The always thoughtful conservative press, aware that many of its readers are missing their traditional fox hunting have introduced a new sport to keep their loyal subscribers busy - comic baiting. Simply take a well known comedian, quote part of their set completely out of context and wait while people queue up to be offended on behalf of others. The latest victim of this new fad is Jimmy Carr. His quip that the current war in Iraq means that Britain will have a fantastic Para-Olympic team was seized on by the Sunday papers and then dragged out by back bench Tory MPs looking to remind their constituents that they’re still alive.
It’s a win- win situation; newspapers get a good splash headline plus acres of pages filled with outraged, indignant columnists and obscure MPs get their faces on telly the year before a general election, the only victim is the comic. He ends up with his material mauled to a misshaped mess, reputation destroyed and public figures can, with complete impunity, call for the end of his career, just for doing his job properly.
Confusingly, injured servicemen aren’t even the butt of the joke. Jimmy was pointing out, through humour, that by 2012 there will be a generation of otherwise healthy men and women maimed and injured due to a war many now see as at best pointless at worst illegal. People should find this joke unsettling and slightly disturbing but the anger is better directed at the government for bringing their country into the conflict instead of the fool on stage for pointing it out. Politicians angrily claimed that the only people with the right to make that sort of joke were the soldiers themselves. I agree, there is a dearth of military men on the stand up circuit at the moment, mainly as they’re a bit busy being blown up. So until they’re less occupied, much like the citizens of Iraq, we’ll have to rely on professional comedians to satirise the war instead, even if, as mere civilians they’re scarcely allowed to.
The evolution of being offended from an occasional frustration to a national game of moral one -upmanship has had a disastrous affect on comedy. Established comics have to choose between playing it safe or potentionally jeopardising their career, jittery producers become reluctant to commission anything that may offend somebody, somewhere and the result is bland opinion less TV and radio programmes that no one; the producers, comics or audiences really care about.
People often wonder why Britain has no equivalent of John Stewart, whose Daily Show became a deciding factor in last year’s American elections. The truth is that a comic with his strong political opinions and passion, exactly the things that you need for satire to work, would never be allowed on television here. The father of modern satire Jonathan Swift wrote an essay “A Modest Proposal” at the height of the Irish Famine suggesting that the Irish people should eat their babies as a way of avoiding starvation. In this current climate there’d be protests outside his house and claims he was glamorizing cannibalism. A democracy prides itself on the freedom of its arts, the ability of its novelists, painters and poets to publish and produce whatever they like. Throughout history comedy, and its swottier sibling satire, has been the Arts poor relation, but it’s comedy’s scraps for free speech that have probably made the most difference to most ordinary people’s everyday lives. It’s time we as a society defended that tradition and comedians stopped apologising.