrinsic to Minchin’s performance and adds a level of virtuosity that is even more exposing of mistakes and technical mishaps. Minchin only hides behide his piano to the extent that Mohammad Ali hid behind his gloves – both dance like butterflies and sting like bees.

31. Shatterface

I like Minchin too. He distilled Donnie Darko into three minutes – no mean feat.

Incidentally, Clarkeson’s attitude to the French is no different to part-time Lefty Marcus Brigstock.

32. Shatterface

Ditto ‘chavs’.

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