Belfast Telegraph

Don't blame Gervais for the nastiness in our society

By Janet Street-Porter

Ricky Gervais is smart - not a bully or a bigot, even though recent events might indicate otherwise. Now he's apologised for using the word 'mong', let's get the affair in perspective.

Sure, he was naive, and posting oafish pictures on Twitter was dumb. They attracted a storm of protest. Gervais was even accused of ramping up the controversy to promote his new TV series.

But after Nicola Clark, the mother of two teenage girls with severe autism, cried on the Jeremy Vine radio show as she described the insults she's had to deal with from the public, Ricky contacted her and they talked privately and he said sorry. He then offered her a "very public thank you" on Twitter.

Unlike Frankie Boyle, with his revolting comments about Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey, Ricky knows when to admit he got it wrong.

Leaving aside whether words change their meanings, freely abusing people is absolutely acceptable in modern comedy. Comedy remains overwhelmingly male - look at television and radio, from Live at the Apollo, to 9 out of 10 Cats, to QI, Buzzcocks and Have I Got News for You.

When I get asked on telly with some male comics, I decline, because I can't cope with the nastiness. I threatened to walk out of one show a while back when a well-known comic made a homophobic gag about a friend.

During a recording, you expect comics to show off to keep the audience interested, but in this instance, they were appalled. I was made to feel as if I wasn't being a sport. After a grudging 'apology', we continued the show.

On Facebook, in chatrooms and on Twitter, the level of repartee these days is routinely judgmental and savage and it's in this context that Ricky used the M-word.

Jimmy Carr's on-stage nastiness has been well documented - but, funnily enough, he's a very pleasant person in real life. Hugely intelligent, he has thoroughly researched what works with his audience: the filthier and more unpleasant he gets, the more they like it.

Years ago, I was the BBC executive in charge of a late-night comedy show in which Bill Hicks delivered a hilarious monologue about how throat cancer victims could have a tracheotomy and smoke two cigarettes at once. It brought the house down, but it later emerged that a senior BBC executive was suffering from throat cancer and I was ordered to make a grovelling apology.

My boss told me I was supposed to monitor taste and decency issues and had failed in my task. I disagreed, but was overruled.

Good comedy will always offend someone, but I'm more concerned that our society as a whole seems to have got more uncaring and insensitive and popular comedy reflects that.

Gervais thought he was chatting on Twitter, like a bloke in the pub, but made a rare misjudgment.

I saw his outrageous set at a teenage cancer charity event at the Royal Albert Hall a few years ago, when he referred to disability in a routine that could have caused offence. The kids in the wheelchairs were howling with laughter. That's a sign of true genius.

I've interviewed Ricky: he's highly cautious and comes across as mildly insecure. Some say he's arrogant, but I disagree. He's only really happy performing and hopeless at small talk, which is why he messed up on Twitter.

Instead of picking on Ricky, consider the way kids talk to each other 24/7 via text and messaging. Look at the abuse and nastiness on the internet, the swearing in the street and in shops. We've all become more brutalised. We have less time for real feelings; we trade on instant reactions.

Those who come up with the smart-alec insults are the prizefighters of our era. Don't blame Ricky - he was just trying to be contemporary and on-message.

But why are we all so unspeakably insensitive?

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