Sticks & Stones? Edgy comedy can be a minefield, but when an influential comedian makes a wrong move, we have every right to object. “Tragedy is when I cut my finger,” once said the renowned director Mel Brooks. “Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” A little harsh, perhaps, but then again many jokes are built on the principle of Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. When someone slips on a banana peel or gets thwacked by a water bomb the gut reaction is to laugh. An odd mixture of embarrassment and superiority takes over, the stomach buckles and a guffaw bursts forth. It’s unavoidable. On a primal level there’s just something funny about people in pain. Words by Ross Thompson Illustration by Rebecca Hendin However, while humour is often cruel there’s a fine line between laughing at an actor pratfalling and laughing at the genuinely afflicted. Someone might have to be the butt of the joke but that person should welcome being butted – or at least deserve it. Learning this the hard way is Ricky Gervais, who recently ignited a firestorm of negative publicity after tweeting a series of remarkably crass messages peppered with slurs on disability. As if there was any doubt these epithets were illustrated by pictures posted on Gervais’s feed in which he pulled ‘funny faces’. He claimed in an online interview that the point of this gurning was to “look as hideous as possible without the use of props”. Those with any familiarity with disability might take issue with that explanation. Such stunts would be called ill-advised if one believed that the comic performer accepted advice. Unsurprisingly, the media backlash was fierce. Gervais’s face, both his day-to-day one and the ones he adopted for tweets, was plastered across news channels both here and in the States where he has accrued infamy and success in equal measure, insulting po-faced celebrities at the Golden Globes. Richard Herring, a fellow comedian with first-hand knowledge of just how incendiary the English language can be, blogged a response which was more confounded than critical, and was greeted with a bilious riposte from the defendant’s fanbase. Janet-Street Porter leapt to protect Gervais’ honour in The Independent, responding somewhat confusingly, that he “had made a rare misjudgement” yet in her same sentence praised his stand-up routine about disability. Nicola Clark, a mother of two disabled girls and a campaigner on this very subject, wrote a wonderfully measured reply for The Guardian in which she took him to task for either his insensitivity or his ignorance. Those who did not react with kneejerk outrage plumped for the latter: further Twitter messages from Gervais questioned the interpretation of a word like “mong”, that it had somehow become detached from its root “mongoloid”, an outdated label for Down’s syndrome. This explanation did not wash: if you chop down a tree, the stump remains fixed in the ground. If Gervais had introduced an iota of the scholarly tact contained within his own friend Robin Ince’s posts on the fracas, this might have transformed into an interesting debate on semantics and the chameleon nature of language. For centuries, academics, broadcasters, censors and children in the playground have argued over the exact meaning, weight and value of specific words: which ones are acceptable and which are verboten; which are funny and which are downright offensive. In 1972 the comic George Carlin merrily smashed taboos with his routine ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television’, which suggested that simple gags could be at once funny and thought-provoking. The previous decade, another comedian, Lenny Bruce, mixed beatnik rhythms and profanity to make a political point and was subsequently force-fed an obscenity trial.
Bruce and Carlin’s work is tonally similar to Chris Rock’s landmark skit ‘Niggas vs. Black People’. It might seem tangential to observe that the rap fraternity have been bickering over ‘reclaiming’ the former term for years – the bone of contention being whether the word can be used as a sign of affection rather than a pejorative denoting slavery. However, it’s analogous to the hornets’ nest which Gervais unintentionally stirred up when he began punning on the aforementioned m-word. His excuse was that he thought that it merely meant ‘idiot’, a word which, ironically, was originally associated with learning difficulty – along with ‘cretin’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘dunce’. Gervais, in his defence, is certainly not the first person to have mocked, intentionally or otherwise, those with disabilities. Jacobean drama, for instance, was particularly harsh in its treatment of the infirmed. Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1606), for example, prefigures the ‘freak show’ motif with its inclusion of a dwarf, eunuch and hermaphrodite. The eponymous villain regularly calls upon his inverted family to entertain him with poems, dances and songs. In 19th century London, socialites could visit Bethlehem Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’, to watch the mentally ill patients and, yes, laugh at their antics. If only times had changed. The centrepiece of Ben Stiller’s illfated Tropic Thunder (2008) is an ersatz trailer for Simple Jack, in turn a parody of Forrest Gump (1994). This supposed dig at Hollywood’s knack for rewarding actors who “go full retard” (the film’s phrase, not my own) is indefensible. To posit that the audience is laughing at the ironic subtext of Stiller slobbering and poorly enunciating his words is akin to saying that the Black Eyed Peas’ track ‘Let’s Get Retarded’ is a work of satirical genius. On that note, Jonathan Swift once wrote that satire is “the sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” There is an important distinction to be made here. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David challenges preconceptions of race, gender, religion and, yes, disability but the joke is always on his screen persona and his inane stupidity. He welcomes the butt of the joke on a weekly basis and he deserves it. In sharp contrast, Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights, with its woefully misjudged attack on Harvey Price, came across as the ranting of a spiteful bully. This was not the transgression of boundaries nor was it the reclaiming of language. Nor was it schadenfreude. It was a grown man slinging arrows at a severely disabled child. Admittedly, Gervais does not belong in the same bracket as Boyle. He has since apologised for his “naivety”, something the Scot plainly refused to do. If any good has come out of this sorry debacle it is that it has raised awareness of what the word ‘disability’ truly means, particularly for those who live with it.