Don’t mention the granddaughter! I mentioned it once…

1 November, 2008

I haven’t been following the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross controversy that closely — partly because nobody is reporting it in America for obvious reasons — but I do think it provides a perfect example of what happens when a comedian crosses the line of discomfort.

A great deal of comedy is structured around targets: Politicians, ideologies, occupations, etc. My problem with Brand’s and Ross’ behavior is in their target specifically. Why are they picking on Andrew Sachs? What is funny about leaving obscene messages on the answering machine of the guy who played Manuel? I know very little about Mr. Sachs but I have seen the odd interview with him and he seems perfectly friendly and respectable. Hell, he accepted their apology in no time at all, and was extremely graceful about the matter. And that’s why their prank has backfired so severely. Imagine if they had left obscene messages on Michael Winner’s phone or some other self-absorbed, sleazy old British celebrity. Either nobody would give a damn or most people would celebrate prank.

Sadly, this kind of mean-spirited comedy is more and more prevalent today. I’m not singling out Brand or Ross — I actually quite enjoy the latter and I’m happy that they’ve apologized for their mistake. — but an overall trend in comedy (US and UK) that confuses satire with insult. It reminds me of that guy who singled out African-American Obama supporters in Harlem by disguising McCain policies with Obama’s name. Amusing, maybe, but what message were they trying to send? That all African-Americans are stupid? As though you couldn’t do the same to a handful of idiotic McCain supporters.

The days of Chris Morris duping vapid celebrities into supporting bogus causes like Fuck’d & Bomb’d or Nonce Sense are over. Now, any gotcha moments without context or meaning are considered funny. But people forget that Morris’ programmes were never fueled by a desire to bully. Anger, certainly, but he knew never to cross the line of discomfort. The idea that somebody thought leaving those messages on Mr. Sachs’ machine would be funny just shows you how little comedians care about that line today.

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On a semi-related note, John Cleese made an appearance on Countdown w/ Keith Olbermann last night. My patience for the left-wing Bill O’Reilly has waned in the last few months but ever so often I decide to tune in, and the Gods of television decide to smile upon my decision. Olbermann has referenced Monty Python as an influence many times; It’s glad to see he finally roped one on the show.

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