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Comedy: To be Preserved at any Cost?

It feels like I have written this article a thousand times, reporting on an older, white man who used to be at the forefront of comedy, airing peculiar opinions on what freedom of speech means and how the PC brigade is ruining comedy. Back in the driving seat is Rowan Atkinson, whose character Mr Bean who seems a plausible muse for the former Home Secretary, with his open letter to Boris Johnson regarding his comments about women wearing burkas.

Once again Atkinson is protecting the ‘right to offend’, writing in the Times: “As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one.

All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”

Let’s break this down. First of all yes, you should be able to make jokes about anything. Speaking truth to power is absolutely a part of comedy, comedy ought to question everything, particularly authority because from the feudal system to your parents there is always something ridiculous about it. Religious organisations fall into this category of power.

And Atkinson has form in mocking religion, playing flaccid C of E church figures and I dare say he’s encountered a nun’s wimple for a sketch. So it’s understandable he may wish to preserve his old material. However, and this is pretty important, Boris Johnson wasn’t making a joke about religion. 

Boris was making a joke about women who choose to wear the burka. Whether or not the burka or hijab or niqab is mentioned in a holy text has nothing to do with Boris’s remarks regarding what he thought these women looked like. You know what does? Misogyny.

Second of all, this isn’t even a good joke. I don’t even know if I need to back this up with an argument beyond the fact it is a less than accurate observation. Women in burkas do not look like letterboxes or robbers. We could all just send Boris an email saying: ‘should have gone to Specsavers’ and it would be a sick burn.

Third of all if Muslim women weren’t suffering racist abuse on our streets I’d say Atkinson’s comment “All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them” was just lazy. All homophobic jokes cause offence, all sexist jokes cause offence, all racist jokes cause offence, is it pointless apologising for them? I don’t think so and I’m pretty sure most people in comedy would agree. Then we concentrate on creating better comedy that is accessible to everyone? Or is Atkinson hoping to usher in a returning craze for Mother-in-law jokes?

Why do they cause offence? Because they don’t just trivialise the abuse minorities suffer, they galvanise the people who harbour hostility towards them. Plus as I believe I addressed earlier, this isn’t a joke about religion, it’s a joke at the expense of vulnerable women.

It is baffling that comedians such as Atkinson seem more concerned about the preservation of comedy as they know it at any cost. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.