John Humphrys - Freedom of Laughter : Are There Limits to Comedy?

May 24, 2021, 9:03 AM UTC

Prince Harry has made a bit of a fool of himself (again). He told American interviewers he thought the First Amendment of the United States Constitution was ‘bonkers’. Since this constitutional guarantee of free speech is one of the very few things that unites all Americans in pride in their country, the remark went down particularly badly, though he did admit that maybe he didn’t understand it very well because “I’ve only been here a short time”. He’s obviously got a lot to learn about his newly-adopted country. Inevitably, his crassness has incited spirited defences of freedom of speech on both sides of the Atlantic, but there is a corner of the debate that has attracted relatively little attention over the years. Even the founding fathers accepted that “freedom” is constrained. It does not, in the words of a famous Supreme Court judge, embrace the freedom to “shout fire” in a crowded theatre. But should different rules apply to comedians? Should they face the same constraints as the rest of us? Just as we accept a few obvious limits on our otherwise unconstrained freedom of speech, should there be limits on what we can laugh at? Or, to put it more starkly, should comedians, paid to make us laugh, be similarly constrained?

In Britain, immigrants wanting citizenship have to take a test proving they’re au fait with what makes Britain British. Questions such as ‘What’s Magna Carta?’ ‘How many wives had Henry VIII?’ and ‘What’s the difference between a royal duke and an ordinary one?’ tend to crop up. Perhaps it is the arbitrary fatuousness of such questions which has discouraged the Americans from following suit and having a test of their own. Had there been one, the aspiring citizen of California, the Duke of Sussex, would surely have been asked what the First Amendment is all about.

For freedom of speech is central to the United States’ sense of its own identity. It was up there with other bones of contention the founder rebels had with Harry’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, George III. The king’s ministers had a penchant for trying to lock up people who were rude about him – people like John Wilkes, who was charged with seditious libel simply for criticising one of the king’s speeches. Unsurprisingly Wilkes and the American rebels formed a mutual admiration society, with Wilkes urging the rebels on during the war of independence, and the new republic celebrating him as a champion of its values. John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was named after him. So even now, American politicians don’t like descendants of the house of Hanover seeming to question the very foundation of the republic. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman from Texas, tweeted after Harry’s gaffe: ‘Well, I just doubled the size of my Independence Day party.’

In the twenty-first century freedom of speech is what marks the difference between the two forms of government emerging in the battle for global dominance: democratic governments and authoritarian governments. The former champion freedom of speech, the latter crush it. Yet even within democracies there have been acknowledged limitations on the freedom of speech. The American constitution itself cites the exceptions of defamation, hate speech and obscenity as legitimate constraints.

But what about constraints on what we should laugh about? Comedy, after all, is just a niche corner in our wider repertoire of free speech and, in the form of satire, is very much part of the free speech arsenal deployed in political conflict. Wilkes used it and it’s alive today. Radio Four’s News Quiz, for example, sets up four comedians to make funny, and usually pointedly satirical remarks about what’s been going on that week in the world of politics. Some argue we could do with much more satire in today’s politics; others say that modern politics has itself become so farcical, it’s put satire out of business.

It was a recent episode of the News Quiz which set me thinking about the limits of comedy -- or, I’d be more honest to say, so incensed me that I started to think about it once I’d calmed down. First, though, let me step back and consider comedy more generally.

Can we laugh at, make jokes about anything and everything? The answer to that question seems to have swung like a pendulum over the years and it’s probably fair to say that the view that’s been prevailing recently is “No, you most certainly can’t!” My evidence for claiming this is no more than the fact that these days you’re much more likely to hear people say “better not make a joke about that…” than you would when I was a kid. We have become more sensitive to the power of comedy to hurt and this is surely a good thing. Yet often when you hear that remark you can also detect a hint of reluctant defensiveness: “we’d like to make a joke about that, but we’d better not”. It’d be tempting to rope in the concept of ‘woke’ here but the current manifestation of finger-wagging comes in a long tradition that pits the puritan against the cavalier. The puritan says we mustn’t; the cavalier says “oh, go on …”.

The puritan constraint on comedy says there are people you shouldn’t make jokes about and there are things you shouldn’t make jokes about. But how well does this blanket ban stand up? Let’s take the notion of protected people first. What’s put on the list of the protected depends on where on the puritan spectrum the protector stands. So a British list might include the Irish, Jews, other religious minorities, gays, the disabled, black people, women. . What lies behind the puritan prohibition is the sense of outrage that comedy makes such people a butt, that laughing at people makes us complacently indifferent to their plight and simply reinforces our prejudices against them.

All of that can be true but to make it the justification for the blanket ban that rules ‘you mustn’t make jokes about…’ misses the subtlety of comedy, its capacity for generosity, for bringing people together as much as keeping them apart, for making the world a better place even while it is exploiting the stereotyping that is such a common tool of comedy.

I learned this from the late Rabbi Lionel Blue, a regular contributor to the Thought for the Day slot when I was presenting the Today programme. Lionel invariably ended his piece with a joke. It was always a Jewish joke and always based on a stereotype that the puritan mindset would warn us not to go near. My favourite was the one about the Jew who’d been stranded alone on a desert island for years before he was rescued. His rescuers expressed surprised admiration at the civilised settlement he’d built himself but were puzzled. “Moshe, this is all wonderful, what you’ve done. But why have you built yourself two synagogues?” Moshe’s smile turned to a scowl as he pointed: “That’s the one I don’t go to!” Lionel Blue and his jokes always left us feeling better about life.

 

And what about the idea that there are some things one should never make jokes about? Well, maybe, but the list is a great deal shorter than you might imagine. Could you, for example, make murder the legitimate topic of comedy? Well, Lewis Carroll did. “Off with his head!” says the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to the screaming delight of generations of small children. Anything can be funny in the right context and where the context is fantasy, not real life, then even murder can be funny.

The key point, and the key point to be made against the puritan blanket-banners, is that context is all. People who lay down rules ignore the fact that context can change everything. The ignoring of context is one of the banes of modern life. And my answer to the question as to whether there should be limits on our freedom to laugh is that context should be the only constraint. I defy you to find a context in which the Holocaust or the killing of children could be made to be funny.

Which brings me to the News Quiz. This venerable BBC comedy programme, which in its heyday featured comic geniuses like Alan Coren and Linda Smith, has a simple formula. Pretending to be a quiz rather than just a forum for comics to make gags, the chair asks the contestants to identify a news item from the previous week that’s been wrapped up in a barely concealing question. Then they’re off, making funny digs at David Cameron over Greensill, Keir Starmer failing to win Hartlepool, or whatever.

But last week the chair, Andy Zaltzman, asked: ‘What really terrifying story in one of the world’s most intractably troublesome regions is a very, very difficult one to find an angle on in a topical comedy panel show?’ Before one of the contestants was able tentatively to suggest ‘The Middle East…?’ we had gales of what seemed like canned laughter from the studio audience. (I should point out that, because of Covid, there wasn’t the usual live studio audience but a ‘remote virtual audience’ on Zoom, selected by random from those applying for tickets and who had been encouraged in advance to ‘laugh, applaud and react whenever you want to, and when we mix everything together it will sound amazing!’ What came across was indistinguishable from unrestrained canned laughter.)

The contestants then offered some mildly funny, inoffensive jokes prompted by what’s been going on between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and we moved on to the end of the show. Then we had the news headlines and the report that yet more innocent little Palestinian children had been killed by Israeli air attacks.

You see what I mean about context? Minutes before, the ‘amazing’ gales of laughter had been confected to make us join in the fun about what’s going on in the Middle East and treat it as just more meat for comedy. Now we had the reality.

You might say that for the BBC to let such crassness happen was, well, bonkers. My own reaction was more visceral than that. I don’t, though, claim that this was anything more than an egregious aberration. But I do believe it ought to make us think harder about comedy and whether ‘freedom of laughter’ needs exceptions just as ‘freedom of speech’ does. If it does, then it mustn’t be of the ‘you mustn’t make jokes about …’ variety. That would be too crudely prescriptive. Instead, we need simply never to lose sight of context and that there are some contexts comedy can never enter.

What’s your view? Let us know.