Ricky Gervais: Comedy Punching Down

by Neil Kennedy

Ricky Gervais has, you'll have heard, caused quite a stir on Twitter by using the word "mong" – derived from "mongoloid", offensive slang for a person with Down's Syndrome. Gervais has been reluctant to justify his tweets, and admonished his collaborator Warwick Davis for apologising when he copied Gervais' use of the word, offending his own followers in the process. However, he has defended them by arguing that the meaning of words change over time, and that "mong" no longer refers to the disability. 

To some extent, this is true.  People in my age-group commonly used it to mean "stoned" or "trippy", which I've seen reflected in programmes like Peep Show.  Gervais' argument seems curiously disingenuous, though, given that he also liberally posts pictures of himself pulling "mong faces".

"Mong"

These will be all too familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1980's. In 1981 the Cerebral Palsy sufferer Joey Deacon appeared on Blue Peter in order to teach children about disabilities, the goal being to show that they are not necessarily limiting.  The message of hope and empathy was lost on most kids, however.  Joey's distinctive speech problems and physical tics quickly became huge currency for playground bullies.  Children are, after all, still very much in the process of developing their ethical boundaries, and testing the limits of what is and isn't acceptable is a large part of that. 

However, this kind of nuance-missing mimicking happens with adult audiences, too.  In the 60's, Johnny Speight satirised attitudes to immigration with shows like Till Death Us Do Part and Curry and Chips.  Although seeking to highlight and satirise discrimination, Alf Garnett, the former show's main protagonist and reactionary bigot, became a champion to some, while Curry and Chips was cancelled after 6 episodes amidst a flurry of complaints. 

These kind of satirical comedies always run the risk of being adopted with a straight face by their intended targets.  That's unavoidable; satire can be twisted to quite grotesque levels, and still not be recognised as such.  It can just seem like "common sense" to those who espouse the same views.  Neo-nazis will look at a film like This Is England, for instance, and simply celebrate the most vicious aspects of it, missing that the fascists' actions are condemned.

That this is unavoidable is clearly a shame.  But art can't, and shouldn't, be produced so that it is always clearly understood by the stupidest (or youngest) members of the audience.  Should all subtext be stripped from narrative, simply to cater to those who don't engage with art on that level? 

Comedy has a huge potential to influence an audience's thinking, and this is one of the reasons I believe comedians should have a strong ethical drive behind what they do.  My love affair with comedy started when I was fairly young, and probably got underway in a more earnest manner when I was around 15, and saw Bill Hicks' Relentless in Montreal set on Channel 4.  As a politically ignorant young man, I found myself opening up to the ideas being presented by Hicks, my guard having been lowered by the delightful pain of laughing until my cheeks ached.  I began to see comedy as the greatest single way of communicating an idea.  You become more willing to listen to someone's theories when they make you laugh.  It disarms you, makes you intrigued and open to new ways of thinking.  So, they'd better then follow that up with something worth my time, right?  Hicks delivered, with an idealism and passion that forced me to think.  His intelligence and humour was infectious.

That, to me, is what comedy is all about.  Comedy, as an art-form, is far more complicated and nuanced than most people (particularly in the media) are willing to admit.  Given that the desired end result is laughter, it can easily be seen as a flippant art form.  But, paradoxical as it may seem, it deserves to be taken seriously.  The best comedy actually contains, and is borne from, fierce intelligence.  It says the unsayable, knocks the consensus, and makes you rethink your previously entrenched positions.  That should be the ideal.  There is also, however, plenty of room for less serious comedy, and for silly mucking about over Twitter.

The problem Gervais is having is that he's using the word "mong" freely on a notoriously rabid medium, while associating it with pictures of people 'belming'.  His argument that the meanings of words change over time, and that "mong" is no longer associated with Down's Syndrome, doesn't ring true. Partly because of the aforementioned pictures, and also because he's suddenly started talking about bringing back a character, Derek Noakes, from a failed pilot he made before The Office.  Derek has Down's Syndrome, and Gervais used him as a stand-up character a few times before his big breakthrough.  He also recently brought him back for a Comedy Central promo.

A manufactured controversy

This will admittedly sound cynical, but I believe Gervais has deliberately fomented the current controversy.  He briefly tried Twitter two years ago, then swore off it, doing many articles and video pieces about how much he hated it.  With a new show to produce – Life's Too Short on BBC2 – he's suddenly decided to try it again, quickly announcing that he's in love with it.  This despite initially following no-one on there, and only eventually doing so because of the barrage of complaint tweets he received about his own self-absorbed usage of the medium.  He doesn't involve himself in the discussions either.  He uses it as a marketing tool, as many, many people on Twitter do.  That's fine, although makes his talk of "loving" a medium he clearly doesn't understand look a bit insincere. 

It is worth recalling, too, that he created a similar tabloid furore by calling Susan Boyle a "mong" last May.  His defence of the word didn't ring true then either, with the routine this statement came from containing the phrase, "It's one of the easiest words to say... you just need lips, even mongs can say it!"  Surely that is hinting at some kind of physical and/or mental disability.  Susan Boyle, let's remember, suffered from oxygen deprivation when she was born, resulting in minor brain damage and learning difficulties.  Gervais, in one of his recent tweets, posted a "mong pic" where he said he intends to look like he has brain damage.  So it's pretty clear what he actually means when he says "mong", regardless of his insincere quibbling over semantics and the 'changing nature of language'.

The Susan Boyle routine then went on to picture the incensed internet users who, Gervais predicted, would react in an offended manner to his use of the phrase.  He was aware, therefore, of the power of the word to shock while using it; it was proven to kick up a media storm after he used it in 2010; and now, here we are again, with Ricky going into overdrive with the phrase just as the Life's Too Short media blitz commences.  Controversy sells.  It's also easy: being offensive requires no skill or wit. All it requires, at its basest level, is the desire to be shocking.  Which isn't to say that offensive, controversial comedy can't be all those things, and more. 

Offensive comedy

The Office had serious points to make about how we can feel awkward around those who are different to us, particularly when the differences are so externally obvious.  Latterly, though, it seems that Gervais' comedy has become increasingly pointless.  There's a growing sense that, actually, this is just the kind of humour he gets off on, to the point that one now suspects The Office was not Gervais trying to make serious observations about society, but that he saw satire – and a shield of irony – as the best vehicle to legitimise his penchant for offensive humour that mocks people for being different.  Some of Extras was just downright unpleasant, particularly the bits that carried on the homophobic streak that is common to a startling amount of his work.  He tends to legitimise dodgy material by working with members of the targeted minority groups, leading to lots of 'well, they seem fine with it, they wouldn't do it if it was wrong' arguments by his defenders.  Indeed, as I write this, he's just retweeted a comment saying exactly that kind of thing.  But working with Francesca Martinez (who has now admonished Gervais for his use of the term and, it appears, revealed to Richard Herring that she wasn't initially sure of his motives with Extras) and, on The Office, producer Ash Atalla, does not then give him permanent immunity from charges of using hate speech.

Indeed, his references to Ash Atalla's wheelchair at the British Comedy Awards became such an annual tradition that Armando Iannucci once mocked an unamused Gervais with, "you peaked with the wheelchair stuff, Ricky."  That was in 2005; Ricky has been mining this same vein of humour for a long time now (eventually hitting on the recipe to make it palatable with The Office), and seems set to continue with Life's Too Short, the aforementioned Warwick Davis vehicle, which is now being trailed on BBC2.  Perhaps it'll once again show the sensitivity that was largely evident in The Office, but with the promos showing Ricky and Steven Merchant simply laughing at Davis, and Gervais dressing him up like a frog for his own amusement, I can't say my hopes are high.  It's just unpleasant for the sake of it, really, isn't it?  This would all be easier to take if Gervais had more decorum when faced with negative reviews, or tweeters who don't like him.  Sadly, though, and unlike the brilliant, controversial and genuinely transgressive Scottish comedian Jerry Sadowitz, Gervais never allows his own status to be attacked.  Which makes him a bully.  A bully with form when it comes to mocking people with disabilities, along with his cohorts Steven Merchant and Karl Pilkington.

Gervais also seems to see himself as an edgy, intelligent comic, who can do progressive material about taboo subjects.  I believe he thinks his Susan Boyle routine is up there with Chris Rock's famous bit on the N-word.  Louis CK also does some very challenging, thoughtful pieces on the anti-gay F-word, and on the N-word.  He even does material about how dishonest and pointless it is to say "the N-word", because you're simply putting the actual word in the mind of the listener anyway.  Gervais wants us to think he's on a level with comedians of this calibre, and to this end, earlier this year he got his production company to put himself, Rock, CK and Jerry Seinfeld in a room together to discuss comedy.  Here, as with the Susan Boyle routine, Gervais proved himself to be out of his depth, and unable to meaningfully trade stand-up comedy observations and anecdotes with people who have been honing the craft for decades more than he has. 

Let me point out that I run a website which started as a Chris Morris and Peter Cook fan-site.  I am unshockable, and grew up loving offensive comedy, because it challenged what I thought was acceptable.  It can be gut-bustingly funny, and wildly provocative.  However, the vast majority of this comedy stands up to close scrutiny - if you take the work of Chris Morris, for instance, he can be susceptible to playful taboo-busting, and barking at the boundaries just for the sake of it, but the majority of his work has a solid message to it, and a reason for existing.  Chris Morris got away with things when they seemed to be impossible to do – the media climate has changed so, so much in the space of the last 15 to 20 years, and now many of those taboos are gleefully broken on the instruction of Channel 4 executives. 

I don't believe that any subject is off limits when it comes to comedy.  I don't believe any words are, either.  Gervais has – in between sending his hordes of sycophantic fans out to attack negative reviewers, which they do, like the obedient bile-spitting dogs that they are – characterised those who have a problem with his "mong" tweets as being rampant Mary Whitehouse types who want to ban him and burn his past works.  In reality, most of us simply want him to consider that he's not entitled to reclaim a word that was never used against him in the first place, and to give some thought to the ramifications of his actions.  He has rapidly brought back into play a disablist word that equates a disability with stupidity.  His fans use it to tear down the negative reviewers he insecurely points them at, the people who criticise him on Twitter (without even '@'ing him, in at least one case), and, latterly, towards the people who have complained about the very use of the word.  Richard Herring has been brilliantly vocal on this whole issue, and has been retweeting angry Gervais fans, proving that they are indeed using the word to mean that which Gervais claims it no longer represents.  All that's being sought here is a bit of sensitivity, really.  An acknowledgement that bringing back the word "mong" with this derogatory meaning attached to it, is as wrong as perpetuating the use of the word "spastic."  Words do indeed change over time, but Ricky Gervais is not the sole arbiter of when they do, and what they now mean.

Punching down

Gervais is not making a grand point.  He's not being funny.  He's certainly not being intelligent.  All he's doing is being arrogantly offensive and, as I said, if you're going to be offensive, be good at it.  Have something to say, and a reason for doing so.  Otherwise, what's the point?  Gervais is simply further demonising a section of society that has enough to contend with already.  Disability hate crimes rose 20% last year.  20%, for goodness sake.  Those who have to be on disability benefits are demonised by the media and the coalition, and now live in fear of having their welfare taken from them by an uncaring cabinet.  23 of the 29 people who make up the cabinet are millionaires, detached from the harsh realities of having to survive in this economic climate.  We don't need Ricky Gervais, and his ilk, bringing back more archaic words that will inevitably be used against people with disabilities, and which reinforce the idea that they are 'gormless' and worthless.

Why would any comedian want to do that kind of material, anyway?  That's what it always comes back to for me.  Why would you want to be at the forefront of comedy which mocks people (mainly minorities) for the way they are, and for things they can't control?  Finley Peter Dunne, the journalist, originally coined the phrase 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable' when talking about the role that newspapers should have, during the muckraking journalism of the early 1900's.  This is what comedy should mostly be aiming for, too.  Punch up, not down.  Show some basic human fucking empathy.

Let me end this piece by pointing out that Ricky Gervais and his "mong faces" are only the tip of the iceberg.  I was originally asked to write an article like this for New Left Project back in January, when they became aware of my complaints about the amount of punching down in British comedy over the last few years, which I believe reached something of a climax in 2010.  So, I'll round off with a bullet point list of some of the lowlights. I hope you'll see that the 60's/70's comedy we are all so quick to look down on, and distance ourselves from, is sneaking back in under the guise of irony, with Ricky Gervais at the forefront.  I hope people subject Life's Too Short to a much greater degree of scrutiny as a result of his Twitter exploits.

- Frankie Boyle, Tramadol Nights, Channel 4, 2010.  Frankie caused a stir with racist language on his Channel 4 show in late 2010, but this gag featured in the same episode as his racist language and slipped by without any real comment from the media.  Showing, in fact, that we, as a society, don't seem to take disablism seriously:

"My Granda is one of those guys who could be funny just reading out the phone book... He's a spastic."

- Morgana Robinson on the TNT Show, Channel 4, 2009. Morgana appeared as Gilbert on Gilbert's Special Report, a 'special needs boy', surrounded by a disabled crew, who interviews celebrities.  The humour is entirely derived from the celebrities being made to feel awkward around people with disabilities – which directly follows on from much of Ricky Gervais' work – and the crew are depicted as being completely inept at their jobs.  Morgana, backed by powerful showbiz agent John Noel, was given her own show, in which Gilbert reappeared, this time disingenuously rebranded as 'just a bit socially inept.'  Cue lots of kids belming like Gilbert on YouTube, and uploading videos of themselves with their tongues lolling out of their mouths.  The money shot, for Morgana, is simply low-rent celebs – easy, easy targets, many of who are cross-promoting C4 reality shows – sitting, looking around, confused.  They talk to Gilbert with nothing but softness in their voice.  They show extreme patience, because they've been told the whole set-up is about empowering the disabled.  They all walk out of it with infinitely more dignity than Morgana Robinson, or anyone else involved with this uninspired rubbish.

Balls Of Steel, Channel 4, 2005.  Another show where people were made to feel awkward around those who purported to have disabilities.  Interestingly, I've never come in contact with anyone who feels awkward around people with disabilities in real life – they seem to reside almost exclusively in British comedy shows.

- Stand Up For The Week, 2010 on... you guessed it, Channel 4. Early on in the run, Jack Whitehall wrings a laugh out of the term "Japarazzi".  He places it behind a smoke-screen of irony, shoving the words into the mouth of his Dad, a middle-class theatre promoter, who is caricatured for the piece as a blustering, racist general type.  This character finds a journalist in his garden, apparently interested in snapping Jack Whitehall after he was caught sniffing coke off a blackberry (in the week leading up to the first transmission of Stand Up For The Week, helpfully enough).  Fast forward a few episodes, and Whitehall is doing World Cup material.  He points out how having an HDTV is just like being there, which is an unpleasant thought to him, because "he doesn't want to be given AIDS and have his telly stolen". That's just a bog-standard racist joke.

- Harry Hill, 'I Wanna Baby', 2010.  Harry broke free of his carefully cultivated zany, Saturday tea-time persona to give the poor a damn good kicking.  With car number plates bearing the inscription "CHAV 1", he caricatured the working classes as being shallow, rampant consumerists; lazy, self-absorbed scum who care little for the value of life.  Hill picked, as a target for his satire, underage girls who get pregnant, and he put it all down to a lack of morals brought about by the fact that all us council estate scum apparently also go around causing crime constantly.  We're the ones who hate society, you see.  And, let me repeat this:  Harry Hill, for the subject of his satire, in a time of recession, decided to pick on working-class underage girls who get pregnant.  Hateful.

Neil Kennedy runs the comedy discussion and analysis website Cook'd and Bomb'd and hosts  a comedy chat podcast. Follow him on twitter at @cookdandbombd.

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First published: 20 October, 2011

Category: Culture, Disability, Media

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23 Comments on "Ricky Gervais: Comedy Punching Down"

By Megan, on 20 October 2011 - 15:36 |

I don’t believe that any subject is off limits when it comes to comedy.  I don’t believe any words are, either.

Nor do I, but an audience can always tell when a word is cleverly employed to make a point, to be funny and when it is just used the way Ricky Gervais did for no discernible reason at all. My problem is that what he’s doing simply isn’t funny. Tweeting a picture of yourself imitating a disabled person? lol? 

 <>In reality, most of us simply want him to consider that he’s not entitled to reclaim a word that was never used against him in the first place</i>

This is why it is so bizarre. The word isn’t his to reclaim, the way that queer  or the n word were to some degree reclaimed. I’d still be wary about using either of those words with strangers if I weren’t a member of said groups. 

By Megan, on 20 October 2011 - 15:37 |

I realise I just repeated your argument back to you. More succintly I concur!

By Tom Mao, on 20 October 2011 - 15:58 |

You make a few good points but undercut your argument by not mentioning your own hypocrisy on this issue and the plentiful use of “mong” on your website for, what—the past decade? Certainly hundreds of times more than Gervais. I suppose you can claim it’s the users doing it, but your approval and using the word in one of your forums gives you no room to lecture people. Or were you trying to “reclaim” it first? Or are you going to pull the “it’s like when Americans say gay, they don’t REALLY mean gay… they mean shoddy.” Perilously close to the Gervaisian viewpoint isn’t it? Bottom line—is the word offensive or not? You get to use it, but the guy you don’t like doesn’t?

By Ewen, on 20 October 2011 - 16:28 |

I think you’re wrong that it’s manufactured. Gervaas has been using the word “mong” to refer to Karl Pilkington for some time. He may well have taken to twitter to publicise his show, but I don’t think he anticipated this publicity, or would even want it.  

However, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in paragraph three of “offensive comedy.” Ricky Gervais sees himself in the same category as Chris Rock and Louis CK. This is evident from the show he made where they all sat around discussing their work, and Gervais obviously saw himself as a peer, not as a fan. As you’ve pointed out, Rock and CK spent years performing to bar and club audiences. In that situation, if you want to talk about controversial issues, you’d better make damn sure you get it right - if not, not only will you get heckles and walk-outs, you risk a punch (or a glass) in the face. So through years of grind (and through self-preservation)  they’ve learned how to develop extremely smart, sharp routines. They can talk about anything and know how to make it unpredictable, thought-provoking, and funny, without being offensive or cloyingly “right-on.” It’s a phenomenal skill, one that Gervais never had to learn and seems to be without. It’s interesting to note that Gervais’ view of his own stand-up was, “I never forget to wink.” ie: “I can say anything and we all know it’s ironic.” It’s a route-one pub-bore technique that is nothing to do with the sophistication that Louis CK or Chris Rock employ. 

So when it comes to the “mong” controversy, I don’t think it’s so much a case of Gervais wanting to pick on the weak/vulnerable - that may be the end result, but I don’t think that’s his intention. I think Gervais sees himself as a Louis CK-type; battling the Mary Whitehouse-mentality to bring sophisticated “knowing” comedy to sophisticated people.  
It’s denial, as Mary Whitehouse, (as well as being dead for ten years) was effectively retired from 1988, and wasn’t actually taken that seriously in her “heyday,” even less-so today.  
If Cailtin Moran, Grace Dent, Richard Herring etc are objecting to what Gervais is doing, they hardly represent some 1950’s-style curtain-twitching brigade. I think Gervais probably think “it’s a controversial area, and as a “controversial” comedian (ie a ferociously intelligent one who plays with boundaries) this is what I do.” It’s self-deluding - it’s no different to picking on the special-needs guy in the playground, but I think he probably justifies it to himself that way. 

Even if Ricky Gervais hates the idea of being somehow inspirational in the rise in hate-crimes, (and I can’t help feeling that he would) I think for him to admit he was wrong, would be unbearable.  Here’s why -
After co-creating one of the most successful comedies ever, Gervais seemed to believe he was on the road to Hollywood movie stardom. He used to dismissively refer to other comics as “just a British TV comedian,” and talk about UK comedies that spent “a week advertised on busses, then disappeared.” Two US cinema flops and one dire UK feature release later - he’s back being a “British TV comedian.” So instead of being the great comic movie actor, he can at least be the stand-up who’s in the same league as Chris Rock and Louis CK? And they can talk about anything and make it funny? Right?  

I don’t doubt that Ricky Gervais would be horrified to think his material was inspirational to bullies and those who commit hate-crime. But in admitting that he was wrong to use the word
“mong,” he’d be admitting that he’s not in the same league as Louis CK or Chris Rock, and that, I believe, is what would Ricky Gervais can never, ever do. 
  

By Neil, on 20 October 2011 - 18:00 |

Tom, I did think of mentioning it, in the section where I spoke about the “trippy/stoned” meaning it also carries, but ultimately didn’t want to talk much about my own website, when writing a piece for someone elses. 

Context is key, isn’t it?  The word is used on CaB to refer to photoshops/audio cut-ups, and is directly derived from that ‘trippy’ version of the word, as there was originally going to be a woozy, jam-style Vision On parody.  (in fact, Chris Morris uses it in a similar way in jam/Blue Jam) This was about a decade ago.  Yes, the word stuck with the users, and I’m not entirely happy about its usage, particularly given the scope for misinterpretation.  I’d much rather leave it behind completely.

As I say, context is key, and to me it seems obvious that using the word “mong” in reference to a photoshop picture, is a lot less hateful in intent than using it in reference to a singer with brain damage, who was mocked for being “simple” when she was growing up.  There’s also the pictures and the other things I’ve covered in the main piece.  At no point is the word used towards people, or with even any vague association to disabilities, on CaB.  The userbase is mostly as left-leaning as this fine place.

So I do accept what Gervais says, actually: the meaning of words can change, but also, the same word can have different meanings, and we can only determine what’s appropriate using context. 

I’m not particularly an advocate for reclaiming words, as is probably now clear.  I think the anti-gay F-word, for instance, is hateul, and should be left behind.  Lenny Bruce had a powerful counter-argument, though, and used to advocate President Kennedy going on TV, and using the N-word frequently to refer to the members of his cabinet.  “It’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”

By Edgar, on 20 October 2011 - 18:09 |

Gervais’s comedy stick is built on picking on certain groups/topics - disability, race, homosexuals/holocaust and making jokes out of it. If he didn’t do that his comedy would actually be pretty thin on the ground. I don’t believe this post modern use of these words for a second. I believe when Gervais says ‘mong’ his intention is to get a laugh out of that word the same way Jim Davidson got his laughs. Gervais is dragging comedy back towards pre alternative comedy days, albeit with a noughties spin. We should certainly point that out and say he isn’t fooling us.

By Tom Mao, on 20 October 2011 - 20:10 |

Neil, thanks for elaborating—you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it and I feel a bit of dick for bringing it up. One would hope Gervais would similarly think about just what he’s doing and perpetuating. It’s a real shame—at the start of the decade it looked like his influence would be shooting naturalistic, fake documentary style sitcoms. Instead it’s led to this punching down that really seems to have had it’s day. I’ll take Morris style subversion with brains any day over sniggering at people in wheelchairs.

By George, on 20 October 2011 - 20:47 |

The irony about irony is that, if you’re going to say the opposite of what you mean, it only serves you right if most people end up taking you at face value. So Sinatra hates “Strangers In The Night” and sings it with a sarky “do be do be do” and it ends up a huge hit. Randy Newman sings “Political Science” (“Let’s drop the big one and see what happens”) and, back in the 70s, everyone gets the joke but in later decades they start to think, “Damned straight!”

And maybe there’s a dialectic going on here. Trying to get yourself noticed by being outrageous under the cover of “making people think” leads to increasingly blunt speech. Till it gets to the point where there’s so much invective going around that everyone becomes numb to any supposed nuance. And all the swear words really just start to mean what they originally meant.

By Conan Doyle, on 21 October 2011 - 01:25 |

Hypocrisy much?
An annual Photoshop based competition going by the name of WimbleMONG has only recently been completed. We have the long lestablished “MONG a mix” thread. And it wasn’t long ago that the arty themed sub-forum had its title changed from “Vision MONG”  after a rare bout of queasiness about the name - though the term “MONGing” is still regularly used without consequence wrt to Photoshopping of images there.

How then does Mr Kennedy and his band of merry boys and girls conveniently forget the elephant in the room?

“Oooh. I meant TRIPPY not MONGY”?  Doesn’t wash with me pal. You’re as guilty asgervais

By JamieSW, on 21 October 2011 - 02:12 |

Conan, your complaint was already raised, more politely, above. It was also answered pretty thoroughly: as explained in the article itself, ‘mong’ can also be used to mean “trippy”, which makes sense given the context of distorted images and/or audio files. In fact some people on CaB are unhappy with the word’s usage, despite this different meaning, and are pushing for it to be dropped. But in any case, for you to declare that the author is “as guilty as Gervais” you’d have to show that either Gervais’ defence that he wasn’t using “mong” as a slur against people with disabilities is true; or that “mong” is in fact being used as a slur against people with disabilities on CaB (or, more specifically, by Neil, since I’m sure many things are said on his site that he personally wouldn’t agree with and may even find offensive); or that it’s irrelevant either way. You haven’t shown any of these, so you don’t really have a point here. (“Doesn’t wash with me pal” doesn’t, I’m afraid, qualify as a serious argument).

I’ll add that it reflects a curious set of priorities to read all of the above, and to then focus one’s anger not on an incredibly visible and influential public figure using his privileged position to stigmatise a vulnerable section of the population, but on the author of an article that (among other things) criticises him for doing so. 

By Miriam Trundle, on 21 October 2011 - 02:21 |

The ‘long established’ MongAMix thread has been going since 2010, and was a name suggested primarily as a spin-off of the already existing WimbleMong, which has been going for a far greater time. Since the recent events, there has already been debate as to what to rename MongAMix - the current favourite being MoodAMix.

By Neil, on 21 October 2011 - 03:04 |

There’s been some very intelligent analysis posted here in the comments, and I thank you for that, and will respond accordingly.

In the meantime, I will try to respond to Conan, although I thought I settled this with my last comment.  I did expect this to come up, though, and think it’s worthy of debate.

Of the things you mentioned, I can only really take responsibility for the Vision Mong forum.  In contrast to your assertion, it was actually long, long ago that it was renamed - around 8 or 9 years, I’d estimate.  Since then, I know it’s been called, among other things, Up Your Arts and, for around the last 4 or 5 years at least, H.S. Art.  I explained the choice for this above - yes, it was to do with the secondary nature of the term mong.  I’m not sure if, 11 or so years ago, I was actually aware of the much more offensive meaning of the word.  I presume - but can’t recall for sure - that once I learnt of it, I decided to make a change.  Sadly, the term stuck with the userbase, and they do still use the word occasionaly to refer to photoshop images. 

Some of your other facts are simply untrue, by the way - “mongamix” was instigated, by the users, only last year.  They have already seen my article and stance on this phrase, and started coming up with alternatives, for which I am grateful.

Can we please try and remain calm here, and take into account nuance and context?  I will admit that I regret ever using the term, but maintain that it was done so innocently.  How can a trippy image gallery, full of photoshop images, possibly be meant as an insult to disabled people, in the same way that I have described Gervais’ use of the term?  There is simply no meaningful comparison to be drawn there, surely.  Trying to draw such a comparison is akin to damning someone for homophobia for enquiring as to whether their local supermarket stocks any of Mr Brain’s renowned pork off-cuts.  Words CAN have different meanings - the question is whether you think that a name for photoshops of “literal movie posters” can ever be meaningfully compared with a phrase that is abusively applied to a brain damage sufferer.

As to my “band of merry boys and girls” - I can not and will not speak for the 10,000+ members that are registered on the site.  As I hope is clear in the article itself, I am not a censor, nor do I wish to be one.  I believe in free speech, and in challenging people through discussion.  I should definitely, I admit, have tried to run this phrase out of usage a long time ago, but I knew that it had absolutely nothing to do with disability, and prefer for my users to moderate themselves.  That they still use the word is no reflection on me, or the sentiment of this article, surely.  Or do you think I spent eight hours writing this, despite actually having a great fondness for the word, or some secret loathing for those with disabilities?  I hate the bloody word, and think its usage on my site is embarrassing, but I know that it has nothing to do with disability.

A prominent, dangerous member of the National Front signed up earlier this year, and started using their code phrases, such as “14 words.”  So you will also find that on my forums, if you look for it.  My quandry was what to do with such a person, as I was not seeking to rile him, and endure a flood of his fellow fascists.  I was determined to have the debate, regardless of the fact I knew how futile it would be.  These phrases appearing on my forum’s archive would not stop me writing an article damning fascism, because I believe that it all comes down to context, and intent. 

One of my users is also currently having problems with his Dr Who fanzine, which contains the phrase “Ming Mongs.”  He selected this phrase as it is a well-known Dr Who fandom reference, from a Victoria Wood parody.  As he says, a word on its own isn’t derogatory, it becomes so in how it is deployed. 

Having said that, I don’t want to defend the usage of it too much as, like I say, I hate it’s appearances on Cook’d and Bomb’d, and the users have finally started to sense this, and move themselves away from it.

By Neil, on 21 October 2011 - 04:03 |

Jamie: Thank you.

Tom: Not at all.  I knew it would come up, and I think it probably adds more to the debate.  Language is a complicated, nuanced thing - as is comedy - and it demands scrutiny.  Please don’t feel guilty for raising this issue. 

I need to get stuck into the other replies, if only to nod vigorously at everything Ewen has said.  Before I do that, though, I will agree with your disappointment with Gervais.  The Office was an odd show to live through, for a comedy obsessive like myself, because I had already went through a period of liking, and then turning against.  When he appeared on The 11 O’Clock Show, I did a 180 on this comedian I had previously respected, and will always - ALWAYS - remember a friend describing him as being ‘just like a young Bernard Manning.’ 

This show was utterly reviled by liberal comedy fans at the time.  We saw it as being indicative of a sea-change in comedy, and in the very tone of Channel 4, which had previously been an artsy, experimental channel - that was its original remit, although its hard to believe now.  Then the 11 O’Clock Show popped up, and it was just hateful.  Although it is now given an undue amount of respect - and I almost fell off my chair in shock when David Letterman questioned Ricky Gervais about it during one of his appearances on his show, under the mistaken belief that it must have been extraordinary, having given birth to Ali G, and Gervais - it was openly loathed during its run.  But it was here where Gervais realised he must hide behind ‘the shield of irony.’  I use that phrase in the article itself, by the way, and I’m quite sure it’s one he has used at some point himself, but was unable to find a source.

Anyway, Gervais became the most disliked character on the show - no mean feat, given that it was hosted by Iain ‘Iain’ Lee.  He later explained this by saying that he was doing ironic material, but under his own name, instead of as a character.  In other words, he was doing hateful, mean-spirited jokes about minorities, but neglected to pretend that they were ‘exploring social awkwardness’ or some such.  With The Office, he realised - brilliantly so, I admit - how to appear to be politically correct.

You know, this current furore has been incredible for a long-term Gervais-spotter like myself.  To see him actually, vocally position himself against the “politically correct brigade” is stunning.  I have been overwhelmed by the amount of tweets I’ve had from people in response to this article, who have had reservations about Ricky, or british comedy in general.

I wanted to fit this in the piece, but had no room.  Let me put it here instead - this is Stewart Lee, on political correctness, and formed the more considered material he would later do on the subject.  This is breath-taking comedy, and a true iconoclast at work:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IYx4Bc6_eE

By Jutl Kominska, on 21 October 2011 - 09:31 |

Conan Doyle: You yourself wrote in 1902, in your pamphlet “The War in South Africa - Its Cause and Conduct”, the following:

“So much for the Kaffir murders. It is to be earnestly hoped that no opportunism or desire to conciliate our enemies at the expense of justice will prevent a most thorough examination into every one of these black deed
s, and a most stern punishment for the criminals.”

Now I appreciate that you were urging the thorough investigation of the murder of black South Africans by Boers, but to use the phrase ‘black deeds’ to describe these murders shows a woeful hypocrisy, given your comments attached to this article. You may say that intention and historic context are important in assessing someone’s linguistic expression, but I must say to you that if this is indeed your opinion you must also apply this to your assessment of others. 

While I have you attention, can I also protest your attachment to the Spiritualist movement and your defence of the existence of those early Photoshop impositions the Cottingley Fairies? Both enthusiasms must give sober observers grave doubts as to the clarity of your judgement (although your ability to post on the internet while dead may eventually justify to some degree your earlier Spiritualist claims). 

By SamJam, on 21 October 2011 - 10:31 |

Well done Neil. Excellent excellent article.

By JamieSW, on 21 October 2011 - 15:00 |

Gervais is still maintaining that he didn’t mean the word to refer to people with disabilities. This defence remains unconvincing: https://twitter.com/mjrobbins/status/127390784944218113

By Dennis Pemberton, on 21 October 2011 - 19:13 |

- “Did you hear about that comedian who said ‘mong’?
- “Oh that’s so wrong. I hope they pay dearly! Who was it?”
- “Chris Morris.”
- “Oh. Well that’s okay. He’s different.

It’s obviously a ‘good mong’-‘bad mong’ thing…

By Neil, on 21 October 2011 - 22:43 |

No, it’s a ‘context - intent’ thing, Dennis.  Is a Blue Jam track called “Monged Sex” comparable to using the word in a derogatory fashion towards Susan Boyle?  “Quadraspazzed on a life glug” from the Brass Eye Special is a lot more problematic.

I’ll say this, though, he did use the word “retarded” during a couple of American Four Lions press interviews.  I remember the host having to apologise for this and warning the audience it would be coming up beforehand. 

I’m not a fan of that word, and wouldn’t defend it’s usage.  Wouldn’t stop others from using it, though.

By Angela Kennedy, on 22 October 2011 - 06:57 |

In ‘Fame’, Gervais performs a routine where he pretends to be two ‘Africans‘. One asks the other to collect water from a long distance away. When the second African refuses and is asked why, he (or she) replies, sheepishly, that they have “M.E.” The intended butt of Gervais’s joke is the white, British ME sufferer, allegedly refusing to work because of vague symptoms that make them a drain on those around them. This is set in contrast to the hard-working African, who still has to collect water, and for whom ‘ME’ would not suffice as an excuse. For the joke to succeed, there also has to be investment in a cultural stereotype of a hardworking, healthy African who does not give in to ill-health, rather like the old myth of the African woman giving birth in a bush then going back to farming labour. In Gervais’s scenario, there is no spectre of infectious disease causing impairment and disabilities in the African population: there are no African families under pressure because a member has become too ill to take part in either paid or domestic labour, whether due to AIDS or even another, unidentified disease process that, should the hapless African be in Britain, might get diagnosed with ME/CFS and subject to psychogenic dismissal.

Because this what happens to ME/CFS sufferers. The disease is actually neurological, and the physiological impairments, for many, extremely serious and disabling, and can kill people (this is not a sermon about the disease, so bear with me). But it has been subject to years of psychogenic dismissal following key campaigns to promote this belief about the illness from various powerful doctors. Readers here may have seen a massive press campaign over the whole summer where ME sufferers were accused of ‘harassing’ doctors and giving them ‘death threats’, although what was deemed ‘harassment’ were merely letters of complaint and concern to official agencies (!), and the so-called ‘death threat’ was one person saying ‘you will all pay’ for the neglect and stigma patients suffer - the words uttered by David Cameron in August against the English rioters. A psychiatrist also made some abstoundingly ludicrous comments: that he felt safer in Iraq or Afghanistan; that scientists would rather go over Niagara Falls in a barrel than research into ME (because the patients are such meanies); or claim homosexuality was genetic, or produce images of the prophet Mohammed. No-one in the mainstream media called him on those - no comic, no journalist. The ME community however, in their forums, lampooned his comments mercilessly (that’s subversive humour, folks!)

ME/CFS sufferers are not powerful people. They are stigmatised and subject to institutional abuse by powerful others. And I think this is the key problem with Gervais, and others’ humour. It’s not ‘cutting edge’ because it is not subversive. It’s picking on the vulnerable people, not those in (abusive) power, and is not lending itself to subversion through ‘irony’ either. It’s not actually ‘pushing any boundaries’, merely maintaining a status quo (the poor, the fat, ME sufferers, other disabled people are key examples of those being treated very badly in ideological constructions in the media and by politicians, for example). Ironically, as offensive and cruel as it might be, it constitutes ‘safe’ comedy.

By Neil, on 22 October 2011 - 15:22 |

That’s brilliant, Angela, thank you for your powerful comment.  II hope we’ve all learnt more about how the vulnerable are treated, over this last week or so.  It’s certainly been an eye-opener for me.

By SamJam, on 22 October 2011 - 20:52 |

Angela’s comment in particular raises wider questions of humour.

Gervais’s routine about ME wasn’t actually all that original. It was essentially a reworking of Chris Rock’s joke about people in Africa having a lactose intolerance. Now people with a lactose intolerance are not exactly an oppressed group. However it allows me to bring up the wider issue of Rock’s influence on Gervais, an influence that has been referenced or alluded to a number of times in this discussion.

Now Chris Rock has been offered a number of times as an example of someone that uses stereotypes in a subversive way. So for example Neil wrote in the main article:
“I believe he thinks his Susan Boyle routine is up there with Chris Rock’s famous bit on the N-word.   Here [...] Gervais proved himself to be out of his depth, and unable to meaningfully trade stand-up comedy observations and anecdotes with people who have been honing the craft for decades more than he has.”

Now in my opinion Chris Rock has been given a very easy ride for his N***ers versus black people routine. Part of this is that other routines of Rock’s are obviously quite progressive (his account of the war on drugs, his observations of the class dimension of the OJ trial, his analysis of gun laws etc). Part of it more obviously has got to do with the fact that he is black himself—and therefore apparently qualified to make generalisations ‘of his kind’.

There are a number of problems with this. The first has got to do with the notion that black people (who after all  live in racist societies themselves) cannot be racist or hold racist opinions themselves. Secondly, and relatedly we should be asking if there is anything original in the counterposing of two stereotypes (the good and bad n***er, the house and field negro, happy sambo and the guy that wants to rape your daughter and so on). Finally we should be asking whether to the extent that Rock’s observations are true (in the sense that, as Cornel West points out—‘social constructions manifest themselves in very real ways’) Rock places into context the economic, police and judicial war against black people that bears the responsibility for many of the symptoms to which Rock refers.

The fact of the matter is that Rock’s routine is racist (as racist as many of his routines about women are sexist). There was nothing original regarding his play of stereotypes in this instance—it was simply a regurgitation of very traditional racist tropes. And finally we didn’t get any sense of the wider political and economic issues at stake—rather we got a conservative diatribe about personal responsibility.

If I thought the issues at stake were confined simply to this routine, it might not warrant comment. However I think it is indicative of a wider tendency (which has already been alluded to in this discussion). Comedy is often (and long been) about the exposition of difficult truths, or the vanquishing of taboo etc. Long may this continue by the way. However it is quite another matter when this operandi is adopted as an excuse to bash the vulnerable. Neil has done an eloquent job of doing this with Gervais—but the problem is wider, and it requires a more careful scrutiny of [admittedly much funnier and equivocal] characters like Rock. Not least because it is people like Rock that create space for manoeuvre for bullies like Gervais.

By I'm A African, on 28 October 2011 - 00:49 |

SamJam,

I don’t know if you know, but I would like to add to the end of your piece that Chris Rock apologised for his Black People Vs Niggers routine after he was taken to task by several black people, both in his audience and in the media in general.  He said that he has subsequently realised that he inadvertently re-inforced stereotypes and gave ammunition and a shield to racists.

Compare this with how Ricky Gervais has acted and you will be able to see the difference between the two comedians.

Also, further tweets from Gervais also seem to suggest that Gervais only apologised to end the bad press he was receiving.  Since the apology, he has made incredibly snarky and childish comments about ‘not wanting to say anything in case it can possibly offend anyone’; going to “gay Paris” and being surprised that it wasn’t teeming with homosexuals (a reference to his assertion that ‘mong’ had changed its meaning just like ‘gay’; and and various tweets about what is offensive in comedy (as in: “I am allowed to be offensive and the PC brigade are stifling my free speech).

He quite obviously still feels that he is in the right and would have carried on doing it if the backlash weren’t threatening the reception of his new shitcom; so his apology is completely disingenuous and that, in itself, makes the whole episode much, much worse.  It also shows him for the kind of person he really is.

By @twatterer, on 08 November 2011 - 13:04 |

Great article, Neil. See Gervais @2:28

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