Deconstructing Comedy

Well, here we go again. Yet another UK comedian has managed to set my Twitter feed alight with a sketch about trans people. This time, somewhat surprisingly, the perp in question is Jonathan Ross. I say surprisingly because Ross knows a number of trans people. I’ve heard good and bad on this, but I understand that he knows Roz Kaveney quite well, and he’s close friends with Neil Gaiman. His wife, of course, wrote X-Men First Class, which might fail on race issues but has gone down very well with my white LGBT friends. And their eldest daughter has recently come out as a lesbian. He’s not the sort of guy I would expect to pick on trans people.

Nevertheless, as this post from Paris Lees explains, Wossy has managed to cover himself in do-dos as far as the trans community is concerned. There has been a certain amount of yelling on Twitter. I thought it might be useful if I tried to apply this lessons I learned from this post to try to find out what is going on.

The first thing we need to remember is that Ross probably didn’t write the jokes himself. Normally I would have thought that he is a big enough star to have objected to offensive material, but perhaps his recent troubles have made him less willing to kick up a fuss with his paymasters. We can’t know one way or another on that. What I am pretty sure about, however, is that whoever did write the jokes was aware of the fuss caused by the Russell Howard sketch that Paris refers to. Certainly most people in the trans community know about it, and the comedy-writing fraternity is a similarly small and gossipy group. I suspect that some of the outrage arises from the suspicion that we have been deliberately baited. That is, someone remembered how angry we got first time around, and figured that as he had an excuse to roll out similar material he could get a similar level of publicity. Ross is taking the rap for this right now, but I want to know who the writer is who deliberately went fishing for outrage.

What about the material itself? If you’ve clicked through on Paris’s post then you’ll know that the jokes were all about the supposed “ladyboy” stewardesses on a Thai airline. See those scare quotes? They are there for a reason. The Ladyboys of Bangkok stage show is a drag act. The whole point of it is that the audience knows that the people they are seeing on stage are really men. They are drag artists, like Ru Paul, not women. And Ross’s jokes are all about people who look like women but are really men.

Except it is not that simple. While Thailand might have a cultural tradition of cross-dressing, the kathoeys, as trans women are known there, are not much better off in Thailand than trans women are in the West. Getting a job a as ladyboy might feel like being in a freak show for a transsexual, but it is better than prostitution, and if you are careful you might be able to earn enough money for your gender realignment surgery. Therefore, at least some of the performers you see in a ladyboy show probably do identify as female.

More importantly in this case, the airline is not hiring ladyboys. It is hiring kathoeys, and it is doing so because the owner of the airline wants to give them a chance at a job that isn’t being a drag act or a prostitute. Obviously he’s getting a lot of publicity as well, but he’s not putting these girls out there and saying “guess which ones are men”, he’s employing people who live full time as women and identify as women.

Does Ross know this? Possibly not, because most of the UK media has covered the story using the term “ladyboy”. That, of course, is partly because a lot of UK journalists may not understand the difference between a transsexual and a drag act, but mainly because they want their readers to think that all trans people are just amateur drag acts because that makes it easier to ridicule them.

(Incidentally, one of the reasons I love the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert is that it tries hard to explain the difference between a transsexual and a drag act. I was rather saddened to read in a review that the stage show mostly loses this.)

So the situation we have here is that Ross appears to think he’s making fun of drag artists, whereas anyone who knows the story well sees him making fun of transsexuals. If people are approaching the jokes from a different frame of reference then it is understandable that one side find them funny and the other does not. But the frame of reference that Ross is using is an inaccurate one deliberately spread by British newspapers with the intention of inspiring the sort of mockery that Ross’s writers have provided. What is actually happening is that the airline is taking people from a despised minority group who find it difficult to get work, and giving them good jobs. That’s not something we should be mocking. In particular we shouldn’t be mocking it using exactly the offensive and inaccurate stereotyping that makes it hard for these people to get jobs in the first place.

Finally I want to zero in on one joke in particular. It’s the one where Ross says, “Unlike most airlines, they’re actually encouraging you to take a concealed weapon on board.” Obviously this is as much a joke about airline security as about trans people, and as such I found it funny. Then I stopped and thought about what it said. First up, of course, there’s no guarantee that the stewardesses have penises. I hope that the airline doesn’t make surgery a condition of employment, but they may have done, and the women will likely have had it done anyway if they could afford it. Whatever, the joke simply doesn’t work once you know that the stewardesses probably don’t have penises (or “nuts” either, for that matter).

The real problem with this joke, however, is that a penis is only a “weapon” if it belongs to a rapist. And here Ross’s joke is playing straight into the scaremongering meme so beloved of American Christianists that trans women only dress as women so that they can get close to real women and rape them. That’s the sort of stereotyping that gets trans women killed. It’s not the sort of idea that ought to be used in a joke. I suspect that no one involved with the show saw the joke this way, but once you know anything about trans rights politics the implication is obvious. It should also be obvious why people are furious about it.

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7 Responses to Deconstructing Comedy

  1. Kathryn says:

    Firstly: Wait, Neil Gaiman…? I am perplexed by what you mean!

    Secondly: “Wossy” is one of my most disliked “comedians”. I’m not surprised by this, ‘cos I wouldn’t put it past him, nor fellow “comedian” Ricky Gervais. Heck, even Stephen Fry has had a good go himself on QI.

    You know, I think the BBC is split. Massively. They have something very respectful like Coming Out Diaries on BBC Three… and then The Manchild (Russell Howard) a few hours later. I wish they’d be more balanced about these things, because – as you said – it has a massive (even fatal) impact on people.

    I don’t care if “Wossy” thinks he’s funny. He’s not. He’s an over-compensating, worn-out, one-trick pony, just like his “mate” Ricky Gervais. His daughter is part of the LGBT/QUILTBAG community (not sure which term is best), and by disrespecting and insulting transpeople he’s effectively insulting the community she’s part of.

    • Cheryl says:

      Hmm, I see your confusion. I mention Neil because he’s someone who has a lot of trans friends, and is well-loved by them.

      Read the post of mine that I linked to, please. I know things like this are infuriating, but we won’t stop them unless we can do more than express outrage. Indeed, I think what this incident has shown is that expressing outrage alone will only result in more of the same.

      • Kathryn says:

        Shall go and do so now!

        I kinda twigged on the Gaiman thing. I did some Google Fu and worked out what you meant. Confusion over. :p

  2. Carolyn says:

    I want to know who the writer is who deliberately went fishing for outrage

    I’m not sure it matters much or if the question even means anything, because writers are the least powerful people on a show (not that I’m bitter). Normally the producer is the all-powerful one, but a big name like Ross tends to have even more power and would have had complete say over his material, and he either wrote it, commissioned it specifically or approved it. It’s certainly not up to the writing team to make the decision to go for outrage. They just don’t have that kind of say.

    • Cheryl says:

      That’s not the way Beth told me it works, and given that she’s written for TV comedy I’m inclined to take her word for it.

      I doubt that Ross writes his own jokes — he’s a presenter whose expertise is in films and comics. He might have been able to refuse a sketch, but as I noted above his star is on the wane these days and he may not have the power you think.

      Producers don’t commission jokes, they select from amongst the jokes the writers offer them. Again the producer could have refused the sketch, but a lot of our problem is that producers and presenters are poor judges of what is offensive. And they test on audiences already primed to laugh at trans people by the Malice and similar red tops.

      Someone on the writing team made a decision to offer a joke based on the Thai airline, and I’m pretty sure that person would have heard about the fuss surrounding the Russell Howard sketch.

      • Carolyn says:

        Since I also have a long track record in writing sketch comedy in the UK, on both TV and radio, I think I can be assumed to know a little about the subject also:). I’m also acquainted with one of the writers on Ross’s writing team. It’s absolutely not true that producers don’t commission particular sketches. I have been asked to write sketches on a particular subject the producer knows he or she wants to cover and have done so. But how it mostly works on the kind of topical show Ross does is that the writing team together with the producer looks at what’s going on in the news and as a group comes up with a range of sketches. The producer will certainly choose from those depending on which ones they think work best – the writers have absolutely no control over that at all. Whether the talent has a hand in this depends on the talent: certainly Ross has total approval over his material. His star may be on the wane but he is still a very big name in television and he doesn’t deliver anything he’s not happy with. (That he stood behind this sketch is clear from the appalling response he gave to complaints on Twitter.)

        I certainly agree that testing material on audiences was most probably a critical factor. We had a similar situation here in NZ recently where a tampon manufacturer showed what many people (including me) considered to be a transphobic ad. They were forced to pull it after three showings and apologise after a huge public outcry, but they wailed that they’d audience-tested the ad and nobody had had a problem with it. I don’t even know how that worked given that the majority public response was so radically different from the test group’s, but clearly there’s something very wrong with their method.

        Having read the transcript of the sketch, I found it virtually unbelievable. It’s the kind of material you’d expect from a 1970s hate comedian.

        • Cheryl says:

          OK, thanks. If you’d told me you did that sort of work I apologize for forgetting.

          So it sounds like the producer probably did have a hand in selecting the stories to cover, and given the level of fuss over the Russell Howard sketch, I imagine that would have been brought up during any discussions as to which news stories to target. That suggests that the producer is indeed complicit. Ross’s reaction on Twitter suggests that he wasn’t aware of what had gone on before, though we can’t know that.

          As to the nature of the material, aside from the “concealed weapon” thing, which I suspect no one involved thought to much about, this sketch was much less offensive than the Russell Howard one.

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