Sunday, 25 October 2009

No laughing matter

The problem with 'alternative comedy' is that, as its very name implies, it runs contrary to conventional views of acceptability. Still, that doesn't seem to stop the mainstream press from creating an outcry every time a comedian makes a joke that falls outside of approved humour boundaries.

The latest comedian to fall foul of this unwritten rule is Jimmy Carr, who is currently facing a barrage of criticism for a joke that he's been telling on his current UK tour. Towards the end of his show at the Manchester Apollo on Friday, he said "Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012."

Within hours the backlash had started, with all the papers running predictably indignant stories boasting headlines such as "Fans stunned as Jimmy Carr insults our Afghan heroes" and "Fury at comic's amputee gag". Sadly, in the rush to condemn the lanky, doll-faced comedian, not one of the newspapers bothered to consider the real target of Jimmy's joke. Or, for that matter, the painful truth behind it.

The first sporting event for disabled athletes was held in 1948, when Dr Ludwig Guttman arranged a sports competition at Stoke Mandeville hospital for World War II soldiers who had suffered spinal injuries in combat. In 1952 Dutch athletes joined the competition and the modern 'Paralympic' movement was born. So, if nothing else, Jimmy is simply making a factual statement about how participation in Paralympic sport has offered injured soldiers rehabilitation and support for over sixty years.

But that's not nearly as interesting as being disgusted on someone else's behalf. So the papers are full of outraged commentators weighing in with their half-baked opinions on Jimmy's gaffe. Real-life Ross Kemp Andy McNab acknowledged that amputee servicemen do compete in the Paralympics, but stressed condescendingly that "it's not a subject for humour" as though servicemen and women would never use gallows humour as a coping mechanism.

Even more cluless are the politicians. Conservative MP Patrick Mercer takes the traditional Queen of Hearts approach, saying "This was a remarkably dim and foolish thing to joke about. It’s not funny and this man’s career should end right now." Likewise, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth commented "Our Armed Forces put their lives on the line and deserve the utmost respect." Of course, they also deserve effective armour, but that's not something Ainsworth would want to get into. Especially since the right military hardware could have prevented many of the injuries that Carr was referencing in the first place.

This revisionist view of recent history is precisely what Carr was satirising in his act. Given that he visited injured troops at Selly Oak military hospital and Headley Court rehabilitation centre earlier this month, Jimmy is all-too-aware of the sacrifices made by our brave servicemen and women. But he presumably has a lot less time for the cynical politicians who find any opportunity to put a positive spin on the depressing parade of statistics that have been leaking out of the Middle East, since we first invaded Afghanistan in late 2001.

Jimmy has since offered a full apology, saying “I’m sorry if anyone was offended but that’s the kind of comedy I do. If a silly joke draws attention to the plight of these men then so much the better but that was not my intention." Funnily enough, I think that's exactly what he's accomplished. And if I was serving in the military, I'd be a lot happier about Jimmy's war efforts than by the threat of an imminent invasion by Katie Price to 'cheer up' the troops. Haven't they suffered enough already?

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