As is known, the comedians took to twitter to defend the twitter joke trial guy. For the likes of Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan etc. (you know, them and those like them, that panel game family resemblance) it is a matter of passionate principle that one should be allowed to make jokes on the internet like homeboy Paul Chambers did without fear of arrest. But there is a problem with the way they have defended him, and it is not just that the ‘joke’ he made was, whilst clearly not possible to construe as a threat, not at all funny; it is that the situation he ended up finding himself in as a result of the joke was undeniably comic.
Comedy is not a matter of making jokes, it is a nightmare you can’t wake up from. The greatest comic writers are the likes of Kafka, Beckett, Gogol. Comedy is realising you’re trapped in an endlessly looping afterlife forever like at the end of The Third Policeman; it is every answer you think there is being negated by the presence of Joe Chip dollars like at the end of Ubik. Comedy is the impossibility of living rightly, well, or at all. In this sense Adorno’s Minima Moralia is a great comic novel; Kierkegaard used to churn them out like pulp. Comedy is terrifying; laughter results primarily because we are exposed to how ridiculous everything is.
Paul Chambers found himself in a properly comic situation because he did something completely innocuous (made a crumby joke intended for an audience of realistically about one person) and found himself arrested, fined, fired from his job. This was funny because of how disproportionate the barbarism was to anything he did or could have done about it. It stopped being funny two years later when it was eventually resolved. The situation is no longer comic precisely because it did end, and basically happily: he got married to that woman he was going to see, the public outcry surrounding his case makes it much less likely anything like this would happen again. And of course he got a lot of support from the comedians. But this to me is what is troubling.
Obviously I don’t think that Paul Chambers should have had his punishment prolonged. I don’t think in a just world anyone should have to go through what he did, it is absurd. No one with any moral sense at all can endorse the treatment he received. But great comedy tells us how unjust the world is… that nothing ever really resolves, that nothing is ever really possible, that we will suffer horribly through no fault of our own, and freezes the enormity of this as laughter. The twitter joke trial saw this happening in the real world: in fact it was already the plot of a comic novel, Milan Kundera’s The Joke. We can and should fight convictions like Paul Chambers’. But not in the name of comedy: the comedy existed only so long as the injustice continued. The comedy told us that something needed to be done, but in the doing it died. So the fight should not have been fought in the name of comedy. And yet the people most intimately involved with said fight were comedians, doing exactly that.
We should start putting scare quotes, perhaps, around ‘comedians’. Because the twitter joke trial tells us a lot, not just about the way the justice system functions against us, but about how little most so-called comedians in this country appear to understand what The Comic really is. They are not comedians: they are jokemen. For them, comedy is a matter of making funny jokes. But this is not comedy, this is entertainment. The panel shows this type of ‘comedian’ infests are entertainment shows, not comedy. They are there to provide a sort of comforting banterous haze to the sort of educated idiots who tune into them. Although a lot of them involve the telling of political jokes, they say nothing about the world that at all approximates to a proper critique, not like Beckett or Kafka or Gogol do.
The real comic spirit is not entirely absent from comedy in this country. We could highlight something like Peep Show, which never truly gives us any relief from the grinding despair, as well as the still brilliant output of Armando Ianucci (though The Armando Ianucci Shows remains his masterpiece). Stewart Lee’s work offers a refreshing alternative both to shit panel show stand-ups and po-faced broadsheet columnists (in fact he’s sometimes so good I’m really not sure how he keeps getting invited back). Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series had glimpses of true comedy, also. But the panel show jokemen, most of whom have some tangential association even with this very good work, simply fail to get it.
This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the attitude these people have towards God. When the jokemen aren’t defending freedom of speech, those in this category seem to spend an inordinate amount of time going on about how there isn’t a God and how science is amazing. This tells us a lot. In the true comic spirit, nothing is ever certain. But what these people want, I mean their attitude towards the God issue as well as science, is a sort of liberal-bourgeois ‘rational’ scientific certainty. This is the sort of ‘atheist’ they are, the most unimaginative sort who has simply traded what they perceive as the old theocentric certainties for new post-Galilean ones. But of course as any sensible child knows, these people who think science explains the world are just as awful as dead-eyed Christians who think Christ’s mission on earth was a success and that God loves us. The comic spirit cannot exist there. Comedy only takes place in a terrifying, uncertain world. These people claim to be comedians, and yet they genuinely believe science explains the world. Then how can it still be comic, inexplicable? The fact is that their world is not, but then the fact is they are not comedians, they are entertainers.
I’m not asking that these people stop working, or that people, if they enjoy this sort of humour, stop watching Mock the Week (although, how the fuck can you enjoy Mock the Week?). Rather, I am asking we recognise that what these people do is, as I’ve said several times now, entertainment rather than comedy. And the ‘comedians’ involved in the twitter joke were really defending people’s right to have a good bant rather than defending comedy proper.
What is at stake here other than semantics? It is firstly important to recognise what comedy does if it is going to be able to tell us anything. And secondly, if we were as an audience more generally able to recognise what comedy really is, we might get more of the genuine article, rather than the banterous shite that comprises most of the stations’ ‘comedy’ output.