• Jon Matthews

Liberals vs. Libertarians

I don’t like Ricky Gervais. I never have. Even The Office, which most people seem to consider ‘peak Gervais’, bores me. I think Derek was dumb and offensive and I think his stand up is nothing to write home about. Maybe it was once but I don’t really remember. Of course, Gervais is living it up in Hollywood while I’m writing a blog almost nobody will read in a kitchen full of dirty dishes, so it is possible that there is a certain amount of professional jealousy at play. Gervais could be a good bloke for all I know, I’m aware he campaigns for animal rights, and he appears to be a deeply intelligent man who has carved out a successful career and reputation off the back of something impressive he did twenty years ago. That said, I don’t like him – as a result I tend to avoid his social media channels or any of the content he produces.

Stewart Lee also does not like Ricky Gervais, that much has been made clear in the former’s latest Guardian column where he repeatedly refers to Gervais as the ‘Woke-finder General’ and attacks Gervais’ viral Golden Globes speech and the praise heaped upon it, especially by Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine.

And so, the two giants of modern (British) stand-up are locked in mortal combat with comedy aficionados across the nation forced to choose between Lee’s Liberalism or Gervais’ Libertarianism. There can be no middle ground, forever we will be judged on the choices we make today in full knowledge that we may be held accountable at the comedy equivalent of the Nuremberg trials – or Twitter as it is more commonly known.

Libertarianism is concerned with individual freedom and autonomy and is frequently attached to the ‘freedom of speech’ debate in modern comedy. The issue I have with Gervais’ particular brand of libertarianism were highlighted by his Golden Globes display. He used his freedom to tell other people not to use their freedom to use the event as a political platform. That one aspect of his diatribe irritated me far more than any of his supposedly pointed jokes or ‘bits’ about modern Hollywood – some of which may have been valid. This, for me, is the persistent issue with this corner of liberalism, individuals seek ‘freedom of speech’ whilst denying others the ‘freedom to speak back’ and criticise them.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is much less concerned with personal liberty and more about equality and consent. As a result of third-wave feminism, increased LGBT rights and a greater sense of multiculturism the groups who were the victims of traditional stand up jokes are now more incorporated into the comedy community as both performers and audience. This has coincided with the rise of political correctness to radically transform stand-up comedy and there is now a generally held belief that everyone should be allowed to enjoy a comedy event without being offended and as a result the average stand-up night is far less risky than twenty or thirty years ago.

There is, however, a backlash against political correctness at all levels of comedy. ‘Edge Lords’ and ‘Edge Ladies’ seek to cross the proverbial line in the sand and entertain audiences with ‘the things that can’t be said’. Sometimes this is fantastically entertaining, sometimes it’s just shit and sometimes people don’t just cross the line they power through it all guns blazing with no awareness of the mood of the room. One night after an open-mic I was running I spoke to an act who chose to perform some racist material which culminated in him doing a ‘Chinese voice’. I advised him that this wasn’t a good route to go down. He responded by talking about Bill Burr. I explained that Bill Burr is a very intelligent individual who has a reputation and now mostly performs in huge rooms full of Bill Burr fans and fair play to him. However, this is not the kind of material most people want to see in a small pub on a Tuesday night in Bristol performed by an anonymous man.

The guiding star for many comedians on the liberal side of the spectrum is the oft quoted phrase, ‘punch up not down’. Jokes about more powerful members of society are acceptable but jokes about the disenfranchised or vulnerable are not. Edge Lord/Ladies tend more towards the ‘as long as it’s funny’ school of thought: if people are laughing then it’s fine. The test of a comedian’s character, I believe, is how they respond when the audience isn’t laughing. Another comedian recently told me that on one occasion, midway through his set, he told a joke and instantly realised it was too far so effectively apologised before continuing. This act put the enjoyment of the audience first and I think that is not only commendable but also essential. Sensitivity to the audience is key, sometimes a joke that is quite innocuous in one place can be too far in another.

Personally, regardless of political beliefs, I believe punching up is funnier than punching down and I believe that toeing the line whilst doing so is incredibly funny but the moment an act crosses the line is the moment it stops being funny for the audience. This might be different in different rooms but putting the audience’s enjoyment first has to be essential to a successful performance, even if this means cutting certain jokes. My favourite acts are those who are able to ‘speak the truth’ whilst being funny, who can toe the line without being outright offensive and who are sensitive to the whims of the audience. I know some people who are very good at doing this and I have a huge amount of respect for them.

Gervais’ speech at the Golden Globes was, in my opinion, a far cry from this. Nor did it represent any sort of attack on liberal values or the massive victory for libertarian thought some have made it out to be. The vast majority of Gervais’ jokes were cheap gags about the powerful celebrities of Hollywood, jokes given an undeserved political dimension by plaudits after the fact. As much as Gervais and those like him might talk about ‘freedom of speech’ you have to remember that nobody stopped him speaking. He has all the freedom of speech it is possible to have but has to accept that he will be criticised for what he says – such is the nature of society and rightly so – especially when it feeds into the existing rhetoric of the centre and far right which is damaging our society, even though he probably didn't mean for it to be used this way.

The notion of political correctness is one that interests me profoundly. I am currently in the process of setting up a regular podcast to explore old pieces of comedy (mostly sitcoms) and how they might be perceived today, in the light of ‘woke culture’, with a view to finding out if there is still value in them or if they have simply failed to stand the test of time. I believe that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and that, with a critical eye, it may be possible to learn a lot about comedy and culture from older media.

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