September 12, 2010
I have a weird obsession with religious figures. I’m not very well versed in theology, and I’m not even all that interested in it, but time after time I find myself including Jesus, God and Satan as characters in the things I write.
I finished a novel at the start of the year which initially started life as a humorous take on the end of humanity, with a half-arsed message about the inherent self-destructive nature of humanity thrown in to give a story featuring a talking chimp and a faeces-fuelled rocket ship some semblance of credibility. The story was about a mysterious businessman exploiting a new drug, an underground cult who believed the end of the world was coming and a journalist who had inadvertently been given a defective batch of the drug. Eventually the businessman evolved from being satanic to simply being Satan, engineering Hell on Earth in order to expand his kingdom of the netherworld.
I’ve sort of given up on the second novel I started writing, because I lack self-discipline and I couldn’t manage writing a novel, doing university work, and the other projects I want to do at the same time. It was more directly about figures from Christianity, and from the very start. The title was/is Jesus Christ and The Mongoose Keepers From Mars. Set in the future, it featured Jesus Christ being kidnapped in time and altering the timeline to a faithless humanity. Also Jesus became a primetime TV magician and winemaker, and some disgraced zoo keepers from a Mars colony had to replace a mongoose that had committed suicide.
One of the reasons I stopped writing that novel was to concentrate on performing comedy. I’ve started writing a show and, true to form, Biblical characters crop up being satirised. As far as I’m concerned they should be fair game for comedians, and especially as the jokes aren’t undermining religion at all but taking Biblical characters out of context for a humorous purpose.
The show I’m working on now relies a lot on satirising historical, political and theological figures. It’s essentially a play on the way authors get to play God with the characters they create; instead I’m taking lessons from famous historical, political and theological figures and using what I learn on the characters to see how they react. It’s a sort of pseudo-scientific experiment in literature. It may not be a good idea, or even a funny one, but it is quite clearly a very silly idea— as is the second novel I mentioned.
I am not religious or spiritual in any way. I’m a horribly shallow and materialistic person who listens to rock music, buys things I don’t need and masturbates frequently. If I have a soul it’s almost certainly malnourished.
Technically this makes me an atheist, although I don’t like to describe myself as an atheist because of the connotations that now has thanks to people like Richard Dawkins. I’m not comfortable with militant or extreme religious views of any kind— a lack of faith is still a religious view and going about preaching what he does or doesn’t believe is very much extremism as far as I’m concerned. I find it incredibly distasteful.
I’m not saying that I think Dawkins is wrong in what he says, but I find the ways and lengths he goes to share his views is harmful to both those of faith and atheists like myself who maybe don’t believe in God but don’t really mind what anyone else chooses to believe.
I’m firmly of the belief that religious and spiritual choices should be private, personal and not a way of generating publicity and fortune. I have friends of varying religious faiths, and it really doesn’t bother me one way or the other. Why should it? Just because I don’t believe a giant bearded chap created life why should I spend time and effort just shouting about how ludicrous I find that notion?
The Crusades are generally regarded as pretty bad— a violent attempt to force one set of religious beliefs on others of a different view. In essence that’s what Richard Dawkins is trying to do, albeit in a corporate setting with less bloodshed, more comfortable looking sweatshirts and with a look of unbearable smugness that almost makes me hope that the Christians are right.
We’re all now lucky enough to have the right to believe in whatever or whomever we like. Should that not also come with the obligation to respect and tolerate the beliefs of others? We have free speech, but we also have the responsibility to respect that privilege, and to not abuse it. We can say what we like, but does that mean we should always just go right ahead?
I’m of the opinion that Eli Manning is one of the worst quarter backs to play in the Super Bowl, that it’s a travesty he has more rings than Dan Marino, and that the New York Giants generally kind of suck compared to, say, the New England Patriots.
I have a right to say that, and express that view any time, any day, any place I like. That doesn’t necessarily mean I always should do that. I mean, if I was in any bar in New York City on a Sunday afternoon I wouldn’t dare say that.
Because I don’t want to die.
It would be an incredibly dangerous and inflammatory thing to say. There would be an awful lot of people who would be offended by that statement and vehemently disagree with me. In that instance the most sensible thing to do is to keep your beliefs to yourself, and make sure you stay sober enough to not say it by accident. By exercising self-restraint and common sense I save causing deliberate offence, and I save myself a severe beating at the hands of drunken sports fans, all of whom would be a lot bigger than I am.
When the now infamous Danish cartoonist started receiving death threats I was initially on his side. It’s free speech man! We can say what we like, yeah?!
But now I don’t think it’s that simple or black and white. Maybe it is. I don’t know, I’m twenty-one and I don’t read the news much and I’m probably coming across as innocently naïve or something.
Should the cartoonist have the right to draw and satirise whatever he likes? Of course he should, and I’m not for a second going to argue against free speech. Everyone should have the right to express their views; even Glenn Beck.
But is it really sensible or respectful to draw such cartoons? I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know how funny they were, but I highly doubt they were funny or intelligent enough to warrant doing something that is only possibly going to have one outcome. If we want our freedom to be respected, then don’t we owe the beliefs of others the same courtesy? Depicting the prophet Mohammed is something expressly forbidden in the Koran, and something all Muslims feel strongly about.
To then depict Mohammed for shits and giggles strikes me as incredibly immature, childish and both incredibly irresponsible and disrespectful— especially to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who are equally appalled by the outrageous atrocities carried out in the name of their faith. I don’t think that’s fair. To flagrantly contravene a core tenement of someone’s belief system is an inflammatory act that I would say goes far beyond ‘just a joke.’
There’s a problem with humour when it comes to free speech, because ‘it’s just a joke’ can be used to defend some truly abhorrent and shocking statements. I knew someone at college who told a lot of racist jokes, and I strongly suspect he was truly a bit of a racist who believed most of what he was saying. But if you respond to such a joke by saying ‘shit, you can’t say that mate’ then ‘it’s just a joke’ becomes a perfectly valid defence.
But jokes can go too far. In the 1990s there was a comedy sports panel show on in the UK. They would regularly make fun of a football player called Justin Fashanu who was the first black player to command a £1m transfer fee, and the first football player to have the courage to come out as a homosexual whilst still a player. Really the guy should be given a lot of respect and admiration, but hey, it was the ‘90s and it was much easier to make fun of a black poofter. But what’s the big deal? Jokes are jokes right, what harm can they do?
On May 2nd 1998 Justin Fashanu killed himself.
It’s not as though the people on that show were trying to goad Fashanu into killing himself, and there were others factors contributing to his decision, but it’s a strong lesson in the power that words have.
I don’t believe any comedian wants to cause that sort of damage with a joke; comedy is part of the entertainment industry and ultimately everyone wants to have a good time and a bit of a laugh. There are certain comedians who go out of their way to shock people— comedians such as Frankie Boyle who makes jokes on topics ranging from terrorism to mental disability, and Jimmy Carr who has many jokes about rape and sexual abuse, such as ‘what do nine out of ten people enjoy? Gang rape.’ His latest show is, somewhat cleverly, called Rapier Wit.
I’m sure the US has its equivalent comics, and whilst the main gimmick of Carr and Boyle’s material is in its shock value, I don’t honestly believe they’re deliberately aiming to offend the disabled or victims of sexual abuse; the material and images are so infamously off-colour that those likely to be offended will know full well that they will almost certainly be offended should they go to see one of their shows.
I find this an interesting and tricky issue, particularly as I’m now going back into performing live comedy. At the last show I did about eighteen months ago I was told all my material was unsuitable and I couldn’t do it. I was incredibly pissed off, especially given that this was something I’d put time and effort into writing and wasn’t told it was unsuitable until the morning of the show. The only reason I didn’t do that set anyway is because I hadn’t had time to rehearse after getting back from Amsterdam and couldn’t really remember the jokes.
Comedians are in a privileged position in that they work within a medium almost entirely free of censorship, which makes them very important people. I firmly believe that comedians should be able to say and make fun of anything. We need people like Jon Stewart and Tim Minchin to be able to use their free speech and point to the absurdity of political and theological issues.
But should there be a point that is considered ‘too far’? The problem though is that that immediately sets up a boundary, and a curb on free speech which shouldn’t exist.
I think perhaps it’s up to the individual comedian to censor him or her self, to decide what they think is the right thing to say and what shouldn’t be said; where we draw the line between our own freedoms and our respect for others.
For example, I came up with a joke on Saturday afternoon:
I just saw an Islamic tribute to Simon Le Bon called Koran Koran— they were Shi’ite.
Usually if I come up with a mediocre one-liner like that it becomes my Facebook status, but I didn’t post that joke. And the thing is I’m not entirely sure what it was that led me to make that decision other than a faint sense of ill-ease when it came to clicking ‘post’.
I have a couple of friends on Facebook who are Muslim, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that they might be upset or offended. I mean sure, the joke trivializes their holy text but it’s not really offensive— Islam isn’t the butt of the joke, it’s just wordplay.
The majority of my Facebook friends are white Americans like you’re always seeing on television and in magazines. And they’re the reason I didn’t post that joke. The Saturday in question was September 11th, and I didn’t feel it was particularly sensitive or appropriate to make a joke trivializing a religion whose extremist believers had, nine years ago to the day, committed a horrendous act of terror.
On any other day of the year I probably wouldn’t have had any qualms about posting such a joke. Does this mean the terrorists have won?
It’s not like I sacrificed much— at best the joke would have been ‘liked’ a few times, whilst at the worst I could have offended or upset someone I care about. There are friends I have on Facebook who I know were in New York City on the day of the attacks. I know they’d know that I wasn’t trying to make light of anything, but there was the slightest chance that they might think I was being a bit of an insensitive arsehole.
I don’t want anyone to think I’m an insensitive arsehole. I just want people to like me because of how funny I am…
I think it’s give and take… I’m not proposing censorship or boundaries—mainstream comedy has always had boundaries, but they’re constantly being pushed back— what I’m saying is that we should treat our position and responsibility with the due respect.
Jokes are incredibly powerful things, which I think should be treated with respect and used responsibly.