by Mark English
The English writer, actor and stand-up comedian, Alexei Sayle, was born into a seriously left-wing family (they were Communists), and he still adheres to what he sees as Marxist principles. This background shaped his life but did not entirely destroy his sense of humor. The title of his autobiography is Stalin Ate My Homework.
Sayle once talked about the peculiarities of left-wing audiences. He noted that when he did a stand-up routine at party conferences or other left-wing gatherings, there was always a brief but discernible pause between the punch line and the laughter, just time enough for audience members to pass the joke through a mental political-acceptability filter.
Censorship can be understood as operating in various ways: top-down (via the policies and actions of governments and/or media companies); or bottom-up (via self-censorship driven by social pressure or cultural taboos).
I have no “in principle” argument against censorship. Sometimes it is justified, even the top-down kind. The only trouble is that for many of us, the wrong people are in positions of power and are censoring all the wrong things. Even if the “right” people were in power, however, one could never be sure for how long. So the still popular (in some circles) ‘no censorship’ position is a kind of pragmatic compromise – and at first glance a sensible one.
As I see it, however, such an approach is neither realistic nor (perhaps) desirable. In the real world, censorship of one kind or another always exists to a greater or lesser extent.
If I was going to give a serious treatment of this topic, the focus would be on the impact of digital technologies. There is a lot to say. History is being rewritten and not in a good way. Certain views are being expunged from the record. Even some science journals are reportedly deleting previously published papers which have retrospectively been deemed harmful or offensive. But l will save all this for another time or – better – leave others to lay out the depressing facts. Here I just want to make a few remarks about the scope for personal frankness and openness.
Professional comedians inherited the privileges of the clown or of the king’s jester or fool who traditionally had a license to go beyond what would normally be considered acceptable speech and behavior. But how far beyond? What should today’s comedians be allowed to get away with? Should there be limits on whom or what they are allowed to make fun of? In most contexts today, as in previous times, strict limitations apply even if they are rarely spelled out, and there are adverse consequences for comics who overstep the mark or take what is perceived to be an unacceptable political or ideological line.
A blanket ban on professional comedians? At least this would represent a politically even-handed approach! In fact, it would not be censorship so much as a restriction on professional freedom – not unlike banning prostitution, but with arguably less dire consequences.
Theatrical productions were banned in England in the 1640s in a bid to rein in “lascivious Mirth and Levity.” The actors and theatrical companies strenuously objected, of course. But it can be safely assumed that mirth (lascivious and otherwise) and even a degree of levity persisted within the general population during these troubled times.
The notion of a ban on professional comedians is whimsical, of course. The comedian could simply rebrand himself or herself as something else: as a lecturer, say, or as a preacher, prophet or politician.
But, staying with the thought experiment for a moment, in what ways would a world without professional comedians be different from the world we know? There are all sorts of defenses you could make for the social role of comedians. The more serious and high-minded the defense, however, the less convincing it would be. Mirth and levity do not need a justification. They are what they are, and they justify themselves. And if having a class of professionals furthers the cause of mirth and levity – and so makes life a little easier to bear – well and good.
Let me play devil’s advocate, however. Paradoxically, banning professional comedians could make the world a funnier place. Let me explain.
Naturally funny comedians would not stop being funny just because they were not being paid for it. What’s more, they would be forced into the regular workforce (or unemployment lines), brightening up the lives of their colleagues on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, humor is relative, and funniness is extremely subjective and context-dependent. With no professional comedians to show them up, everyone would be funnier. Or seem funnier. Which – when you think about it – amounts to the same thing.
There is always a tension between laughter and authority. Generally speaking, laughter punctures pretentiousness, and in this respect is a powerful force for good. There is no more devastating response to a claim to authority or power than laughter, especially the spontaneous laughter of a crowd.
There are many situations in which implicit laughing bans apply. And they sometimes create odd – and awkwardly funny – situations in which people are driven to laughter despite themselves, in part because they are aware that it is verboten. The laughter bubbles up not just in spite of the fact but because one is trying to suppress it. The Biggus Dickus segment from The Life of Brian – schoolboy humor clearly deriving from shared experiences of the traditional English education system – serves to illustrate this point.
Ideally, we would all feel free – within the limits of politeness – to say publicly how we actually feel and what we actually think. But this isn’t the reality and never will be. The simple truth is that such freedom doesn’t exist; except, of course, for those with anodyne or boringly conventional views.
What is more, it happens that the range of publicly acceptable views has narrowed alarmingly of late. This is sad. But I console myself that such a state of affairs has been the norm for most of human history. I just happened to have grown up in a time and place of unusually great freedom and need now to wind back expectations.
For a younger me (and my young contemporaries) the Soviet system seemed like an outlier, an anomaly that would soon pass away. It did. Now, however, we find ourselves heading into a totalitarian system of a not dissimilar kind.
Lately many old Soviet jokes seem to have taken on a new lease of life because they now apply – mutatis mutandis – to us, to the Western world. This one, for example…
A man goes to the KGB, explaining that his talking parrot has disappeared, presumably stolen.
“This is not the kind of case we handle, comrade,” he is told. “Go to the regular police.”
“Excuse me, of course I know that I must go to them,” he replies nervously. “But I just want to make it clear, to put it on record, that I disagree with the parrot.”