Steve Coogan on the Difference Between Racist Humor and Humor About Racism

There’s been a bit of controversy over in Britain recently over an episode of the super-popular car show Top Gear that featured the following exchange between the hosts:

Hammond: …Cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they, so German cars are very well built and ruthlessly efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick, a Mexican car’s just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight… (laughter) leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle as a coat.
May: It is interesting, isn’t it, because they can’t do food, the Mexicans, can they? Because it’s all like sick with cheese on it, I mean… (laughter)
Hammond: Refried sick!
May: Yeah, refried sick.
Hammond: I’m sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you’re Mexican: ‘awww, no’. (laughter)
Clarkson: No, it’d be brilliant… because you could just go straight back to sleep again.

Yikes! This has sparked one of those conversations about offensive humor, with the hosts in question claiming that it was all in good fun and others pointing out that the jokes were not only racist, but they were unfunny as well. In response, Steve Coogan wrote a pretty brilliant piece for The Guardian that takes them to task for their lazy, racist joking around. It may be easy to dismiss the standard PC police, but it’ll be tougher to dismiss one of the top British comedians around.

There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them. Put simply, in comedy, as in life, we ought to think before we speak. This wasn’t one of those occasions. In fact, the comments were about as funny as a cold sweat followed by shooting pains down the left arm. In fact, if I can borrow from the Wildean wit of Richard Hammond, the comic approach was “lazy”, “feckless” and “flatulent”.

He’s very right. Much like Gallagher, who claims his racist, homophobic material is fine because, hey, it’s just comedy, you can’t get away with being blatantly racist just because you’re doing so in a jokey way.

There’s a pretty clear line between comedy that uses racism as the butt of the joke and racist comedy. As Coogan says:

If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. Brave, groundbreaking stuff, eh?

You’ve just got to wonder about people who not only make jokes like the ones the Top Gear hosts made, but then proceeded to defend them as if they were examples of brilliant, edgy comedy.

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