Is comedy different? Does it – should it – be allowed to operate under a different set of rules from the rest of society? Or is it, rather, that when we look at comedy, we get it wrong. We see things being said and done that aren’t quite as clear cut as we believe them to be.
Last week, the trans community was subjected to ritual humiliation courtesy of Geraldine McQueen, aka comedian Peter Kay. “She” was raising hackles aplenty as she toured TV studios in the wake of her Comic Relief performance alongside Sue Boyle, ostensibly to raise funds for that event – but also upping the profile of Mr Kay as a mainstream populist comic who’s “up for it” and “good for a laugh”.
The response that followed from the trans community was predictable and not entirely wrong. Natacha Kennedy, f’rinstance, in her excellent blog, Uncommon Sense, linking this sort of performance directly to the transphobia experienced by young transitioners, laid into Peter/Geraldine’s performance as “unfunny, uncharitable and unacceptable”.
I’m not entirely unsympathetic. On the other hand, I am also just a tad more cautious, for two reasons.
The darkness at the heart of comedy
The first is that I believe we should almost always tread carefully where comedians are concerned – especially those touched with a certain degree of comic genius, as Kay undoubtedly is. Comedy – and I say this as someone who has seen the world from the inside, both writing and, briefly, performing – is a dark place.
Outwardly smiles and laughter: behind the scenes, more than a few comics are nursing some very dark secrets indeed. Unresolved stuff from life, childhood or wherever.
Often its damage. Sometimes, it is inability to join personal stuff with public image. The possibilities are endless, as is the roll call of unhappy comedians for whom sexuality also got tangled up in there (Benny Hill, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, etc. etc.).
One intriguing thought: I think I used to be a much more effective bitter sort of comic writer before I understood my need to transition. For me, comedy was one of a number of displacement activities. Maybe its age, Maybe its something else – but with transition has come a definite mellowing.
Have we seen the last of Geraldine?
I digress. In respect of this specific case, Geraldine McQueen is not some newly minted creation. She has been around for some while, coming to wide public attention first in 2008, with Peter Kay’s spoofing of TV talent shows.
I watched her performance on “Loose Women”. Some of it, certainly, made me wince. There was a definite playing to worst audience instincts. One line, in particular, raised an audience laugh and made me especially concerned: this was a reference (I paraphrase) to “base urges” coming back. Ye-es. That encapsulates everything that the trans community has to combat on an almost daily basis.
Still, let’s be forensic. Kay, despite appearance, is not some tame loud-mouthed northern comic. He’s done some quite ground-breaking stuff and if you look carefully, you’ll find his presence wound round some of the more subversive comedy to have graced our screens over the past five years or more.
Second, the Sue-Bo phenomenon is a thing in itself. Watch her breakthrough performance (I re-run it occasionally) and be humbled by how popular pre-conceptions (and a readiness to make fun) can be trashed in an instant. Is it just co-incidence that Kay has linked to her?
And last: Geraldine just isn’t a “flash in a pan”: she’s far, far too developed for that. Definitely not just “Bruce Forsyth in drag”, as when many mainstream comics do trans.
Maybe she’ll turn out to be pure confection. Maybe not. But whilst some purists restrict their definition of “transgender” to core groups – the transsexual and “serious” transvestite – others just as clearly widen it out to include all forms of drag as well. So when a trans character appears on our screens, maybe we need to be cautious about putting the boot in.
Familiarisation through misrule: comedy as agent of change
But. But…is not the net effect of Geraldine to foment disrespect and thence, hatred?
Maybe. In general, though, this is another space where I am far more cautious. Its definitely the case that the press loves to ridicule and to report “difference”, often for reasons no better than that different e exists and that the public are curious. Is all curiosity wrong?
Howard Jacobson, writing in Saturday’s Indie looks at just this. He writes of a Cornish village where he lived for a while – and of the reaction of the locals when the first ethnic minorities moved there. They were curious. This, he suggests, was natural: a part of the process of integration. More than that: a necessary first step on the way – and if it was sometimes done tactlessly, lack of tact was not the same as prejudice or hatred.
Comedy is not about “niceness”. It’s a very dark, bleak space: done well, is often darker, bleaker than the bleakest tragedy. Sure, there’s the sit com variant, which tracks back, in its way, to the prettier literary works – and before that to the “safe” classical stuff like Terence and Plautus.
But the heart of comedy is never very far from the antithesis of niceness: the Lord of Misrule, in which all convention is turned on its head (just look at the treatment of male sexual urges in “Lysistrata”). Here, the unthinkable is thought (and said): and behind that, differences are made explicit, prejudices aired and dialogue begins.
I’d love a world in which all LGBT minorities are 100% accepted and there is no question as to our right to exist. But we’re certainly not there yet. Nor will we get there by holding loads of nice political conferences in which right-on political folk preach right-on political things to the right-on.
There is bigotry: there is also ignorance, often for no better reason than that some people never need to confront certain issues. Comedy, even when it is airing thoughts and phrases we find individually obnoxious is, by its very existence, providing a framework which encourages questioning.
In the end, I guess, it boils down to whether we think Alf Garnett did more good than bad. I happen to think the answer to that question is yes. Those who tuned in and nodded approvingly to his most racist outbursts were going to do so anyway. But many more listened and, I believe, saw the worst excesses of racism punctured in a moment.
We can’t “educate the masses” to the reality of LGBT existence by means of serious and worthy press releases and seminars. Dressing up the objectionable in the clothes of comedy, though? Does that only inspire hatred? Or does it also begin a process – very necessary – of familiarization and debate that may be uncomfortable in its beginning, but which will travel, will, ultimately, educate and change?