The only thing more predictable than the transphobic jokes in Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix special, SuperNature, was the criticism they elicited.One problem with SuperNature is that Gervais clearly signposts his satirical intentions. He explicitly states at the start of his show that he will “say something I don’t really mean, for comic effect.” But later he says, “I support trans rights.” This may have been intended as a disclaimer to appease the Twitter wrecking crew who are often so quick to trash a performance that they have not actually seen, but it comes across as a pre-emptive dismissal of criticism. And it doesn’t quite work. If your schtick is using a clueless persona to say horrible things ironically, you can’t hop out of character every so often because it demonstrates that the person with the microphone knows that what he’s saying is awful. It’s far more comically effective to just be unremittingly awful. Some people may not get the joke, but at least your act will be semantically coherent and if people react negatively, you’re on much safer ground in defending yourself.
The reason the David Brent character works so well is that he has no idea he is such an awful person. He blunders through two entire seasons of The Office completely mystified as to why everyone doesn’t love him—all the while demeaning, undermining and patronising everyone around him. In this, he resembles Basil Fawlty, who in Fawlty Towers believes himself to be a better class of person without any justification, routinely humiliating everyone around him for no reason at all. Andrew Dice Clay, whose impersonation of a misogynist and homophobe made him the first stand-up comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden in 1990, also ventriloquised an imperious, self-righteous idiot on stage—although the men playing both Dice and Basil Fawlty appear to have morphed into their characters over time.
Gervais jarringly claims onstage that his transphobic jokes are “a way of satirising attitudes.” This suggests that he is trying to signal that he is being ironic. However, by declaring that this is his intention, he allows for the exact opposite conclusion—namely that the ironic bit is his ostensible support of trans rights.
John Cleese claims that he was regularly dismayed by racist fans who congratulated him for Basil Fawlty’s treatment of Manuel, the Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers, because they thought Manuel was an accurate depiction how stupid foreigners are and that Basil was justified in abusing him. One running joke in the show is that Manuel’s inability to speak fluent English is misinterpreted by the hotel manager as stupidity. The script was designed to parody prejudiced English attitudes, but some people confused Cleese’s unsubtle portrayal of a racist, class-obsessed buffoon with an avatar of British exceptionalism.
Cleese had underestimated the level of xenophobia among the mainstream BBC audience—probably because he himself lived and worked with artists, writers, actors and other creative people: a group that tends to be open-minded and liberal. One charitable interpretation is that the reactions to Ricky Gervais’ jokes about trans issues illustrate what we might call the Manuel problem.
Ricky Gervais is not alone in his preference for controversial topics. When Jimmy Carr made a Holocaust joke last February in his Netflix show, His Dark Materials, it caused outrage. When Dave Chapelle made arguably milder jokes about trans women in his Netflix special, The Closer, LGBT activist group GLAAD called him out for “ridiculing trans people and other minority communities.” So, given the backlash they face, why do comedians so often make jokes that they know some will find offensive?
Ever since Lenny Bruce revolutionised stand-up in the 1960s by using the words “cocksucker” and “schmuck” in his act and refusing to back down, even after multiple arrests for public obscenity, some edgy stand-up comedians have operated under a series of unspoken assumptions. One is that a comedy gig is not a recital of a manifesto but a transgressive performance, in which the comedian can express outrageous ideas and confront whatever society doesn’t want to talk about. Many comedians feel that exploring taboo topics is an integral part of their job. One of the functions of comedy—or any confrontational art—is to provide a kind of catharsis, a release valve, by challenging societal taboos—or, at the very least, pointing out that the taboos exist.
As Reginald D. Hunter comments in his show, Live:
How do you get offended at a comedy show? How do you come to a comedy show and get offended? How do you come to a comedy show and bring your most sensitive self? How do you come to a comedy show and not suspect that the motherfucker on stage might be joking?
The problem is that nowadays those listening to the jokes have not always “come to a comedy show.” Jokes made in a performance space will leak out onto social media and be presented in an often unfair, context-free way deliberately designed to make the comedians look bad (since trashing people tends to get clicks and likes).
The gulf of awareness between the comedian and the person who “just doesn’t get it” has sometimes been dubbed the sarchasm. Some comedians feel they should never waste their time trying to explain themselves to people who seem committed to misunderstanding them. Those who do choose to engage with criticism are often met with a barrage of abuse and emotional outbursts, but very little concrete feedback as to what the problem with their jokes actually is. A lot of the criticism amounts to “I’m offended,” which most comedians will read as simply “I didn’t find this funny.” Most probably agree with Christopher Hitchens’ sentiment: “You can be told ‘That’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.”
Comedians who see their colleagues castigated in the media for making dark jokes will feel an instinctive reflex to make even darker jokes in solidarity and, as they see it, to protect the art of stand-up comedy. The worse people’s reaction the more they will regard such people as prudes or would-be censors and the more likely they are to snap back at them with jokes from the abyss.
Sometimes, the only reason these jokes are funny is because they deal with subjects that you’re not supposed to talk about. The audience may act shocked, but they know that the stand-up comedian is challenging the mores of their uptight, repressed society. That’s what comedians do. And if you think that joke was bad, wait till you hear what’s coming in the second half of the show.
In his show, 90s Comedian, Stewart Lee argues that
if you impose limits over freedom of expression, then inevitably, if they’re not sound reasons for those limits, that people will feel obliged to test them and go into areas that they would never previously have contemplated.
Many stand-up comedians feel that they need to be allowed to fully express themselves as their medium demands, without being continually shut down or sealioned on a sentence-by-sentence basis. After all, has any art form been substantially improved by fact-checking?
But let’s get real.
Gervais claims that his target in SuperNature is not trans people but “trans activist ideology.” But this seems disingenuous when he is making jokes about “new women” with “beards and cocks.” This is exactly the kind of thing trans women have heard screamed at them right before being beaten to death. Although the absolute numbers of victims are extremely small, trans people are four times more likely more likely to be victims of violent crime (perhaps especially black trans people) than cis people and while, yes, the figures remain tiny, things seem to be getting worse.
Comedians like Gervais are emotionally robust from years of working the punishing club circuit. They have the self-confidence to believe that, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Those words are far harder to take to heart when you are part of a tiny and oppressed minority. As Stewart Lee puts it:
Who could be on a stage, crowing about their victory and ridiculing those less fortunate than them without any sense of irony, shame or self-knowledge? That’s not a stand-up comedian. That’s just a cunt.
Although a satirist should, of course, be able to punch in any direction he or she likes (and victimhood doesn’t confer virtue), as a rule, satire works better when the satirist is targeting the privileged and powerful or challenging prevailing cultural attitudes. Throwing an egg at a tramp will never be as funny as throwing an egg at the king.
Satire always has an intended target. Irony can be unintentional, but satire cannot. In jokes about “new women” with “beards and cocks,” trans people in general are clearly the punchline, not extremist activists in particular.
Satire works best when it mocks the audience directly to its face, not when it makes the audience feel comfortable about being united in their disapproval of a much-abused minority.
“What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves,” Nikolai Gogol writes in a line directed to the audience in his satire of Russian provincial attitudes, The Government Inspector. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two tramps spend two acts of a play talking rubbish and engaged in repeated, futile acts. By mid-way through the second act, it has become clear the audience is the real target of the satire: we are being taken on a “quest without end.” In his satire of English policies in Ireland, A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift suggests that poor Irish people sell their children to rich people for food, thereby solving two problems at once. A surprising number of people thought he was being serious—a further indictment. This type of writing is what Eric Griffiths once called “a satire of what it would have been if it hadn’t been a satire.”
Satire works best when you confront people with their own ridiculous opinions and make them laugh at them. Gervais himself has done this. In this Golden Globes bit, he mocks the assembled audience for their complicity in the crimes of Harvey Weinstein—a lovely example of satire done right.
The pretence of joking can often be used duplicitously by people who want to say things no civilized society would otherwise allow. While left-wing people (like Sarah Jeong) can use this tactic sporadically, it’s often used wholescale by right-wing commentators and this kind of trolling—flooding the zone with shit—has almost become a core value of the alt-right.
Sometimes, also, people try out their opinions on the world and, if they get an adverse reaction, take refuge in the pretence that they were joking all along. Such people will also sometimes claim that the supposedly “hysterical” reaction to one of their outrageous opinions is the very thing that caused them to have that opinion on the first place. While the backfire effect indicates that fact-based criticism can paradoxically entrench illogical opinions, it cannot cause anyone to have those opinions in the first place.
Some people will always accuse their critics of having no sense of humour. That’s possible, but perhaps they really aren’t as funny as they thought. Or as edgy. Satire can lose its bite when huge chunks of the mainstream unironically agree with the sentiments being satirised and view it not as comedy but as simple support for their ideas.
It’s the Manuel problem.