Queer eye for the misogynist line

Corinne Grant and Tom Ballard got in to a spat the other day about the attitude of gay male comics towards women. The whole thing started when Grant wrote an article for Daily Life called Should gay men make sexist jokes?, in which she argued that gay stand-ups can get away with misogynist gags because there’s a fear amongst women that if they object to the material they’ll be labelled homophobic. She then went on to make the point that gay stand-ups, particularly younger ones, aren’t aware of the arguments against – or even the concept of – misogyny in the way that the generations who proceeded them were.

Grant cites as an example a joke told by a gay comedian in which he said that he is disgusted by vaginas. She then quotes Tom Ballard’s reaction to her question about whether this joke is misogynist:

…I wouldn’t say that someone saying that they’re disgusted by vaginas is necessarily misogynist; it could just be them being brutally honest.

Grant argues that this response from Ballard proves her point about younger generations of gay comics:

I know Tom and I know he cares about women; his routines often point out the hypocrisy of discrimination against them. However, this may be an example of what [Dr] Peter [Robinson, lecturer in sociology at Swinburne University and author of The Changing World of Gay Men] is talking about—it’s not deliberate sexism, it’s simply not always recognising it for what it is.

The reaction to Grant’s piece, particularly amongst gay comics, was strong. Tom Ballard wrote a long response on his blog, in which he complained that Grant had tarred all gay comedians with the same brush, before re-stating his oft-stated view that comedy is about exposing uncomfortable truths, that comedians should be able to shock and that nothing should be off limits. There was also quite a lot of discussion about the issue on Twitter, with Adam Richard reducing the whole issue down to following piece of snark:

…as a gay comedian, I am a raging misogynist.

And so another internet/media spat came to the end of its short but brightly-burning life cycle, and we are left to reflect on what happened.

We could obviously spend ages debating whether that vagina gag was misogynist or just brutally honest. In comparison to a lot of so-called gags we’ve heard over the years – from straight and gay comics – it doesn’t seem that hate-filled towards women. It’s a gay man finding the female sexual organs distasteful and no doubt some gay men do feel that – they prefer dicks, who knew? It seems strange that some gay men would have such a strong reaction to a body part they could quite easily ignore, but there you are. Shouldn’t the main focus here be whether the gag is actually funny or not?

Indeed, the notion of whether any of the potentially misogynist jokes cited were funny was almost missing from the debate. The issue is hinted at in Corinne Grant’s piece, but it seemed to be missing from Tom Ballard’s mantra that you should be able to speak truths/shock/annoy people.

Just because something is true or shocking doesn’t make it funny. Shockingly and truthfully, thousands of people die every day of starvation or preventable diseases, excuse us as we piss ourselves laughing at that fact. In the great gay misogynist comedy debate Adam Richard’s glib reduction of the issue seems to be the closest things got to actual humour, which is kind of a shame.

This is not to say that we don’t welcome serious debate on this issue – it would be kind of contradictory if we didn’t – it’s more that we wish that debates on comedy were about comedy, in the sense that there was debate about whether different types of comedy are actually funny. And this line that Ballard, and a great many other comedians, push, that shockingly uncomfortable truths are the be all and end all of comedy, really needs some examination too. We know why lots of comedians push this line – recent tabloid OUTRAGES have seriously undermined their work, freedom of speech is important and vital – but what you might call “shock comedy” quite often results in unfunny, gittish comedy. Comedians have a perfect right to be unfunny and gittish, of course, but that doesn’t make “shock comedy” entertaining.

Comedic examinations of all topics need to be thoughtful in order to be funny. If they’re unthoughtful they won’t ring true and make us laugh, they’ll just be gratuitous and pointless. Some gay men may be disgusted by vaginas but that fact alone isn’t funny, nor does talking about it make a particularly interesting point. There’s no doubt some context and build-up to that gag, but we don’t get to see it in Corinne Grant’s piece, which is a shame because the context and build-up are important to the argument.

In this country and on this blog we often complain that we don’t produce very good comedy. Perhaps the way this spat played out hints as to why. Often there isn’t enough thought going in to either individual gags or the context in which they sit. Often comedians reduce complex arguments down to glib one liners. Sometimes what comedians do really misfires. Uncomfortable truths and honesty won’t prevent that from happening, only the writing and telling of good thoughtful jokes and routines will.

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  • Baudolino says:

    Second to last paragraph seems to contradict your argument somewhat. Just as “shockingly uncomfortable truths” are not the “be all and end all of comedy”, so too is it a trite generalisation to say that “comedic examinations of all topics need to be thoughtful in order to be funny.” On many occasions “gratuitous and pointless” humour can be the finest form of the art. As you say, it all comes down to how well crafted the gag is. If it’s funny, I don’t care if it’s stupid, random, gratuitous or whatever.

    Agree with the rest of your article though.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    There should perhaps be a qualifier in that paragraph about how this applies to comedy which tackles serious topics, and not to surreal whimsical comedy. Then again, within the context of the rest of the piece, isn’t it kinda obvious that that’s what was meant?

  • Baudolino says:

    Everything I said still applies even if such a qualifier existed. Why do serious topics need to be treated thoughtfully?

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    Comedy which tackles serious topics, such as satire, doesn’t work if it’s not thoughtful. If John Clarke didn’t think about the issues he writes about properly Clarke & Dawe would be a sort of two-handed Good News Week, full of “Tony Abbott’s wearing Speedos! LOLZ!!!” gags, rather than gags about how Tony Abbott tries to gain political advantage by appearing tough or as a man of action.

    I would say this rule applies to the sort of “life experience” or “anecdotes” styles of stand-up too. If it isn’t a thoughtful and true comedic examination of the life experiences being discussed how can an audience connect with it and laugh?

    If you disagree, can you give an example of what you’re talking about?

  • Baudolino says:

    I’ve probably led us in to a circular argument here, because it’s one of those things where looking at it objectively the semantics of what constitutes “thoughtful” comedy, and a “serious topic” probably needed to be made explicit in the article, and then by myself.

    So if you want me to give an example, I could be cliched and cite most of Gervais and Merchant’s work, inasmuch as they regularly deal with topics that many (wrongly) consider comedy taboos, and are happy to go for a juvenile sight gag (Life’s Too Short being an extended tribute to the sight gag) as much as anyone else.

    The obvious counter-argument is that Merchant and Gervais are mocking social faux-pas, and deconstructing political correctness or whatever, and so therefore it follows that even their broader physical comedy (having Warwick Davis climbing through pet doors) is thoughtful…it’s a hard one really. Many satirists complement their actual satire with a sprinkling of puns, double entendres, and pointless gags. Just because such gags exist in the context of stinging satire of important issues does not mean that they take on any reflected deeper meaning.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    You get puns, double entendres, whimsey, etc in Clarke & Dawe too. It’s light/shade/contrast/whatever in an overall piece of comedy that could be described as thoughtful. If serious topics in comedy were only dealt with via puns, double entendres, whimsey, etc then I would question the overall point/validity of the piece, even if some of the individual gags were funny.