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.

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James D. Irwin is a British writer based in the Hampshire countryside. His work has appeared online, in print, and on stage. He can be contacted at [email protected]

36 responses to “Pornographic Pictures Of The Virgin Mary Are Nearly Always Inappropriate”

  1. I’m waiting for the 9/11 anniversary when someone publishes a list of 9/11 jokes. It seems it will finally signal we’ve moved forward. In the meantime, as a white American, I feel I must burn something as a protest to any uttering of your joke. Everyone knows Le Bon is Sunni.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      it’s strange. quite often ‘we’ (I mean humanity, rather than you and I specifically) deal with tragedy with humour.

      WWII spawned an awful lot of jokes, for example. but with WWII there was no middle ground— by which I mean there were no decent, peaceful Nazis living amongst us who might be offended.

      I’ve heard a lot of 9/11 jokes over the last nine years and they’ve all been pretty cruel and not that funny. maybe that’s it, maybe it’s not appropriate to laugh and the witticisms thus far haven’t been funny enough to change that.

  2. Grist says:

    Try homegrown targets. For example, back in the 90s when a TV producer wanted to pick my brains on the cheap, instead of hiring me he took me to dinner at the (now-defunct) Chasen’s restaurant. He grew flustered when a bevy of secret service agents escorted in former president Ronald Reagan and his wife and seated them nearby. The royal couple were so close that we could hear Nancy Reagan telling the waiter: “I’ll have the petit filet, medium rare, and baked potato.” The waiter bowed and murmured, “And for the vegetable?” “Oh,” Nancy said, “he’ll have the same”…

  3. Matt says:

    Damn, man, you had an opening that lead me to think this was going to be one kind of post and you effortlessly segued right into the weighty material. Nicely done.

    I think your joke is in far better taste than most of how this past 9/11 was “commemorated”: that idiot preacher in Florida threatening to burn copies of the Koran, demonstrations against (and for) the P51 Islamic center in Manhattan, the Beck/Palin rally….I stayed away from the news–and most of the internet–all weekend because it all depresses me utterly.

    Interesting points on the ethical responsibility of free speech/free press; obviously, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. But then, where would human culture–especially the arts–be without the subversives who do such things? Provocateurs are, I think, something of a cultural necessity; they give us a good kick in the arse when we’ve gotten a little too semiotically comfortable.

    This is kind of becoming my mantra, lately: the catch to living in a free society is that from time to time other people are going to enjoy that freedom in ways you don’t like, and you’ve no choice but to put up with it.

    Easier said than done, of course.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      subversives… where would we be? it’s a good point, and I think that’s what I was really trying to get at when I mentioned people like Jon Stewart and Tim Minchin, and also George Carlin and Bill Hicks who say often quite controversial things… but there is a line, an invisible and almost unidentifiable line, between pointing to the absurd nature of a beleif or a political view and simply just having a lack of respect or making fun at easy targets. And those guys were/are clever, they know their shit when it comes to politics or theology, which is almost respect enough in it’s own right.

      There are definitely some things you should say as a comedian (or anyone really) that people might think you shouldn’t say… but how far do you go with that? Also the funnier a joke is the more leeway you have… a clever, funny funny joke can be made about anything… but most jokes aren’t that funny, at least not funny enough to outweigh the pure shock value.

      And I think with the Danish cartoonist a line was definitely crossed. It was uneccessary and deliberately offensive and disrespectful… I think he should have been more responsible with the power and privilege he had.

      • Slade Ham says:

        I deal with this shit every day. Every comic does. Not all of us on a Stanhope level, but still…

        At the end of it all, the question is this: Is it funny?

        That’s the difference between guys like Hicks and Kinison… and the thousands of douches that do stuff just to shock. Is Carr’s gang rape joke distasteful? Absolutely. Is it funny? It’s fucking HILARIOUS. It’s cleverly done. The bait and switch is there. That’s such a far cry from what i watch so many open mikers doing today.

        Ride the line, James. Ride it, jump over it, erase it if you want to. Just remember to be funny first. Every joke pisses someone off. Just don’t do it intentionally.

        I could ramble here forever, and I’ll probably come back to this, but I have to go atch up on three weeks worth of TNB stuff.

        I want clips dammit! Koran Koran. Hehehe.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I probably could have expressed my views much more clearly had I spent longer working on this. As it is it’s more just vaguely organized thoughts…

          But I hope I did at least convey that I consider ‘is it funny?’ to be the most important question.

          Carr’s joke is very funny, I can’t deny that. I like Jimmy Carr a lot, his jokes are so cruel but they are always pretty clever. It also comes down to how you interpret the joke. Many people would look at that joke as purely being about gang rape, when it isn’t. It’s basically wordplay. It’s not genius, but I’m familiar with a lot of his other material and know that many of his one-liners are genuinely funny, if shocking, plays on words.

          I think you’ve said much more concisely in a couple of lines what I was generally getting at ‘every joke pisses someone off. Just don’t do it intentionally.’

          I worry more and more that this post comes off as me denouncing free speech, which of course it isn’t. I’m merely asking if there should be a line? How far is too far? Currently I think it is very much at the comic’s own disgression.

          I’m also not going to pretend like I’ve never made an offensive joke, of course I have. It’s more about can we/should we stop people from going too far?

        • Slade Ham says:

          I don’t think there should ever be a definitive line. We kind of have to use our better judgment.

          I think the audience ultimately decides though. When you continuously go to far, you stop being relevant. People stop watching. They walk out. You can’t make money anymore, and eventually quit.

          “Comedy” gets rid of those that don’t regulate themselves….

        • James D. Irwin says:

          that’s it… judgement.

          and the audience— although racist/sexist comics can still draw pretty decent crowds because hey, there are a lot of racists in the world who like to laugh at people who ‘say it like it is/what we’re all thinking/what we’re too scared to say.’

          incidentally I’m not against pushing boundaries of taste and decency, but I think there’s also a difference between doing a slightly shocking joke and just going all out to offend someone. generally when I make jokes about religion they’re silly and harmless, but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable making a serious point about what I view to be it’s inherent absurdity and hypocracy but I know where I would stop.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    It’s a really interesting question, Jim, and one that’s near and dear to my heart. It raises a lot of questions about active freedom versus passive freedom, subjectivity vs. objectivity… oh, man, what a mess.

    The Koran thing was a highlight of how quickly this stuff can unravel – at first it was an exercise in freedom, then it became an exercise in respect, then an exercise in pissing off Muslims, then all of the above, all roped into one gigantic tangle.

    I think the best lesson to apply is ‘Just don’t be a dick about it.’

    Then of course, one man’s dick is another’s polemicist… ye Gods.

  5. Gloria says:

    Way thought-provoking, man. And it’s 11:00 at night and I have to go to sleep, so I can’t say everything on my mind. But I will say this:

    First of all, it’s total SSE that I would read this post after accidentally spending over an hour reading up on Bill Hicks, who I’ve studied before. I always end up landing back on him. I love comedians. They’re my favorites. I believe that heaven is one big comedy club and we’re all up there just roasting the sorry fuckers down on earth. And I’m up there with George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Gilda Radner. Chris Rock (well, eventually…) I love Bill Hicks, though. Do you know him? He’s so incredibly, amazingly fabulous. (Hey, it’s late – I tend to be overly generous with my descriptors when I’m tired.)

    Hicks was raunchy and even angry, but he was one of the most gifted social commentators I’ve ever seen. His observations and thoughts blow my mind. He definitely does not leave religion alone. And why should he? We have a comedienne here in the states named Lisa Lampanelli – and she is awful. But hilarious. But awful. She crosses boundaries that few would dare to cross. (Youtube her.) Honestly, she rubs me the wrong way. But again, who cares? If I don’t like her, I don’t have to watch her.

    Here’s the thing: comedians are modern day court jesters. It is their (your) job to call the kings and queens out on their ridiculous behavior. I mean, that’s what the jesters of old were there for. That was the job they were tasked with performing. Same thing.

    I’m rambling. I’m tired. I’m not saying precisely what I mean. I need to go to bed.

    But seriously, don’t hold back. You’re doing your kingdom a disservice if you do. Okay, sure – sometimes the jesters overstepped their bounds and were beheaded, but that’s a risk I’m willing to have you take, Irwin. If our comedians quit being honest, I’ll lose all hope for humanity.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I can’t believe I spent three days writing this and didn’t mention Hicks or Carlin until responding to Matt’s comment.

      I love Bill Hicks, and he’s an example of someone who subverted and pushed the boundaries of what could/should be said. But he was incredibly intelligent and very, very funny. I’m not sure that he was that offensive— I’ve watched his three major shows and I don’t remember anything he said being potentially upsetting, at least not deliberately and callously so.

      He was an example of someone using his free speech and privileged position for the forces of good, and he didn’t abuse that position by making controversial jokes for the hell of it.

      I also think, when it comes to jesters, that there is a slight difference when it comes to politics. People, generally, don’t take things quite as personally and political difference of opinion is healthy and neccessary in a democracy. Religion is a bit different, where some of us might find it absurd but it’s not up to us to judge. It shouldn’t be us versus them the way it is with politics, making a slightly trickier ground to cover.

      Then you have to ask what the aim of the joke is? If it’s to subvert the hypocracy or ridiculousness of a religious figure then yes, that should definitely be done. That’s why free speech is so important.

      But there’s a difference between that and say ‘why was the Muslim in a hurry? Because jihad a plane to catch.’ That’s not funny, it’s not social commentary and it lazily and unfairly implies all Muslims are extremists.

      I should be allowed to say that, but I don’t think it’s right for me to go about saying it.

      • Gloria says:

        But there’s a difference between that and say ‘why was the Muslim in a hurry? Because jihad a plane to catch.’ That’s not funny, it’s not social commentary and it lazily and unfairly implies all Muslims are extremists.

        Okay, but – aren’t most comedy acts built on stereotypes? Are you trying to be a kumbaya comedian? I’m not saying I find the joke funny or not funny. But calling out a stereotype in a joke doesn’t necessarily perpetuate it.

        • Gloria says:

          Also, I agree with everything you’re trying to say. I’m not just trying to be contrary.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          ”Are you trying to be a kumbaya comedian?” made me laugh, and I’m aware that I’m kind of coming across like that, which isn’t the intention.

          A lot of comedy comes from stereotypes, but stereotypes in themselves are often quite lazy and rarely that funny anymore. Most of the best comedy I’ve seen rooted in stereotypes is making fun of the stereotyping, rather than using ‘hey, you ever notice how easily the French surrender?’ For example there’s a German comedian, Henning Wehn, whose entire act mocks German stereotypes whislt simultaneously disproving the notion all Germans are self-serious and humourless.

          And it depends how far you go with stereotyping as well. On one hand it can be friendly banter— the way you guys here often make remarks about tea consumption/The Queen etc etc, or the way English cricket fans depict all australians as fat beer drinking bbq enthusiasts. But stereotyping is essentially a mild form of racism, and the point I was trying to make is that with all humour it’s a matter of choosing to draw the line somewhere. For example my joke, I think, crosses the line from comic stereotype to straight up racism.

  6. Firstly, I like the sound of your weird novel attempt. Especially its name. Great stuff.

    Then you moved into the deep stuff really nicely… It’s still morning here, but I’ll attempt to wake my brain enough to throw down a few half-digested thoughts.

    When I was younger I think I was more inclined to believe that everything should be open to humour; that by placing certain topics off limits we are setting an unfortunate precedent. I’m not sure if I believe the opposite of that nowadays, but the idea itself seems more fraught with trouble. I get more uncomfortable hearing offensive jokes, although I’m not sure if these jokes really should be considered offensive… Maybe I’m just getting older and more sensitive/boring, or maybe I was just younger and stupider, and now my immaturity only comes out now and then.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      I really, really want to write that, but I don’t have the time the idea deerves. I have it all planned out and everything, and made a few starts on it, but I want to do it at a time when it’s the only thing I’m doing. Right now I’m trying to start comedy nights in Winchester so I can start doing live performance. It’s pretty time consuming… I told John Wilcox the entire concept a few months ago and he absolutely loved it… ah well… unless I die an untimely death I have plenty of time to get it done…

      I’m kind of like you. I don’t think there can ever be a clear line drawn between what you can laugh at and what you can’t, because that would be dangerous. You can’t do that, because everything is subjective— from what one finds offensive to what one finds funny. I think the only person who should be responsible for making that call is the person making the joke. It’s up to the induvidual to decide what he thinks is and isn’t acceptable… but with a certain social responsibility. Take Bernard Manning for example. He made his living off racist, sexist jokes… truly awful things to say, but things he had a right to say… but he wouldn’t get rich off it these days, we live in more tolerant times. Jim Davidson does similiar material and he’s pretty much destroyed his own career.

      Jokes are nearly always going to upset of offend somebody, especially as there are people who wil go out of their way to be offended. The ‘Sachsgate’ thing with Jonathan Ross and Russel Brand is an example of this… of the thousands of people who complained only a fraction had actually heard the original broadcast. The rest went out of their way to be offended by something that they’d simply heard about— although it’s not something that I think was terribly funny and an instance of two entertainers absuing their position and not exercising much thought. I’m a huge fan of immaturity, but they, quite quickly, crossed the line into cruelty and humiliation.

      • Yeah, I’m sure you’ll have time for it one day. Sounds like a complex thing to write, though.

        Jim Davidson is a prick… I’m glad his career is dying. He was offensive for the sake of it. He was never actually funny.

        It is funny that so many people get offended so easily… Like the Ross/Brand thing you mentioned. It’s as though they simply want to be offended.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          Yeah, it is. I mean it’s generally pretty silly but it took ages to plan and for it to be as funny as it can be possibly be it needs due time and care. Also I don’t think I’m good enough to write it yet…

          I read a funny article about Jim Davidson yesterday. He went to a comedy club in London and then ranted about it on his blog. It was full of the charming nuggests of racism you might expect…

  7. Joe Daly says:

    >>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.<<

    To me, these sentences seem to contradict each other.

    As for the Danish cartoonist, I look at it this way:

    I have a crazy loud stereo. I also have all of Slayer’s studio albums. The knobs on my stereo allow me to play Slayer songs at a volume so loud that you could hear it down the street. My children-having neighbors on all sides would almost certainly be unhappy about it. Still, I have the technology to do it, and I could most likely play the songs at a level loud enough for me to enjoy, whilst annoying them, and all under local noise requirement regulations. I just choose not to because it’s inconsiderate and not worth it.

    Interesting piece and very well-articulated. We definitely need comedians to keep us accountable- to point out where and when we’re taking ourselves too seriously. As much as I enjoy the comedians who express outrage at social and political travesties, I equally enjoy comedians who just point out the silly shit we do and riff on it. Richard Jeni was always my fave.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      That’s a pretty good analogy.

      I started writing this because I love watching political comedy, and I truly beleive the good ones to be very important people.

      What I write doesn’t have any great aims of creating a better world or bringing down the government, just silly laughs with maybe the occasional piece of satire. I love Bill Hicks, but I couldn’t do what he did. I’m not angry or even intelligent enough to do that sort of material.

      I think if I was that sort of comic, that radical then maybe my view might be a bit different. But above all else I want to be a kind and decent person who always makes an honest attempt at doing what’s right… it’s brave to go up and say the unsayable, but to me it’s just as brave to have principles and not to break them for the sake of a joke.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    >>I mean, if I was in any bar in New York City on a Sunday afternoon I wouldn’t dare say that.

    Not if they were Jets fans. Jets fans hate Eli.

    An interesting read, Jedi. This week’s Mad Men delved into some of this — what’s a joke, what’s funny, what’s harmful. It’s a timeless question and a delicate balance.

  9. sheree says:

    Brilliant! Beers to ya!

  10. D.R. Haney says:

    I enjoyed this quite a bit, James. It’s enough to make me eat everything I said a few weeks ago about opinion pieces.

    Pass the salt.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Thanks Duke.

      I hate writing things like this… I have to think and people might disagree with me…

      I used to write stuff like this all the time though.

      Before I became a mere jester…

  11. Tawni says:

    I really liked this one, Irwin.

    I especially liked your thoughts on Richard Dawkins. I usually just mumble “agnostic” and step away from the discussion entirely. I don’t know why or how we got here, and I don’t understand why anyone else would claim to have the definite answers either. But if I express this to someone very religious, such as Christian friends or family members, they usually give me a beatifically patronizing smile, and chirp the word “Faith!” at me. So I guess I’m faith-impaired. But you won’t find me proselytizing on some sort of Debbie Downer atheist crusade to make sure everyone else believes the same version of nothing as me. Because, as you said above, “a lack of faith is still a religious view.” For the same reasons I don’t believe, I don’t not believe, if that makes sense. If you believe we can’t know one way or the other, then it applies to both ways.

    I don’t understand people like Dawkins who want to take religious comfort away from people. Good for anyone who finds peace in this stressful world, anywhere they can, I say.

    I like your Simon LeBon joke. Be sure to have someone film any live comedy you perform in the future. We want to see it. (:

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Thanks Tawni.

      ”For the same reasons I don’t believe, I don’t not”

      Totally. Nobody knows the answers. Whenever ultra-atheists point to scientific fact what I really like to say to them to wind them up is ‘scientific knowledge only extends as far as human comprehension. An omnipotent force creating all life is beyond human comprehension, and therefore can not to be proved or disproved by science.’

      Then they get angry and say I’m an idiot. I don’t beleive that, it’s just a thought. It’s probably an incredibly weak argument, but people always get too flustered to articulate themselves properly.

      ”I don’t understand people like Dawkins who want to take religious comfort away from people. Good for anyone who finds peace in this stressful world, anywhere they can, I say.”

      That’s the biggest thing I can’t stand about him. I wrote about this in an earlier draft. Take people who have had a friend or relative die who console themselves with the thought that their loved one is in a better place. To come along and tell these people that they’re wrong, and that instead of floating on a cloud playing a harp they’re actually being eaten away by worms underground strikes me as unneccessarily cruel.

      Contrary to popular belief religious faith causes a lot more comfort than it does pain, especially when you consider that almost all religious suffering is caused by the same extremism and intolerance that is at the core of the militant atheist movement.

      I will try and get as much stuff as possible filmed this year, and if any of it is any good then I might just let you see it!

  12. James, this is the first piece of yours I’ve read and I look forward to more: you’ve got a distinct voice and a knack for untangling knotted threads. Compelling work, particularly for one so young. Keep doing this.

  13. Sheree Altobelle says:

    I think it’s up to each individual to voice their opinions, facebook status’ etc.. in any way they wish. Some are more passionate than others. When it’s a view that I don’t particularly agree with it can be extremely annoying. But I guess it’s up to me to either say something or go about my business and stay quiet. I usually choose the latter because I know I’m not going to change anybody’s mind and well….it’s not worth my time or aggravation. Being a comedian is different. We are lending our ear to someone who we hope will put words to the frustrations we feel. I feel that Jay Leno sold his comic soul and homogenized himself to please the network devils. OR…perhaps Jay just doesn’t have much to say. He’s likable, I’ll give him that. Maybe it’s because I see a soul behind those cold eyes of his. Naw. He’s just picking the color of his next car.

    Letterman, he’s edgier. But still a sellout. He has to be. That’s the way you play the game and get the big bucks. Duh.

    It’s odd that I read this just after watching a marathon of Bill Hicks videos. He is a perfect example. He was never successful in the mainstream because he would have offended too many people. But he was always truthful. He had a lot to say about our government/war machine, pro-lifers, non-smokers, stupid people, rednecks, Christians…nothing was out of reach. I think that’s what people want. The truth….but funny. Not that easy to do.

    I would say that there really are no lines. Each individual has their own truth and it’s bound to come out. We all evolve as our ideas evolve. And it’s people like Hicks, Carlin and Kinison who shake our souls and wake us up. They are few and far between but they are brilliant and thankfully they shared their truths with us while they were here.

    On the other side of that coin are the comedians who shock out of cruelty…or shock just for the sake of shocking us. They tend to fizzle out….or they just end up taking a sledge hammer to a watermelon.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Excellent points.

      The thing is I don’t think Hicks or Carlin ever went too far… that is to say that stopped short of telling deliberately upsetting/offensive jokes.

      I’d also be interested to see how they would have handled the issues of these days. People have become more sensitive about their beliefs and equality etc etc.

      There’s no doubt in my mind they’d do it brilliantly… they were both pretty principled and intelligent guys and I think they’d know where to draw the line between a making a joke and just outright offending people.

      It’s very hard to do what they did, regarding controversial but truthful social commentary.

  14. Mark Sutz says:


    Have you ever seen The Aristocrats? Not The Aristocats, but the Aristocrats? Check it out if you haven’t. It speaks much about this topic and it is gut-wrenchingly funny.

    Also, Sarah Silverman’s famous joke she told on Conan that got her uninvited. Very funny, stereotypes are toyed with, mildly offensive, but mostly thought provoking and mirroring our own foolishness about race issues.

    This post is timely. I’m working on a piece for TNB about a particular joke that I tell and the line between comedy and tragedy. It is tricky, but I’ve thought so long and hard about this topic because when I hear that the Danish cartoonist now has to live in a home with a safe room and has constant threats on his life, it positively sickens me.

    I like to err on the side of the profane, the brilliant, even the unfunny, but I certainly like to err on the side of freedom of speech. In my country now, the Republicans are about six inches away from equating freedom of speech with pedophilia. America, the world really, is at a crossroads, and it feels like things, despite the internet, are getting scarier in regard free speech.

    As you say, “If we want our freedom to be respected, then don’t we owe the beliefs of others the same courtesy?” Yes, most fucking certainly. WE owe it, and so do THEY.

    I think if a comic wants to tell edgy, even possibly offensive jokes, he or she should be allowed to. If people eventually don’t find her funny, she’ll tank. I’d rather be offended than know that comic was somehow censored. Most comics aren’t funny, anyway. I pray for a comic to be funny when I watch him on TV or on stage and I am disappointed at least 90 percent of the time. I mean how did comics like Judy Tenuta or (and I know I’ll be offending some here) Don Rickles, a truly unfunny insult comic (I’ve tried, but I just have never laughed at anything he ever did) or Bob Hope (Bob Hope, oh my fucking god how did he ever have a career) or the dozens of comics I’ve slogged through on late night TV over the last X amount of years.

    Bill Hicks = best comic ever. More people should see him, even if they come away offended. He was honest to the bone.

    Ok, my rambling stops here, but I just want people to chill out. The day we’re all okay with all the comics we encounter is the day when telling an off-color/offensive/stupid/filthy joke will get you some time in jail. And I personally don’t want that. The last place I want to be is a cell where I have to take a dump in view of three other guys. I’ve got enough trouble pissing in a urinal when I know there are people waiting behind me. I can only imagine how backed up I’d feel in jail, on the can, looking at my cell mates and wondering why I told the joke to the guy in the bar who ended up being some kind of morality police officer.

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