There is nothing wrong with ‘celebrating diversity’ and ‘valuing our differences’ – it all depends how it is done. Until quite recently, comedy played a major role in this therapeutic process. Our foibles and eccentricities, our traits and national characteristics, all the things that make us different from each other, have long been a rich source of humour. Whether it is the differences between you and me, or us and them, making fun of ‘the other’ for being different is second nature to us. So long as our banter and leg pulling are not motivated by malice, the pastime of making fun of one another is an affectionate form of play which builds trust, breaks down barriers and puts us at ease. By giving vent to the prejudices, suspicions and resentments that inevitably exist between rival groups (they are an integral part of our make-up, our evolved survival instinct) we reinforce shared loyalties within our group; and we disarm through laughter the prejudices, suspicions and resentments that might otherwise fuel hate and conflict with outsiders.
For example, the banter between the Australians, the New Zealanders and the English (the Aussies, the Kiwis and the Poms) is legendary, but only emphasises the deep bonds between us. A Kiwi once told me why a Nativity could never be staged in Australia: it would be impossible to find three wise men and a virgin. Aussies say the same of Kiwis. But when push really comes to shove, nothing comes between us, as our mutual loyalty in wartime demonstrates. Tiptoeing around each other to avoid giving offence, minding our every utterance and ‘look’, painstakingly observing every formality and politeness, is conducive neither to laughter nor friendship.
Jackie Mason, the New York Jewish comedian, memorably celebrated cultural differences in his act. ‘There are no Chinese basketball players!’ he told his audience. ‘It’s not because of discrimination. The Chinese do not want to play basketball … They want to press shirts, and that’s that.’ Cue laughter. Were the audience laughing at the Chinese? Was Mason suggesting that all the Chinese could do was press shirts? Was Mason a racist engaged in baiting and stereotyping minorities? Of course not. He was merely playing on the cultural history of the Chinese in America. He was lampooning stereotypes and sending himself up for peddling them. On the other hand, if the stereotype had no basis in truth – the infamous Chinese laundry – the audience would not have laughed. Mason moved on to the Italians: ‘There are no Italian surgeons in New York! Italians do not want to be surgeons … They want to kill people, and that’s that’. Cue more laughter. Was Mason suggesting that all Italians are killers? Of course not. He was playing on the Mafia connection – and the Mafia like to kill people. Which is why the audience laughed. As for the absence of Jewish baseball players, Mason suggested, ‘Where sticks are flying, Jews don’t go’.
Mason is not impressed with affirmative action or its premise that all differences in attainment can be traced to discrimination as opposed to historical and cultural differences: ‘Do you know, for a Jew to get into law school he needs to score eighty-seven per cent – eighty-seven per cent!’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Hispanic – sixty per cent … Black – twenty, you’re in’. Did Mason’s largely Jewish audience leave the theatre filled with hatred for other ethnic and cultural groups, and self-loathing for themselves on account of Mason’s repertoire of Jewish jokes? Hardly. More likely, they walked out more tolerant and sympathetic to the plight of others, secure in their own identity.
The Manchester comedian Bernard Manning also celebrated our differences. He was once asked whether it had traumatised him to be referred to as ‘fatty’ at school. He replied, ‘No, because I was fat’. This robust attitude, the honest acknowledgement of our prejudices, characterised much of his humour. And his audiences laughed because they recognised themselves in the mirror. Darcus Howe, the black rights campaigner, once visited Manning’s club, presumably because of Manning’s reputation among liberals as a bigot and a racist. Manning spotted him and said, ‘You’re from Brixton, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes’, replied Howe. ‘I used to work the clubs around there’, said Manning. ‘I could be your father’. The audience roared with laughter, and Howe struggled to stifle his own. It is difficult to say who the joke was on – probably them both. The same could be said of Manning’s ‘My father died at Auschwitz … He fell out of a watchtower’. Manning, who was proud of his own Jewish ancestry, told many Jewish jokes, which often involved Jews in front of Nazi firing squads, and it was clear enough where his sympathies lay – certainly not with ‘those Nazi bastards’. The joke was on him.
Times change and jokes playing on cannibalism, common currency a generation ago, would probably leave today’s audiences bemused. But even then, the joke was really on the audience and their prejudices, as when Charlie Williams, the black Yorkshire comedian, told his audience, ‘I invited a fellow round to dinner last night. Half-way through the meal he says, “I don’t like your mother-in-law.” So, I said, “Leave her on the side of the plate and just eat the chips and peas.”’
But with the advent of ‘multiculturalism’, celebrating difference has taken on an altogether different form – one in which laughs are in distinctly short supply. Nowadays, respecting difference and valuing diversity seems to require that we stroll around like Jeremy Corbyn flanked by a posse of carefully selected marginalised minorities. We need not like them. They might well bore us to death. The important thing is to signal our virtue. Or we endure multicultural festivals which celebrate diversity when we would rather be down the pub or watching a proper show. Jokes celebrating our group differences, even innocuous ones about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman, which used to be the staple of our daily lives, have been banished from the scene. As for the Muslim strip show where the punters shout ‘Show us your face!’ (Bernard Manning), this would provoke outrage.
Yet this enforced respect and tolerance, this tiptoeing around to avoid causing offence, the ritual fawning and obeisance whenever diversity rears its head, is devoid of any real feeling or affection. Worse, the enforcement of respect and tolerance through the institution of hate crime has the paradoxical effect of driving us apart, of reinforcing ethnic and cultural segregation, mistrust and suspicion. The only time we can now feel safe to express our thoughts and feelings without fear or hindrance, is among trusted members of our own community – close friends and family, those who share our culture, our memories, our experiences and perceptions of the world.
Oh, how we now need a new generation of comedians to send up multi-culture, to poke fun at self-proclaimed minorities and marginalised groups. Would anyone dare? Would anyone in the audience dare laugh? There might be a heavy price to pay in our diverse inclusive tolerant multicultural society, as the humourists of Charlie Hebdo discovered four years ago in Paris. But what a field-day the likes of Bernard Manning and Jackie Mason, provided with suitable police protection and defence counsel, would be having today.
So, who will start the ball rolling? A transgendered Muslim joke perhaps? Don’t make me laugh!