Tag Archives: Comedy

Charlie Hebdo gets PEN award but did not pen Mediterranean migrants cartoon

Charlie Hebdo simultaneously attracts praise and criticism

Charlie Hebdo continues to inspire both writers’ rage and courage. It is to receive a PEN award for Freedom of Expression Courage and yet half-a-dozen writers are already staging a stay-away protest. It has also been condemned for an apparently migrant-bashing cartoon that it turns out was neither anti-Mediterranean migrant nor by the satirical magazine anyway. C’est la vie mais pas la vérité!

PEN Freedom of Expression Courage award

Je suis Charlie translations
Je suis Charlie translations

Following the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris in January this year, a social media and public protest campaign using the phrase “Je suis Charlie” went viral but also forced us to ask questions of whether satire always punches up or even gets it right at all.

A month ago PEN awarded the Charlie Hebdo magazine the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which is to be received in person by staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret on 5 May in New York, who arrived to work late on January 7, “barely escaping the attack that killed eight of his co-workers and four others.”

“The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence”

Writers protest Charlie Hebdo PEN award

The double Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey is one of a number of writers protesting the praise of Charlie Hebdo. In a New York Times interview he said the PEN award went beyond the organisation’s role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression, saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

The PEN International Charter states that:

  • Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
  • In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
  • Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.

It is, perhaps, questionable whether Charlie Hebdo or indeed PEN are doing their “utmost to dispel race…and national hatreds” or increasing “good understanding”.

Teju Cole, another of the protesting writers, wrote in January, shortly after the magazine massacre, an opinion piece in The New Yorker magazine, ‘Unmournable Bodies‘, in which he drew attention to Charlie Hebdo’s willingness to satirise and insult all, yet increasingly Islam, and highlighted Western hypocrisy:

“The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture.”

There was some excellent and varied commentary upon the New Yorker piece on their Facebook page from French citizens bemoaning the lack of understanding of French satire and cultural context.

PEN and Human Rights

PEN International American Center logoPEN International is one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations and the oldest international literary organsisation. The American Center is its largest regional body. PEN advocates on behalf of writers denied their human rights for writing, such as Raif Badawi.

PEN justify Charlie Hebdo award

The current PEN America president, Andrew Solomon, has acknowledged the offence felt by some at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but has added that PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award:

“It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted, but, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracise or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off-limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”

PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said:

“It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all…In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”

Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president and someone with the experience of people coming after him for what he wrote, said:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name”

Mediterranean Migrants Cartoon case of Mistaken Identity

Charlie Hebdo was also, last week, condemned for a cartoon depicting drowning migrants (“people” for those of us with a streak of humanity) in the Mediterranean, on that platform of accurate factchecking – Twitter. Except it wasn’t a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, just by one of their newer cartoonists and published elsewhere in a French-Algerian publication, Liberté. The gross caricaturing of African migrants in it seems to fail the “punching up” test and appears to mock a humanitarian tragedy at sea.

Ali Dilem, Liberté 'Regroupement familial' cartoon
Ali Dilem, Liberté “Regroupement familial” cartoon

The double irony, however, was that the cartoon, condemned for racism among other things, was drawn by an Algerian, Ali Dilem, who was satirising French immigration policy (“regroupement familial”) and condemning the losses at sea because of that policy. Not everything is what is seems before we jump to judge.

“Ironically, Charlie Hebdo has actually done a magazine cartoon which condemns Europe over their inaction over the thousands of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean monthly.”

Charlie Hebdo, Un Titanic par semaine, Mediterranean migrant deaths
Charlie Hebdo, Un Titanic par semaine, Mediterranean migrant deaths

Furthermore, Charlie Hebdo has actually critiqued the Mediterranean migrants issue in its own cover-image cartoon based around the idea that a tragedy of Titanic proportions is happening each fortnight in the Med. Last year some 3,500 of 350,000 people escaping North Africa died at sea – that’s a similar number to the deaths in Nepal due to the recent earthquake. This year we’ve reached half than number in barely months.

It is a whole other question – to which I don’t have an answer, of whether disaster and loss, tragedy and terrorism, should be satirically pilloried at all, and if they are, how.

Human Writes and Wrongs

The right to offend should never be taken lightly, nor honoured without a thought to the consequences of what it may encourage. That is not to say that PEN is right or wrong in its award, perhaps that there might have been better, or safer, recipients. Playing it safe, though, is not what freedom of expression is about. The right to offend, satirise, challenge, does not mean that we should always write it. Think it, yes, voice it perhaps, but disseminate it – that is a choice, not just a right. Rights come with responsibilities – though, none that would suggest the Charlie Hebdo attack was merited or justifiable.

The responsibility for PEN, Charlie Hebdo, Liberté, and us all, I would caution, is that we need to take account of the context, culture and consequences, of what we write – draw or say, of how we depict not just what we depict. Sometimes, the end may not justify the means. Not all freedoms are equally important. Respect, however, should be mutual and equally carries the responsibility of two-way tolerance. To caveat what Voltaire never said: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it and my right to critique the manner in which you said it, or whether it needed to be said at all.

BBC Bring Back Jeremy Clarkson? He is back but on Amazon Prime 2016

STOP PRESS: Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear team to return

But on Amazon Prime online video streaming in 2016 not the BBC. Meanwhile Top Gear will return to the BBC but with a different team. The schadenfreude is palpable as the BBC reports  on their own loss of a profitable though oft inappropriate franchise.

In an Amazon statement, Jeremy Clarkson said:

“I feel like I’ve climbed out of a biplane and into a spaceship.”

Richard Hammond quipped:

“Amazon? Oh yes. I have already been there. I got bitten by a bullet ant.”

James May saw the perhaps double irony:

“We have become part of the new age of smart TV. Ironic, isn’t it?”

BBC suspends Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson amid mass Change.org petition

Whatever the “fracas” and nature of petulant millionaire star twat Jeremy Clarkson‘s “interaction” with a BBC producer, there’s nothing like a Top Gear fiasco (one of many over the years) to get the nation raging along with over 1 million signatories on a Change.org petition delivered this week by self-propelled big gun, aka tank (probably the slowest vehicle to appear in relation to Top Gear), to BBC HQ. It is just such a shame that this is what energises us and not more significant world matters.

Discover the top 5 really important petitions on Change.org to get behind instead and a bonus tribute petition for Terry Pratchett!

Has Jeremy Clarkson quit or not? Yes | No

Clarkson hinted that he was on the way out and had no fear, now that the internal inquiry is over – though not published, in berating his BBC bosses with a f*** laden foul-mouthed tirade at their idiocy at potentially ruining the Top Gear formula.

Diverse Top Gear Replacements

Suggestions to replace him have included Sue Perkins, Julian Clary, and Alan Partridge. Whilst they are all comedians, at least Perkins would not be sexist (towards women at least), neither she nor Clary would be homophobic, and any of Partridge’s foreign jokes would be obvious parody and satire. Other comedians who’ve appeared in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car race around the Top Gear test track have included Eddie Izzard, Omid Djalili, and Sanjeev Bhaskar – all of whom would counter the alleged racism of the show.

Having Ellen MacArthur, Jennifer Saunders, or Jodie Kidd, on as the fastest women on the track would prove it doesn’t need 3 blokey blokes to present it – although that is the formula to date, and a politically correct presenter team would be as bad as the minimum female comedienne to be included on all panel shows which smacks of tokenism and harms female comedians standing in their own right.

Top Gear Matters to the BBC

Forget the impending General Election, Islamic State, Boko Haram, austerity crisis, the real serious issues of the day are the state of England cricket team – actually, that is pretty bad – and Clarkson’s latest open mouth (insert foot, boot, and massive car) bad boy laddish humour, allegedly watched by an audience almost equally split between men and women (60:40).

Jeremy Clarkson via Twitter
Jeremy Clarkson via Twitter

Top Gear, Clarkson, and his 4.63m twitter followers, are the BBC’s greatest export (yes, bigger than Doctor Who), greatest that is in financial rather than cultural terms. Bedder 6, as the anonymous company is called, helps to draw in £150m a year for BBC Worldwide from Top Gear from 150-350m viewers across 170 countries and spin-offs.

Top Gear’s Political Incorrectness

In the last 3 years Top Gear and Clarkson have scaled new heights of profitability and popularity – apparently it is 30x more likely to be tweeted about by Ukip voters -and yet, simultaneously, ploughed new depths of political incorrectness.

Just this week it was announced that in December Top Gear had somehow been cleared by the BBC of using “pikey” in a derogatory manner, to the utter dismay of representatives of Traveller communities.

The show is often no-holds-barred macho-masculine pub banter comedy that has comprised insults around race, nationality, sex, and disability. Just read some of Clarkson’s own attempts to be positive about women and yet explain the lack of female representation on the show itself:

“if one presenter on a show is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian. Chalk and cheese, they reckon, works. But here we have Top Gear setting new records after six years using cheese and cheese. It confuses them… Unlike furious thin-lipped feminists, I tend not to draw distinctions between men and women, apart from in bed where you really do need to spot the differences. At work, girls are just people.”

Conservative MP Maria Miller, has offered support for Clarkson, despite her being a former Disability, Women and Equality Minister. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, she said:

“The BBC needs to be better at managing its talent … there are other organisations that have to deal with larger-than-life characters…[he] is…a legend, not just in this country, but around the world.”

Jeremy Clarkson big screen 2006 via flickr Ben Metcalfe
Jeremy Clarkson big screen 2006 via flickr Ben Metcalfe

Legends, however, are extinct people, like the dinosaurs, something that Clarkson himself, in his column in The Sun, admits to being.

“The fact is that you can sign as many petitions as you like and call on the support of politicians from all sides, but the day must come when you have to wave goodbye to the big monsters and move on… I think it’s fair to say that nature made a mistake when it invented the dinosaur. It was too big, too violent. So one day, all the dinosaurs died and now, many years later, no one mourns their passing. These big, imposing creatures have no place in a world which has moved on.”

Does this mean that Clarkson should go the way of the dinosaurs and gas-guzzling cars? That a petition to reinstate him is as pointless as one to bring back Terry Pratchett – however, wonderful a tribute to the latter author?

Change.org Petition to #BringBackClarkson

Change.org logo
Change.org public petitions for change

A record making petition on Change.org had accelerated to nearly 600,000 signatures in barely a day (now over 1,112,000), easily eclipsing more political or ethical campaigns such as the pardon for 49,000 gay men prosecuted in the UK for acts now considered legal. The site’s popularity is such that I could not even get on to it to check the count at 10pm Wednesday night, as it was down with an “Error 502 Bad Gateway” , unless that was some political ploy due to the embarrassment of its success. Well it’s back now, seemingly the site is crashing under Clarkson’s popularity, and advocating the “Freedom to fracas” and with comments including:

“I pay my TV license to ensure that irreverent people can express themselves. If you become boarding [sic] and politically correct, you may disappear BBC.” and “A minority of over sensitive people should not ruin one of Britons [sic] favourite shows.”

I wouldn’t call allegedly hitting a producer over a lack of hot food and xenophobically referencing his Irish nationality, an act of irreverence nor suspending someone for that act, “over sensitive”. That the two most popular comments both had spelling mistakes should not lead anyone to any stereotypical conclusion. They were probably texting whilst driving their fast cars!

BBC Public Service Priorities

BBC logoAs a public service broadcaster with essentially a tax or compulsory licence fee, the BBC’s priorities should not be mere entertainment or subsidised insults.

It is remarkable that the trending twitterati are more interested in #BringBackClarkson than the all but forgotten #BringBackOurGirls. Viewers are more interested in bringing back fast cars and coarse humour than in rescuing Boko Haram kidnapped girls in Nigeria, ending FGM, freeing imprisoned journalists or teen suicides – campaigns that are now in the shadow of “a bit of a knob”, as co-presenter James May describes Jeremy Clarkson. Multiple petitions calling on the BBC to sack him have also launched, although you can be sure they won’t race to half-a-million signatures so fast, they’ve barely reached a 1000.

Be the Change.org Petitions to get behind

Some campaigns have reached a million signatures, but never so fast. For instance, a million people worldwide signed to save Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy. Nearly as many called for the release of Iranian woman, Ghoncheh Ghavami, jailed for attending a volleyball match.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Bring Back Our Girls Change.org
Bring Back Our Girls Change.org

HuffPost has drawn up a list of better campaigns to get behind, though not the most important ones it could have got behind, perhaps. Why not:

And as a bonus, what about:

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama

The limits of Satire, Comedy & Humour

In my past I’ve enjoyed Top Gear, some of the banter and car challenges, but I’ve squirmed at the sexist racist humour Humour is one thing, the question is whether it’s actually deeply held bigotry disguised as humour, or an ever-so clever parody of “UKIP white van man racism” – which will no doubt be seen as offensive to white van men. The thing about satire and parody is that they often fail, as with Comedy Central’s Colbert Report on race and trans issues, when delivered by people in the majority who’ve not experienced prejudice, whereas the Kumars making fun of being Indian is.

What makes the parody both unlikely and unbelievable is that either Clarkson is a bigot or he maintains the persona off-screen as well. To Clarkson, even his suspension is just another joke, despite knowing he was on his last warning.

I’ve done stand-up comedy myself, and made it a rule to only insult and offend myself, not others – although I can’t stop some still choosing to take offence.

Top Gear‘s humour is pub or front room banter, the kind you use when you think nobody is watching – but there are tens, if not hundreds, of millions that are.

And this is the “British values” we should be so proud of exporting? I’m all for freedom of speech, but allegedly hitting your employer’s staff, insulting other nations, and expecting to not only get away with it but get paid millions for it?

Whilst the infraction was off-air, it is no less abusive of workplace colleagues and bullying, despite it not being part of an aired programme. According to The Mirror, he called Oisin Tymon:

“a “lazy, Irish c***” before splitting his lip with a punch that left the 36-year-old with blood running down his face and needing treatment in A&E, the BBC investigation will be told.”

Hitting is not humour, and nor was it his first public punch up. If the rest of the show is very clever parody like Alan Partridge or Comedy Central, then it does not work. It is very hard to successfully satire racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia, all of which have appeared on Top Gear. All the more so when it fuels the white male entitlement patriarchy rather than challenges it.

Whilst James McDermott thinks it’s harmless fun:

“Top Gear is an escapist post modern light comedy entertainment show; the vital ingredients being Clarkson, May, Hammond and cars will keep it on the Beeb for a while to come.”

Apart from what may be a short-lived 2011 prediction of its long-term longevity, I beg to differ. Their lives on and off the screen are making stereotypical jokes, setting chauvinist poor role models, and should not be the BBC’s best export. The fact that it is popular in human rights violating China and Putin’s Russia should not be a cause for celebration if it encourages their sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, rather than challenges it.

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou

Jeremy Clarkson – change your attitude, everyone else sign some petitions and be the change! If we are evolved at all, it is time the politically incorrect (such a polite term for sexist racist ableist homophobes) dinosaurs died out.

Robin Williams RIP, Laughter, Tears, Memories, Depression, Suicide, Understanding

Saddened, shocked, but not sure I was surprised. Such was the sudden news of Robin Williams‘ apparent suicide at 63 that the Internet was awash with rumours last night that it was a ruse, a fake story. Details emerged overnight (British time) that he had indeed been found dead at home in Marin County, California, apparently having taken his own life. The latest information is that “Marin county sheriff’s department lieutenant Keith Boyd confirmed that Williams was discovered hanged, and had apparently attempted to cut his wrists.”

Owing to considerable empathy with his bipolar depression, this is a  tough article to write in memoriam to the wonderful Robin Williams, who I first watched aged 11 when he appeared as the alien Mork. Sadly he has returned to his home planet and left us the poorer, but we have over a 100 films and thousands of laughs to remember him by and the challenge to understand mental illness better over our lifetimes.

Update (11 August 2015): It is now a year to the day that Robin Williams passed on and he still makes me laugh and cry in equal measure and continues to inspire whether in life or role.

Films and Characters

Robin Williams at Happy Feet 2 Last night I was preparing to watch The Birdcage film with my partner and a friend. We never got round to it, though I’d loaded it into the DVD up to the opening scene. It’s now set for a memorial movie night with the memorable Armand. He was so versatile, able to play funny, straight, sad, young, old, real, fantasy, even a penguin or two in Happy Feet as the voices of Ramón and Lovelace.

Of his co-star in Happy Feet Two, ‘La Toti’ Sofía Vergara, Williams said “I’d walk 50 miles in the snow just to stand in her garbage … and I cleaned up that line!”

Williams appeared in over 100 films, as well as television and theatre, so versatile were the roles that he played. Whether as Mork or Peter Pan, he always looked like he would never grow up and would live forever – one reason we, as adoring fans, all feel the wrench of his going now.

Perhaps, most memorable for me, was Mrs Doubtfire, and the agony of a father doing anything to get close to his kids. Its long-posited sequel Mrs Doubtfire 2 will presumably now no longer be made.

He was scheduled to appear in several unfinished films, but one that just made it to completion and was screened this summer at the Los Angeles Outfest Film Festival is Boulevard (2014) in which he plays an older married man coming to terms with his secret homosexuality.

Another inspirational film for me was Dead Poets Society (1989), as I always wanted to be a maverick motivational teacher, much as my own inspired English teacher was when I was 13 – he’d sit on the desk and read to us Kafka, Tom Sharpe and Shakespeare rather than setting us essays. In the film Williams, plays Keating the English teacher, who challenges the pupils to see the world in different ways, standing on their desks, ripping pages from books that deadened poetry, encouraging them to carpe diem, “seize the day” and call him “O Captain! My Captain!” in reference to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.

“It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”

Waiting for Godot

Williams appeared with his friend Steve Martin in a much acclaimed limited-run production in 1988 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A review said that “As the earthbound Estragon, Robin Williams is the same Robin Williams we have come to know and love for his manic intelligence, comic body language and perfect sense of timing. In this part, he is in bad need of a shave. Between convulsions, he gives unmistakable signs of a soul in puzzled torment.”

The play is about two down-in-the-dumps men waiting for someone, possibly God (though denied by Beckett), to show up. Being unable to think of a good reason to leave, it becomes an eternal and continually disappointed wait. Williams’ real life “puzzled torment” and wait is over and he has decided to leave us. A brave choice – a phrase that some people will not be comfortable with, but one that echoes my own experience, though I’m glad I survived now.

Stand-Up Comedy

Robin Williams performing stand up comedyWilliams began his stand-up comedy career in the mid to late 1970s, around the same time as his first film role in 1977 and appearance as Mork in Happy Days (1978) which led to the spin-off series, Mork and Mindy, which was hugely ad-libbed.

In the Happy Days Season 5 episode, “My Favorite Orkan”, Williams, as Mork, tries to kidnap Richie and take him back to his planet but is foiled by the Fonz. Originally a dream sequence, it was so popular that it was edited so as to be real and allow for the character of Mork to have wiped their memories and reappear in Mork and Mindy as an exiled alien from the planet Ork where humour is banned. Oh Shazbot! Mork showed up again in a retrospective episode of Happy Days, “Mork Returns”.

In 2004, he was voted 13th on Comedy Central‘s list of the “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time”. It was his improvisation that got him the role of Mork, standing on his head at the audition. Ad-libbing often led to film and television scripts adapting to him, rather than him sticking to the lines. Much of his role as the genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992) was improvised.

In 2009 Robin Williams conducted a delayed 26-city US comedy tour called Weapons of Self-Destruction, aimed at George Bush, rather than himself. He was hospitalised that year for heart surgery after announcing the tour in 2008. In 2010 he performed the show in Canterbury, New Zealand, and donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross and post-earthquake rebuilding projects.

I’ve often heard the phrase “the funny man of comedy” used of Williams, but aren’t all comedians meant to be funny? To me it means someone who can laugh at situations rather than make jokes by taking someone down. The irony is of course that the funny man who appeared in Happy Days was an unhappy man.

Me with the black dog of depression aka Raven who delivered unconditional cuddles when I was battling suicide
Me with the black dog of depression aka Raven who delivered unconditional cuddles when I was battling suicide

Just because someone can make us laugh, does not mean that they can make themselves happy. The daily battle with the black dog of depression and for Robin, at least, the associated ‘demons’ of drug and drink addiction, lifts momentarily in the manic moments of humour and comedy, but returns like a fog blanket blocking out the sun. Judgements of his addictions are insensitive, for those who’ve experienced depression, know full well that it can lead to other behaviours in order to survive or end the feelings of depression. Concert pianist James Rhodes called depression a cloak of lead, a toxic second skin“:

“Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don’t get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Robin Williams was funny, depression is not, though he laughed at his own “demons”, drink and drug addictions, which had returned to afflict him in the last few months. But that doesn’t give us the right to laugh at his life, troubles or choices.

I’ve done stand-up comedy and did a whole set on my own suicide attempt, it was dark and dead pan. Someone even thought I’d made it all up and commended my ‘acting’. In fact, it was the truth, often stranger than fiction, and my own surviving suicide and finally wanting to be alive again that enabled me to laugh at death and make fun of myself. That is not for others to do though. Doubly insensitive and offensive is the joke on Twitter I’ve seen about it now being an ideal time for Kellie Maloney (the transitioning Frank Maloney) to audition for Mrs Doubtfire 2, now that Robin is dead.

Others have taken to the web to say that they have no sympathy for those who take their own life, or suffer from alcohol and drugs addictions. The Guardian has had to moderate and delete about 10% of the comments on the report of his death. I’ve read of people on Facebook calling it “the pussy way out”. So wrong. Suicide is often a decision to end not only self-torment but to end being a burden to others. It can take courage and bravery to attempt it, it is not a coward’s way out as Fox News‘ breaking news editor and anchor Shepard Smith called it, it is the last straw for someone who is tired of fighting for survival every day. I’m not encouraging suicide, but I am saying stop judging it and view the person who has gone as now at peace.

Stephen Fry“How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?”. This was said of Stephen Fry, but is doing the rounds about Robin too. Fry references an article by Alastair Campbell in which “he suggested changing the word ‘depression’ to ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill”.  Fry writes about feeling sad, lonely, depressed, suicidal and the rights to seemingly illogically having those feelings.

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry

Even when surrounded by loved ones, depression is a lonely disease, but having a partner or friend around has saved me from acting on suicidal feelings more than once in the past. It was when all alone, in the darkest hours of the night that I attempted it more seriously.

Stephen Fry on depression

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone” – Robin Williams

Very often there are no answers or solutions, and there should certainly be no judgements for what is in cause or effect a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’ve suffered from depression for over a decade and for the last 2 years been under investigation for a variant of bipolar or cyclothymia, Mood Affective Disorder. Fry has cyclothymia and whilst Williams never regarded himself as fully diagnosed, many clinicians think he had depression and Bipolar Affective Disorder.

Whilst the label may help with gaining the right support and treatment, it is irrelevant to how we treat people with the symptoms of the varieties of depression and addiction. We have not lived their life, seen inside their mind, and therefore do not know the balance of accountability for their own actions and suffering under the weight of seemingly intransigent conditions that afflict people indiscriminately and unfairly.

Depression disables, debilitates, and is often met with misunderstanding that you can do something about it by pulling yourself together, getting out more, getting up or some such chivvying coaching. Similarly, with suicide, the offers to “talk to me” before you try it next time, or of it being a “selfish way out” that hurts others, are ignorant, even if often well meant, thoughts. Suicides can be planned or spontaneous, cries for help or calls for the help and feeling a burden on others to end, persistent or momentary feelings of the need for it all to stop, the feeling of powerlessness or the only way to take control.

Dean Burnett in the Guardian called it a “staggering ignorance of mental health problems” to refer to suicide as a selfish act. Suicide and depression are not selfish. Williams had access to the best help around, but he was the “clown that could not be fixed“, as Simon Jenkins writes:

“There was no help that Williams and others like him could not and did not receive. It failed. All illness is a great leveller, but none levels like mental illness. It remains the poor relation of medicine. Research is paltry. Therapies are halfhearted. Drugs are primitive.”

One-in-four of us will get a depression related illness. Yet it receives a small percentage of even 1/40th of the medical research and treatment budget.

Family

Robin Williams’ favourite children’s book was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which he would read out loud to his kids. Famous for his funny voices, when reading it to his daughter, named after Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda computer game series, she said “Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.” One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself.

His third wife and now widow, Susan Schneider, said:

“I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”

Robin Williams Good Will Hunting Real Loss

Tributes

Fellow actor and comedian Steve Martin, tweeted that he “could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.” ‘Mensch’, whilst simply meaning “human being” is a Yiddish idiom for a genuinely good person, a real “stand-up guy”.

Barack Obama, in offering condolences, referred to Williams as “one of a kind”:

“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”

Tributes will continue to flood in from fans, friends and fellow entertainers, Sarah Silverman described him as “pure love” and Stephen Fry sad he was “so so kind”.

At one point over half the trending tags on Twitter were Robin Williams related including #RobinWilliamsWillLiveOnForever.

George Takei said “May the heavens be brightened with your singular glow” and several have commented on Twitter saying that now he can make God laugh. Friends have expressed sadness, referenced mental illness and one wrote “I can’t believe Mindy is Morkless”, an apt end for how it all began back in 1978.

Gifted, manic, funny, sad, tormented, lost to us, but now at peace. RIP

[This article is an expansion of one first published here]

RIP Rik Mayall aka (P)Rick of the Young Ones, Comic Strip, New Statesman, Blackadder…, 1958-2014

“This house will become a shrine, and punks and skins and rastas will all gather round and hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader. And all the grown-ups will say: “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say: “Haven’t you heard? Rik is deadThe People’s Poet is dead!”” – The Young Ones  

“Bum”, I mean “Bottom“, Rik Mayall has died a Young One at just 56, the B’stard. The near-30 year married family man was a comedy genius and genuine talent. He will be sorely missed and was working right up to the sudden end, despite his own near-death experience on a quad bike back in 1998 that left him in a coma for days and with epilepsy. Ironically, his most recent project was a Lupus Films/Channel 4 animated comedy about the joys of being dead – “Don’t Fear Death“!

Death “is your passport to complete and utter freedom. No pulse, no responsibilities. Carpe mortem – seize death”

Mayall and Ade Edmondson were contemporaries at Manchester University – where they also met writing partner Ben Elton, and performed together as 20th Century Coyote, their first performance was an improv called “Dead Funny“. As members dropped (not dead) off, the comedy group became a duo, renamed to The Dangerous Brothers, and shifted to London’s Comedy Store, where Alexei Sayle compered. Later they started their own comedy club, The Comic Strip Club, which ran out of Soho porn baron Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar, whilst conventional adult strip acts performed on the other two stages. This is also where they met Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who Edmondson later married in 1985.

>Comic Strip Presents Complete CollectionTogether they formed the TV series “The Comic Strip Presents…” which ran from 1982, 5 years before French and Saunders aired as a separate series. Their first episode was a parody of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures as “Five Go Mad in Dorset“.

In 1981 Mayall played “Rest Home” Ricky in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show follow up musical film: “Shock Treatment“. Curiously, Rik has managed to play a Rick, a Ricky and also a Richie, aka Richard Rich in Filthy Rich & Catflap (1986).

In 1991 he got to play a Fred, the eponymous mischievous imaginary friend in the film “Drop Dead Fred“. He also squeezed in a Micky in “Eat the Rich” (1987), a Mathias in “Little Noises” (1991), a Marty in “Bring me the Head of Mavis Davis” (1997) and a Mario in “Eldorado” (2012). Not to mention the voice of Prince Froglip in “The Princess and the Goblin” (1991) and Mr Toad in “The Wind in the Willows” (1995).

Another animated character he played was was the voice of Kehaar in the series version of “Watership Down” (1999) and Edwin the Eagle in the spellbinding “Shoebox Zoo” (2004-5). He also played an unnamed man in the pub in “An American Werewolf in London” (1981). In 2000 he managed to play character opposites Robin Hood in “Blackadder: Back & Forth” and King Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar“!

Rik Mayall as Rick in The Young Ones
Rik Mayall as Rick in The Young Ones

The Young Ones first aired in 1982, the BBC was not entirely convinced, but went ahead to compete with the emerging popularity of Channel 4. Spike Milligan, commenting on Mayall’s farting, nose-picking “Rick”, described him as the “arsehole of British comedy”. (Quoted in McSmith, Andy, No Such Thing As Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s, Constable & Robinson, p149)

Until then most successful comedians and comedy writers had emerged from establishment universities like Oxford and especially Cambridge. Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson stemmed from Oxford, whilst Cambridge and its Footlights Theatre produced talent that went on to make Monty Python, The Goodies, Yes Minister, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Alas Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, Newman and Baddiel, Punt and Dennis, and more recent acts like Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Mel and Sue.

Rik portrayed the crude, pompous poet, anti-establishment anarchist and redbrick university sociology student, “Rick” with great energy and voracious vulgarity. In the “Bambi” episode, somehow the four students end up on University Challenge, appropriately competing against Footlights College.

Young Ones Bambi Prick Wiki
The Young Ones “Bambi” episode

On the show Rick’s namecard has a scrawled ‘P’ added to it and Vyvyan jokes that his name has a silent ‘P’ before it. In the same episode Neil reads out graffiti from Rick’s ‘O’ Level History text book – “Prick is a wonker – signed, the rest of the class”, although Rick dismisses this as classroom banter until Neil then reads out a further scribble – “I agree with the rest of the class – signed teacher”.

“I live on the limit, Vyvyan. The limit, because I’m a rider at the gates of dawn and I take no prisoners!” – Rick in The Young Ones

For all his character’s pseudo-anarchy Rick seemed to have a conservative background and was a Cliff Richard fan. He didn’t seem to know much about the politics he claimed to believe in and was a lazy socialist, in terms of political theory.

“If you’re a wild eyed loner at the gates of oblivion then hitch a ride with us, because we are riding on the last freedom moped out of nowhere and we haven’t even told our parents what time we are coming home…” from the introduction by Rick to Cliff Richard’s “Living Doll” for Comic Relief  (1.5m views)

It was no surprise when Rik evolved Rick into slimy sleazy scheming Conservative politician Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, which ran on ITV from 1987 to 1992 for 4 series. I completely forgot that Vyv’s surname was also Basterd in the Young Ones.

New Statesman DVD

Rik Mayall also reprised Alan B’Stard MP, or rather PM, in a political advertising campaign by the No2AV group in 2011. Parodying David Cameron and Nick Clegg entering into coalition and office together he promised no tax or tuition fees, free housing and electricity, and then gleefully burnt the manifesto and its promises.

“You know the really great thing about a fudged coalition is that neither of us need to carry out a single promise of our election manifestos.”

Rather than The People’s Poet, the People’s Prophet, perhaps?

At the same time as the New Stateman was airing Rik also popped up in Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Forth, playing the loud lecherous bragging Lord Flashheart.  In 2006 he returned to the nobility as Lord Reginald in “SpongeBob SquarePants” (2006).

Whilst Flashheart was crude in an upper class slimy sexist way, Rik returned to the gutters again for “Bottom” (1991-1995). Mostly containing scenes of frying pan bashing and slapstick violence akin to classic Laurel and Hardy or old Warner Bros cartoons. For all its base comedy, Rik and Ade had acted together in Waiting for Godot in 1991 and created Bottom as a crude take on the play. The characters, again a Richie, Richard “Richie” Richard, and Edmonson playing flatmate Eddie Elizabeth Hitler, went on to appear in four series, a film “Guest House Paradiso” (1999) playing Richard Twat, and a touring stage show – “Bottom: Live“, which left them in hospital, on occasion! Bottom last toured in 2003 but the 1997 stage version, “Bottom Live 3: Hooligan’s Island” nearly made it back to our screens in 2013, but was cancelled due to competing projects that Ade Edmondson wanted to pursue.

One of my favourite banal Bottom scenes from Season 2 Episode 2, bemoaning what to do in the absence of television…

Richie: What about “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”?
Eddie: We haven’t got a donkey.
Richie: Well, “Pin the Tail on the Chicken”
Eddie: We haven’t got a tail.
Richie: Oh. Well, “Pin the Sausage on the Chicken”?
Eddie: We haven’t got a chicken.
Richie: (Annoyed) Well, “Pin the Sausage on the Fridge”.
Eddie: Or a pin.
Richie: (Angrier) “Sellotape a Sausage to the Fridge”!
Eddie: We haven’t got a sausage!
Richie: (shouting) “Put a Bit of Sellotape on the Fridge”!
Eddie: (Beat) It’s not much of a game, is it?
[Richie and Eddie have just played stick a piece of sellotape on the fridge. Eddie won]
Eddie: Who won?
Richie: Ha ha ha ha. Eddie, it matters not who won or lost, but how you play the game.
Eddie: Oh, you mean I won? Ha! Ha-ha. [wets his finger, draws a figure 1 in the air, waves his hands in the air]
Richie: Yes, I suppose so, yeah, I mean if it’s so important to you, yes. Yes, you did win. I mean for Heaven’s sake, Eddie, it’s only a game! [walking away, to himself] Shit, shit

Waiting for Godot, was not his only conventional acting role, he also appeared made a “brilliant debut” as Ivan in Gogol’s The Government Inspector at the Olivier Theatre in 1985. Indeed, The Telegraph ran an article back in April this year on the 2012 film Eldorado, “the worst film ever made…weapons-grade awful”, in which Mayall played a Verdi-singing, cannibalistic chef, Mario – in contrast to the dire film, his scene stood out as “fairly watchable”!

During the 2000s Mayall was marketed by Playstation on games and ads, to be seen as more “edgy” over Sega‘s success. The money he made from this bought him a house which he jokingly named “Nintendo Towers“.

Such a shame, that like Faulty Towers there were just 12 episodes of the Young Ones, a 1980s classic “sign of the times” series – it always felt like there were many more, I wish there were, and now there won’t be a comeback series as The Old Ones, perhaps “only the good die young”. The Young Ones page on Facebook has nearly a million likes.

Ade Edmondson had this to say of his long time friend and creative collaborator:

Ade Edmondson on Rik Mayall RIP

“There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing. They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he’s died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.”

Nigel Planer, hippie Neil in The Young Ones, described him as:

“…inspirational, bonkers, and a great life force”.

The Guardian described Mayall’s characters as “full of life” and “vast mad scribbles, jammed to the margins with noise and energy”.

The level of talent portraying anarchist poet Rick and punk revolutionary Vyvyan, and their reprised characters in Bottom is clear when one realises that both men went on to conventional marriage and fatherhood. They both married in 1985 and had 3 kids each. Prior to, and overlapping, that, Mayall had been in a relationship with Lise Mayer, co-creator and writer of The Young Ones, and who is now married to Angus Deayton. He leaves behind his wife, Barbara Robbin, and three children, who if they were ever told how to behave after seeing daddy in The Young Ones and Bottom, must have been a struggle to get to behave!

Bonnie Mayall, Rik’s youngest daughter, posted on Facebook:

“We will never forget him and neither will the world, R.I.P to the man, the myth, the legend – my wonderful, generous, foul mouthed and hysterical father.”

For a man whose career went from “Dead Funny” to “Don’t Fear Death” via a near-death experience in 1998, Rik Mayall died full of life, love and laughter. He leaves behind a comedy legacy that will keep us laughing for many years to come.

[An earlier version of this article appeared here]

 

 

Sapiosexual silliness: Making fun of myself, my sex & my mentality

Stand-up Comedy & Lie-down Laughter

Doing stand-up comedy began in 2011 as another fear to conquer, I ended up loving it! Along with deep sea diving it was another case of “feel the fear and do it anyway”, to quote Susan Jeffers.

2007 was the year I came out as trans. My first gig was almost as terrifying, but in the end, almost as exhilarating. Fear and fun have been closely allied ever since.

Performing Stand-up comedy during Pride week
Performing Stand-up comedy during Pride week

 

I remember school when one had the choice of being a bully, being bullied, or being the class clown – I chose the latter. Many comedians have similar stories and many have mental health challenges.

Making fun of yourself – before someone else does, is a defence mechanism. It is also, comedy wisdom if you want to be ethical and attract empathy. Putting yourself down, in a tongue-in-cheek way, rather than attacking others is the comedy high road. The low road attracts hecklers and picks on the audience, minorities, and plays on negative stereotypes. That said, I often make the joke that as trans I am doubly lost, being unable to either read a map or ask for directions.

For all my cleverly written material, the best laughs always came from embarrassing real life stories and narrative humour. It both exposes oneself and draws people in. 

I guess, the most extreme example of that was a major suicide attempt in 2012. Three months afterwards, I was mocking myself in a deadpan stand-up at a Pride fringe event. Someone came up to me afterwards and said how good it was, and how it was so believable, as if I’d actually done and felt all those things – I had! Truth really is stranger and often funnier than fiction.

Feedback seems to have drawn attention to two features of my material – that it is intelligent and that it is often naughty – sapiosexual filth! It is actually not that dirty I just have no limits to self-deprecation, transparent tales of trans embarrassment, and finding a triple-meaning in every word, not being satisfied with mere double-entendres.

One is always, in the end, upstaged by children and animals, and my most laughs came from relating the ear-greasing push-me-pull-you tale of a  British Bulldog that got stuck in my cat-flap.

One gig blurb ran: “Mental madness and lexical lewdness from Katy Went who clutters her way through life with a mind like a cross between the multi-laned M25 and a broken sieve that lacks the ability to distinguish between the good, bad and downright inappropriate.”

Reviews

“Educational filth, occasionally funny, always interesting”
“Katy Went with the filthy mouth”
“Sharp and intelligent”
“Exceptionally engaging and fascinating”
“Making fun of the darker moments in life, with some (really) long words and lots of lewd innuendo…”

Gigography

Dysfunction Room: LGBT History Month, Norwich, 22 Feb 2013
Gypsy in the Field, Aylsham, 22 September 2012
Clyde Fontaine must come out, Farmer Browns, Norwich, 27 July 2012
Bethany Black, Kafe Karma, Norwich, 17 Feb 2012
Zut Radical Cabaret – Hell Bent, Kafe Karma, Norwich, 30 July 2011

Gagography

“Bailiffs & Vampires, bloodsuckers the both of them, same rule applies though – don’t ever invite them over your doorstep”
“Gays tend to come out of the closet whereas Trans prefer to go in them, only in Narnia do you go through them. C.S.Lewis’ unpublished 8th volume A Transvestite in Narnia never got beyond the first page as she refused to leave the Wardrobe!”
“Did you know that, on average, women use 15,000 words a day while men use just 7,000? That makes me Superwoman. I’ve been trying to talk my way into passing as a woman!”
“When I was on sleeping pills the pill advice said ‘To avoid side affects try getting up slowly.’ – Is mid afternoon slow enough?”
“Stand up comedy is an oxymoron as I do my best work lying down”
“Thesbianism – that’s an acting lesbian till I get my membership card”