RETURN OF THE SHARP WITS
by Peter Aspden
As political correctness wears off, today’s comic masters, who liberally cause offence, show that we are living in a golden age of comedy When Sacha Baron Cohen first portrayed his character Ali G on British television, recrimination followed swiftly. It was alleged that the grotesque caricature of British black culture that Ali G represented was disrespectful, misleading and racist. The fact that it came from as Cambridge-educated Jew did not help matters at all.
A truly feeble defence was mounted by those who found themselves stung by the criticism (though not by Baron himself, who generally and admirably declined to expose himself — his real self — to the media). It went something like this: Ali G was not making fun of black culture; he was actually making fun of white wannabes. The really funny thing about him was this gap between his aspirational self and the banal reality. Ali G’s killer line was: “Is it because I is black?” because he so obviously wasn’t.
There is some truth in that. But make no mistake: Ali G was utterly and splendidly satirical of a certain aspect of urban black culture. Spend any time watching MTV videos and you will see exactly what Ali G makes fun of: the ridiculous posing, the ghastly dress sense, the cheap (and frequently repellent) machismo, the bling, the triteness and aching desire to be cool that, by its very self-consciousness, achieves exactly the opposite.
Considering that they are such vibrant art forms, rap and hip-hop remain depressingly mired in violence and misoginy. They are more than worthy of ridicule. But what Ali G came across when he first devised his routine was the clumsy barrier of political correctness. It was just easier to contend that he was mocking white copycats. But where is the joke in that? It was the germ of truth in his characterisation of black braggadocio that made the comedy bite. It feels uncomfortable to point this out. Yet satire that doesn’t bite is no satire at all.
Baron Cohen is currently embroiled in all those arguments once more, this time for his portrayal of Borat, the television journalist from Kazakhstan, in his new movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government is reportedly unhappy: to which the answer should be: tough. Comedy should be given licence to ride roughshod over these (over)sensitivities. That is one of the mainstays of western liberal culture.
Yet too often it draws back. It all started so promisingly, in flabby postwar America, with the acid performances of Lenny Bruce. Like his rock-and-roll counterpart Jim Morrison, he was scrutinized and arrested for his stage antics, deemed obscene, and finally became a martyr to his own cause, cutting a pathetic figure as he became obsessed with his persecution. Yet Bruce had balls: there was no more vivid chronicler of the dramatic change in American social mores during the 1950s and 1960s. His chief targets were sexual hypocrisy and the church. It was a good thing that the story of Christ had not occurred today, he said, otherwise “we’d all be wearing electric chairs on chains round our necks”. Like many of Bruce’s lines, that one hit two plump targets — religious devotion and redneck vengefulness — with one timely barb. But that brand of comedy, so truthful that it hurts, lost its edge.
Just as rock music turned into a mushy, self-indulgent blend of hippy hedonism and straightforward materialism, comedians too found it easier to escape into alternative universes as they swelled their bank balances. Woody Allen became the comic of choice in the 1970s, with his cerebral take on stand-up comedy: “I cheated in my metaphysics exam,” he observed in one of his most celebrated routines. “I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” It was erudite and funny but also a very comfortable form of wit.
A genial surrealism dominated in the succeeding years. There was the US’s Rowan and Martin Laugh’s Laugh-In, hooky and cute, and Britain’s brilliantly inventive Monthy Python. With Life of Brian, the Python team found its sharpness but its target was dogmatic Christianity; and because western culture is as steeped in Aristophanic satire as in Christian dogma, the results were less subversive than might have been expected. With the arrival of political correctness, though, it became ever harder to have tough things to say in a humorous way. Britain’s so-called alternative comics indulged themselves in farce and cheap politicking while mainstream sitcoms, on both sides of the Atlantic, settled into the mise en scène of their cosy sitting rooms with cadaverous complacency.
But in recent years, comedy has refound its ability to snap at its targets. Ali G and Borat were only part of it. Thanks to HBO, Garry Shandling created the perfect postmodern recreation of the hell-hole in The Larry Sanders Show. And Larry David zeroes in on a dizzying variety of social sore points in his Curb Your Enthusiasm. Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci have led the way in Britain, painting their respective pictures of life in the media and politics with a viciousness that would not have shamed Hogarth.
Watching Iannucci’s "The Tick of It" makes us wonder: did the cosy exchanges of "Yes, Minister" take place only 25 years ago? All these comic masters, who liberally cause offence, convince me that we live in a golden age of comedy. They are working in an environment of heightened sensitivities and casual hatred; yet still they continue to make fun. We need these gadflies on the body politic more than ever.
RETURN OF THE SHARP WITS