Have you ever worried that you’ve really put your foot in it? Carelessly assumed an overweight woman was pregnant, mistakenly let slip a friend’s fumble with another mate’s man, accidentally seemed to, not only support the Jewish holocaust, but actually wish more had been killed? Yes? Then you’ll know exactly how everybody’s favourite Navan man Tommy Tiernan feels after an innocent interview with Hotpress magazine got a bit Mel Gibsony and the media called for the man, who once forced The Late Late Show to go to adverts, to be slung out of the country. How did this happen?
Back when curly haired Tiernan first won our hearts and the prestigious Perrier comedy award his signature style was stories about his adolescence fighting the mindless authority of petty teachers and the unthinking small mindedness of the midlands town he grew up in. However, fifteen years as the unchallenged King of Irish comedy changes a man and perhaps scared of becoming part of the establishment; a Brendan Grace for the Bebos, the safe jester for the Celtic Tigers, Bertie Ahern with jokes (although the latter’s banking material is hilarious…), he has transformed himself from the Ireland’s white headed boy to the son everyone’s slightly worried about. Travellers, Madeline McCann, children with Down Syndromes the handicapped, nobody escaped Tommy’s wide eyed rants.
Certainly in the infamous Hotpress interview he didn’t seem like a raving fascist sympathiser. Asked by a member of the audience if anybody had ever taken umbrage with his risqué material, he expressed frustration at the delight certain people take in being offended, a blind, humourless, superiority achieved without actually listening to what he was saying. He recalled an encounter in America where two members of the audience took offence at a joke he had made about the Jewish people’s involvement in the death of Jesus. Bare in mind, that this claim is one of the most clichéd, hoariest of attacks, akin to calling Irish people alcoholics, about as controversial and topical as any two thousand year old event can be. It was this closed minded rush to be offended, to judge, the dreaded dead thoughts that George Orwell warned against, when people stop thinking for themselves and just know, that annoyed the comedian. He then joked that he hated Jews anyway and that he wished more had been killed in the holocaust. The audience then laughed, not because he had single-handedly transformed a wet tent in a field in Ireland into the Nuremburg rally but because after listening to him talk eloquently for over half an hour the audience decided he was making a joke not suddenly revealing himself as an insane fascist Jew hater.
But perhaps we have to ban anybody mentioning anything slightly controversial unless they highlight the fact that they’re not racist mad men first? It wasn’t like Tiernan just walked on stage and said “How’s it going? I’m Tommy, who here loves The Holocaust? Am I right?!” Are we that immature and insecure as a society and have such little faith in people that we can’t take it for granted that a comedian is making a joke? We all know racism is bad, that the holocaust was a tragedy, but it’s not a comic’s job to remind us what we already know. Audiences tend to make a Sartrian choice; you are attracted to people who confirm what you already think anyway. There are plenty of genuinely borderline racist comics out there; happily exploring the same issues with a lot less sophistication than award winning comedians. If the former is the only comedians who feel safe making those jokes than that is not a healthy, balanced place for comedy to be. As for less sophisticated people being inspired and missing the subtleties of Tiernan’s point, stupid racist people can be inspired by a pint of milk, we can’t hobble intelligent discussion in case a few missing links miss the point.
Race, especially in a country going through the teething pains of multi culturalism like Ireland, is something that demands to be talked about openly and honestly. Earlier in the Q&A session he made fun of an audience member’s accent who happened to be from Africa, causing a collective clenching of the audiences cheeks. He pointed out that if the man had been from Dublin they wouldn’t have minded. The audience laughed at this because he was right. Would it have been more tolerant and helpful to ignore the way the audience were treating that man differently just because it stemmed from the audience’s gaucheness rather than their hatred? Tiernan is Irish; one of the unexpected upsides of being an occupied people for six hundred years it that at least we escape post colonial guilt. When Tommy takes the piss out of an African’s accents there’s no ghost of white man on the plantation or last days of the Raj. If a British or American were to do the same, they would have their own context to explore. Tommy was one man gently taking the piss out of another.
And surely that is the point of comedy- to take the piss. Comedy is societies release valve, it allows us to acknowledge subjects that we can only safely deal with in the bubble wrap of a joke. If you can’t joke with someone, you’re suggesting that they can’t handle it, they’re different; the ultimate insult to anyone. When something dreadful happens, it’s your gut reaction, a survival instinct, to find the funny in it, even if it’s just the crappy text messages that circulate after a major disaster-there’s a point to them. The world is cruel, random and unfair, the only way we can claim some of it back for humans is by laughing at it. Why shouldn’t people take the piss out of the Holocaust, Jew or not? Is there a correct way to respond to the murder of millions of innocent people? Is it not crasser to single the Jewish people out as too delicate, too sensitive that they’re unable to have a sense of humour? Real racism, real cruelty happens not when people think they’re better than other people, but when they’re not acknowledged as people at all. Joking with someone is surely the most humane, beautiful, honest part of our interaction on this planet, a knowing look, a rueful acknowledgement that life can be a bit shit but we’re all in this together.
However, are missing children, minorities with no voice of their own and victims of head injuries deserving of Tiernan’s savage wit or lazy targets for a comedian rapidly getting bored and indulgent? Can comics rant on stage with impunity about whatever weird ramblings are tugging at their cerebral cortex? Luckily not. When Seinfeld star Michael Richards was caught on camera phone calling a noisy member of the audience a nigger and ranting that he wanted to bring back lynching, it effectively ended his career. The clips shows a struggling comedian and a frustrated man trying desperately to win back the crowd by being shocking rather than making anything close to an intelligent point. In the clip the comic is humiliated by a member of the audience who delivers the one line that silences all comedians; “You’re not funny”. No matter how racist you are there’s no answer to that. When Tiernan recently appeared on television and make a series of wisecracks about travellers there was silence from the audience and complaints from the viewers because they didn’t relate to his point and didn’t appreciate him thinking they would. Most normal audience members aren’t morons, just as most people are not closet racists waiting for their anti Semite Spartacus to tell it like it is, they won’t sit there and think, oh so Jews are bad then? If they really think you mean it, you will get booed and jeered off stage. Because real racism, real bigotry, is not loud, it doesn’t shout on stage or make quips to interviewers in front of film crews, real bigotry exists in silence, in the darkness of politeness, good manners and secret BNP list that no one wants made public.
The comedian has a sophisticated, delicate contract with the audience to voice their unprocessed thoughts, hopes and fears; if the comedian blinks and suggests something they don’t agree with the contract and spell is broken. That freedom for one person to stand in the glaring, probing spotlight and speak his or her truth to the darkness is surely worth defending by the audience and respecting by the comics. The fear that real honesty means that we’ll all be exposed as bigots certainly says more about the critics than the comedians.