Why is Terry Gilliam Afraid of Diversity?

I’d like to start this article by congratulating Terry Gilliam on their brave renouncement of white male privilege – choosing instead to live as a black lesbian woman called Loretta. Speaking at a press conference at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where Loretta was presenting her new film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The transracial, transgender comedian, filmmaker and Python commented on Shane Allen’s recent statement regarding diversity in which the BBC controller of comedy commissioning said: “if you’re going to assemble a team now, it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes. It’s going to be a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world.”

Loretta said: “It made me cry: the idea that… no longer size white Oxbridge men can make a comedy show. Now we need one for this, one of that, everybody represented… this is bullshit. I no longer want to be a white male, I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world: I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian… My name is Loretta and I’m a BLT, a black lesbian in transition.”

Haha BLT, get it? Like the sandwich! It’s a great, really smart comment worthy of Roy Chubby Brown, on the special treatment enjoyed by far too many LGBTQ+ people of colour. Loretta added: “comedy is not assembled, it’s not like putting together a boy band where you put together one of this, one of that everyone is represented.”

I disagree, assembling a comedy team is exactly like assembling a boy band. A successful boy band has to include A Cute One, A Raunchy One, A Talented One, An Edgy One and A-Mystery-One-On-The-End-Who-Never-Sings-But-Is-Sometimes-Allowed-To-Do-Talky-Bits-Under-The-Guise-of-Rap. And do you know why? So that they appeal to the maximum number of girls aged between 8 and 21. When you assemble a comedy team you ought to do the same. Though you might wish to work under different nomenclatures for a different demographic.

It’s what happened when ‘assembling’ Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was and more recently, The Mash Report. Okay, fine, perhaps with the first two examples John Bassett and Ned Sherrin weren’t concerning themselves with diverse representation – however, they were looking to represent new voices. Surely, therefore, Allen’s statement merely continues where Bassett and Sherrin left off.

Loretta’s fellow Python John Cleese has also been railing against what he believes is PC culture gone mad, speaking on the only platform he can get a bloody word in because you can’t say anything nowadays, Twitter, Cleese response to Allen was: “Unfair! We were remarkably diverse FOR OUR TIME … We had three grammar-school boys, one a poof, and Gilliam, though not actually black, was a Yank. And NO slave-owners.”

I agree. Monty Python was diverse for its time, I don’t recall anybody saying it wasn’t, or refuse to watch The Life of Brian until they retrospectively super-impose a new black member of the troupe into the cast. Progress isn’t stopped because someone found success at a certain point. We didn’t just stop science once Dolly the Sheep was cloned and we shouldn’t put a lid on expanding diversity because Cleese happens not to be at the centre of it.

No new incarnation of comedy (if this diversity drive is a new incarnation – I don’t think so, but it’s likely to herald in one, I’d argue) takes away from the achievements and more importantly funniness of any previous ones. If they can stand the test of time, that means some truly great comedy was made. Hurrah.

What’s especially strange is ultimately we’re all calling for the same thing. We want to see ourselves, or representations of ourselves, on screen and on stage. Is that criminal? No. What’s more, nobody is saying it is. And nobody is calling for white male comedians to be purged. I’m not. Some of my best friends are white male comedians. In fact, I’m married to one. Play my cards right and I could soon be married to John Cleese.

If we want the same thing, why are established white male comedians (#notallestablishedwhitemalecomedians) so shaken at the notion of promoting diversity in comedy? I suspect they don’t quite know, which is why they have to resort to cheap jibes like using old-fashioned slurs and poor BLT jokes. I’m sure a genuine passion for comedy lays behind it, but I fear a blind desire to preserve comedy for people like them fuels this passion. I think what they fear is: box ticking.

When you are not the default, you are a tick in the box. What’s a tick in the box? It is our mission for diversity reduced to admin. Therefore a person of colour is a tick in the POC box, a woman is a tick in the, uh, woman box, an LGBTQ person is a tick in the LGBTQ box, etc. If you have the task of booking a panel show and your mission statement requests you [appear] to seek diverse line-ups, you’re looking for a person who ticks a box. The expressed concern is usually that mediocre comedians might the place of talented white men because they happen to tick a box.

This currently is a rarity, if it happens at all, because once a box is ticked there seems to be no desire to tick it again. Plenty of women comedians have been turned down because: ‘we already have a woman on the line-up’. Which is where we come to the problem of the token. The token has the job of representing all those who identify with the token. If you’re rubbish, all of you must be rubbish. White Oxbridge men do not want to become the token, the tick in a box.

While this is understandable, but not excusable. Far better for those who are established in comedy, even seen as comedy heroes to many, to champion new talent wherever it comes from in honour of those who championed them when they were the new voices. This is the future of comedy and white men, if you don’t step aside you better step it up.