- 25 Sep 09
Tommy Tiernan has become engulfed in a nasty controversy over remarks made in the context of a comedic performance. The furore raises the question: are there meaningful boundaries to ‘acceptable’ humour?
Over the past few days, Ireland’s leading comedian Tommy Tiernan has been plunged into a vat of controversy about remarks made during a public interview in the Hot Press Chat Room, at Electric Picnic.
It is, I can assure you, extremely hot and deeply unpleasant in there. Tommy has been personally attacked and abused by hundreds of people, in print and on radio. Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter (whose opinion was most likely canvassed because he himself happens to be Jewish) has been especially vitriolic in his condemnation, dismissing what Tommy said about Jews during the interview as “a disgusting and unacceptable outburst.”
Now the story has gone international. Irish Comedian In Anti-Semitic Storm. The thought police are on the move. The knives are out. As we went to press, it was getting ever hotter and more unpleasant. The tweeters were tweeting. The bloggers were blogging. The eejits on the dumber class of messsage boards were having a field day.
But of course they don’t know what they are talking about. Alan Shatter doesn’t know either. It is extremely unlikely that he watched the full interview-cum-performance on hotpress.com. To make life easy for him, and for everyone else who has criticised Tommy over the past few days, we have printed the full exchange in this issue of Hot Press.
If Alan Shatter reads the interview and comes to the conclusion that Tommy Tiernan is genuinely prejudiced against Jews, then he is suffering from a potentially life-threatening humour by-pass and needs to get it attended to quickly.
But then maybe he is. The fact is that the interview turned – as many of Tommy Tiernan’s interviews do – into a spontaneous comic performance in which he improvises around whatever subjects are thrown at him by the interviewee. What he said was strong, referring to the fact that he’d have killed not six million but ten million or twelve million Jews. But, while you have to read the full interview to understand what was going on and to see it in context, only an idiot could think that he was expressing his own feelings.
It is perfectly obvious that he is taking the piss. As you’ll see when you read it, in reference to a Jewish couple who approached him after a gig in New York, there is a comment in there about people who are fanatical, and who can’t take a joke. And there is another point which is sensitive but well worth raising: there are Christians who hate Jews because they hold them responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (who himself happened to be Jewish). These undercurrents are there in all religious rivalries. Who is right and who is wrong? Who really are the chosen people? If one religious gang are right, then automatically, ipso facto, the others are wrong, wrong and wrong again.
This is fertile ground. But as the thought process evolves, Tommy gets into a different kind of riff. He launches into an anti-Jewish rant that is clearly intended to satirise the kind of absurd and hateful things that people who are anti-Jewish think and say. Far from indulging in an anti-Jewish sentiments, he is using a deliberately exaggerated example of anti-Jewish sentiment to satirise anti-Semitism, while making a more general point that we should all be able to laugh at ourselves.
The thing is that there are some people who claim special privilege in relation to comedy, on a sort of ‘you can laugh at anyone except us’ basis. Unfortunately this has been true on occasion of the Irish in the UK, who have whinged and moaned about anti-Irish jokes far too often for my liking. If an Irish comedian puts on a cockney accent, it’s hilarious. If a cockney comedian puts on an Irish accent, then it’s an outrage.
Bottom line in Tommy’s worldview: fuck off if you can’t take a joke. He has a point. There are, of course, historical reasons why Irish people might feel sensitive. We only started to get out from under the British yoke of oppression less than a hundred years ago. Them laughing at us, the argument runs, is just a way of attempting to reassert their sense of superiority. Remember the signs: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, no Irish’. They treated us like shit!
Hey, I’m sure they did. But that was then and we’re well able to take care of ourselves now — or if we aren’t, we should be. So the bottom line still is: fuck off if you can’t take a joke. That goes for the Irish, it goes for the Jews, it goes for the Scots, it goes for the Swedish and it goes for the Muslims too. So what if someone is stereotyping us? It might not be funny — that’s a different matter — but unless it amounts to a deliberate and sustained Hate Campaign, it is harmless.
The furore does raise some interesting questions about humour, which of its nature is enigmatic. What is it that makes us laugh? Why do I find something hilariously funny that leaves someone else cold? To what extent is our laughter a function of our prejudice? And why is it that we often laugh hardest when comedians mention what in polite society is considered the unmentionable?
However difficult it is to analyse music, it is even harder to explain what happens when a comedian starts to hit the funny bone.
There is often, in laughter, a sense of dread. We are not sure what our laughter says about us. We are not sure how we look to other people when we laugh. We lose ourselves in laughter. (We lose our ‘selves’ in laughter). Do we look somehow out of control, mindless, freakish? Are we laughing at things other people find sick or repulsive or just plain dirty?
The tears roll down our cheeks, when we laugh hard enough. If we are hit by a laughing fit — if the joke is funny enough — we can get a stitch or a pain in the side. It is like being tickled when you’re a kid. The rational world abandons you. You don’t want to piss in your pants but it starts to happen and you plead stop, stop, stop, stop, but the tickler thinks it’s great gas and tickles on. As an adult, a fit of laughter carries some of the memories of that humiliation. We are out there in some kind of twilight world, ourselves but not ourselvers. In the grip of something that we can never fully know the shape of, because our eyes are creased up and half closed, and besides, we are shaking.
There is a hint of madness, of the other side of ourselves that we might like to keep hidden coming through. We are consumed by something the origin of which is obscure. And yet it is something that we crave. There is nothing quite as liberating as laughter. Instinctively we know that it is good for us and all of the research confirms it. We love laughter because through laughter we are liberated from, well, from the prevailing threat of misery. But laughter remains at once wonderfully and threateningly mercurial. We can’t turn it on and off. It has to happen to us. It is, in that sense, full of surprises. It is amazing.
Comedians grapple with this dilemma all the time. It is, they say, in the way you tell ‘em. But it is more than that too. It is what you are saying, how you say it, the timing, the delivery, the expression on your face as you enunciate it, the antics that accompany what you are saying – and lots more besides. It is the narrative. The digressions. The observations along the way that enable us to develop a picture in our heads, and especially that make us aware of our own and other people’s foibles, their insecurities, their absurdities. It is those things that make us aware of the human condition.
Do you rehearse what you intend to say, so that you can do it more or less pat every time? Or do you go out there with a rough outline and then go with the flow, allow your imagination to lead you, give the subconscious free rein to lead you where it takes you?
“It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful, it’s not about being careful and Protestant and Scottish and mannered,” Tommy Tiernan explained in the interview. “It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special, protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously.”
Even if you do believe that nothing you say should be taken seriously, you gotta be brave to get up there and do it. Tommy Tiernan is that and more. It is intrinsic to his approach to comedy that he finds himself out on a limb on occasion. You can see in his performance in the Hot Press Chat Room the way in which he deliberately challenges preconceptions, and forces people to think about why they laugh at one thing and not another. In a sense this is where comedy gets really interesting, where it starts to reveal things to us about ourselves that we might not be comfortable with, that might get under our skin even and change us.
Tiernan has long been one of the most outspoken and taboo-breaking of Irish comedians. He has taken risks, lampooned the unsafest of targets, gone further than any other Irish comedian in terms of the language he uses and how he expresses himself. Read the interview and look at it then, in all its complexity on hotpress.com.
And laugh. Tommy Tiernan is and remains very, very funny. Good on him.