Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Holocaust As Joke Fodder: Tommy Tiernan's 'Joyous' Rant

I heard about stand-up Tommy Tiernan's anti-Semitic 'rant' third hand, from a rather outraged friend. So I was cautious about judging it too quickly. As I said to my friend, I'll wait till I can put it in context. Then I read the article by Brian Boyd in The Irish Time's Friday insert,The Ticket. Context is the very word Boyd brings up, in his second paragraph:

TOMMY Tiernan used to do a joke about the old Christian contention that the Jews killed Jesus: “The Jews say they didn’t kill Jesus. Well, it wasn’t the f**kin’ Mexicans was it?” In the context and confines of a live comedy club, it was a line that always worked well for him. He brought this joke up in a question-and-answer session [with Olaf Tyaransen] arranged by Hot Press magazine at the Electric Picnic earlier this month.

Asked by an audience member if he had ever been accused of anti-Semitism (Tiernan has been accused of many “isms” during his career), he replied that the above line had upset two Jewish people at a show he did in New York.

They approached him afterwards to remonstrate with him about the nature of the joke. The couple’s complaint, he said, was that “the Israelis are a hunted people” and therefore the joke was insensitive.

Only two Jewish people complained? Well, perhaps they were the only ones in the audience.

Boyd then continues his short lead-in to what Tiernan called his 'rant'. I'll give that lead-in, because it does provide a kind of context, which I have come to think is actually as good as (perhaps even better) than the live interview itself:

He spoke about the nature of his material and how it can cause offence: “It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful. It’s not about being careful ... and mannered. It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing is being taken seriously."

“But these Jews, these f**kin’ Jew c**ts came up to me. F**kin’ Christ-killing b**t**ds! F**kin’ six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**kin’ problem! F**kin’ two at a time, they would have gone! Hold hands, get in there! Leave us your teeth and your glasses!”

As Boyd admits, the written words are shocking, even with those euphemistic asterisks. 'Context' is being asked to bear an awful lot of weight here.

Tiernan, on his own website, is clearly on the defensive. Here's his 'statement' about the rant and some peoples' reactions to it:

Firstly, I would like to say that as a private individual I am greatly upset by the thought that these comments have caused hurt to others as this was never my intention; yet, the Electric Picnic public interview with Hot Press Magazine has been taken so far out of context that I am quite bewildered.

The things that I said in front of a live audience were in an attempt to explain my belief that one of the duties of the comic performer is to be reckless and irresponsible and that the things that they say should NEVER be taken out of context. If you read the full transcript or listen to the podcast you will see that I preface my rant by saying that it should not be taken seriously and as such, the rant took place as an example of my argument. While it is out of context, which it most definitely is now, it seems callous cruel and ignorant.

This is not the first time that something like this has happened and it probably won’t be the last. However, as a public performer I can only hope that whatever wild, irresponsible and reckless things that come into my head will be taken in the context in which they were said.

According to Hot Press editor, Niall Stokes: “if you see or read it in context, there is a comment in there about people who are fanatical and who can’t take a joke. But to interpret it as anti-Semitism is wrongheaded in the extreme. The way I see it, he is satirising anti-Semitism, while making a more general point that we should all be able to laugh at ourselves.

Tommy Tiernan

That word context, again. I suppose much of this depends on whether you go in for Tiernan's kind of stand-up/rant comedy, as delivered by Tiernan. Boyd obviously does. And Niall Stokes, the editor of Hot Press, also defends Tiernan. He dismisses Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter's statement in the Sunday Tribune, that Tiernan's was “a disgusting and unacceptable outburst” and who thought it "particularly sad that people found this sort of outburst in any way amusing.” As Stokes [quoted by Boyd] puts it:

“If Alan Shatter reads the interview and comes to the conclusion that Tommy Tiernan is prejudiced against Jews, then he is suffering from a life-threatening humour by-pass and needs to get it attended to quickly ... The fact is that the interview turned – as many of Tommy Tiernan’s interviews do – into a spontaneous comic performance in which he improvises around whatever subjects are thrown at him ... What he said was strong, referring to the fact that he’d have killed not six million but 10 million or 12 million Jews.

“But, while you have to read the full interview to understand what was going on and to see it in context, only an idiot could think that he was expressing his own feelings.”

Context yet again. Well, I did better than read the interview. I listened to the whole damned podcast, which is downloadable from Tiernan's website.

Boyd's article presents Tiernan as a hero (what Americans might call 'a maverick'):

Tiernan is not your typical comic, chucking out tepid observational inanities to get a guest slot on a TV panel show. His is an intense and passionately felt style of comedy.


The attraction, for many, is that he is not just a gag-merchant but someone who dances around the lines of taste and decency. Controversy follows him around like a stalker.


If you were to take Tiernan’s remarks about the Holocaust at face value, it would be hard not to view them as wicked. But you might also choose to see them in the way he says they were intended. He asks that we consider them in the context of an entertainer reaching around during a live interview for dramatic and extreme imagery. The decision on how to interpret them lies with the receiver.

'Remarks about the Holocaust'? I didn't hear any remarks, just a remarkably vicious diatribe. And if 'the decision on how to interpret [the so-called remarks] lies with the receiver', well, that receiver might interpret them very differently to how they were intended (though the intention seems to me to be far from clear). In any case it is is not humour as I understand it. Listen to the podcast. It's a Tommy Tiernan love-in (at one point the crowd starts chanting 'we love Tommy'). Certainly a 'well-protected environment'. No wonder Tiernan felt he could say whatever he pleased. But, why would he (why would anyone) actually want to say those things? What 'feelings' or 'lunacy' is he actually expressing? Not mine. Yours perhaps? Or yours, over there in the back row?

I must be an idiot, one sandwich short of a picnic, lights on but nobody home. Because I just don't see how raving about 'Jew c**ts' being shoved 'two at a time' into the gas chamber, is funny, in any context. Nevertheless, I listened for a 'context' in the podcast interview. But I am obviously stone deaf.

The Holocaust has left us with some of the most disturbing, heartbreaking and enraging images from the 20th Century. We know what these images are, and I think most people with a modicum of imagination sense what they mean, how they stand as indelible proof of precisely what we are capable of when supreme arrogance rules and we forget how to reach out and touch each other. So we should take such things very personally. Because they ARE personal; they are part of our reservoir of grief, even if we are barely aware of this. Anyone who dips into this reservoir certainly needs more of a context than Tiernan provides, essentially declaring that the mere act of voicing a bottom-feeding scumbag's point of view, stinking and harsh as vomit, creates its own context. If this is true then the likes of Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning are great comedians, pure geniuses. And if you really think Tiernan's Holocaust routine is hilarious how about replacing it with something closer to home? I'm not talking about Catholicism here, which Tiernan mocked on his first appearance on the Late Late Show (afterwards he was apparently detained in the studio for several hours after irate members of the public came looking for him). But priests and Catholicism, like Nazis, are woefully soft targets nowadays. Instead of laying into the perpetrators, how about making a few nasty jabs at the innocent victims of the ongoing clerical abuse scandal, or The Famine or The Troubles? Let Tommy give those a go, and see what 'dramatic and extreme imagery', what 'wild, irresponsible and reckless things', what 'lunacy' he can pull out of his hat.


Anonymous said...

This is really not about the issue of antisemitism alone. It's about the much broader issue of "the right not to be offended".

Most people in the world do not have access to proper food, health services and education,
yet we are so uptight about not being offended.

Let's deal with context-
Other issues raised in the Tommy Tiernan interview were the anti-blasphemy law in the UK, and a certain Scottish comedian who said-in all seriousness-that any comedian imitating an accent that's not his or hers is being "racist". Did you hear those parts as well?

If you want to place such great value on people's supposed right not to be offended, then you surely agree fundamentalist Muslims were 100% right for wanting to stone that British teacher in Somalia for naming a teddybear "Mohammad", or for wanting to torch down Danish embassies for publishing a cartoon, or for threatening to kill the makers of South Park on a Youtube video.

Where does this "right not to be offended" end?

Tommy Tiernan is defending comedy as an area of entertainment where issues as "who might be offended" should not be first and foremost on your mind when your on stage.

And you're wrong if you think-for one single moment- that Tommy and other Irish comedians have not made jokes about the Famine, and the ordeals of the Irish under British rule.

People expect you to talk rubbish, most of it either exaggerated or directly made-up, just to get a laugh.Many times they will go after dead serious issues precisely to take some of the hot air out of them. It's an exorcism. The more you say "don't joke about that", the more comedians will want to show you nothing should be too sacred amongst friends.

Of course, some issues will get under your skin and not mine.

The man said he did not mean his comments seriously, that it was a joke. Ireland never invaded another country in the world, nor subjected any people to Irish oppression. So the idea of a Nazi executioner sending Jews off to the gas chamber, speaking in an Irish accent "And give us yer glasses, will yeh?" hints at the absurdity of accusing some Irish fellow of siding with the Holocaust and the Nazis.

Yet you seem to be a little too self-righteous to differentiate between authentic & serious anti semitism, and a fucking joke about intolerance and "the right not to be offended" in general.

Mark Granier said...

'This is really not about the issue of antisemitism alone. It's about the much broader issue of "the right not to be offended".'

That's your interpretation Pablo, and a rather disingenuous one. If you want to disagree with me, fine and good. But to begin by telling me what 'the much broader issue' is introduces a sadly familiar 'straw man' tactic: you caricature and simplify your opponent's argument (in this case dismissing it as 'uptight' and 'self-righteous', and of course unaware of 'the broader issue' , unlike your own good self, who is far more enlightened and not at all uptight). This approach also has the virtue of recasting Tiernan as that 'joyful' iconoclast, slaying the 'sacred cows', fighting the good fight on behalf of all of us.

Bollocks. Talk about 'self righteous'. For the record, I'm not at all interested in policing the comedy circuit for topics to be 'offended' by. I enjoy plenty of other comedians who can be blackly funny and 'non-PC' (do I really need to list them?), and I am even less interested in my 'right not to be offended' (by which you mean, I take it, my right to be protected from offensive remarks: fuck that!).

I'll tell you what does offend though, to hear comedy used as a blunt instrument, devoid of imagination (dumber than the dumbest Paddy Irishman or mother-in-law sketch, dumber than Chubby Brown on a roll); to hear the old racist bile regurgitated, and then be told that I missed the point, the 'context'. But having a context suggests something else entirely, in fact the opposite to how Tiernan describes his own routine. In case you've forgotten, here's his own take: 'It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful. It’s not about being careful ... It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing is being taken seriously.'

That's very revealing. Tiernan, in his 'protected environment', may trust his 'own soul', but I don't see why I should. Sure, the Holocaust can be regarded as a sacred cow, though, as we know there are plenty of other SERIOUSLY sacred cows out there, if Tiernan really feels brave enough for a good old cattle-raid. The Jews are an old target, and a fairly safe one too (and they are unlikely to launch the Jewish equivalent of a fatwa against anyone who offends them). Besides, the Irish can be great ones for the old Jew-hatred. It's a tradition here, don't you know? When I worked on building sites in the 1990s, perhaps I should have trusted our foreman's 'soul' when he announced (over tea, sandwiches and Daily Stars), 'Hitler did us all a favour.' Before you point out that this is a different context, let me assure you that I'm well aware of the differences, but there are similarities too. The foremen, like Tiernan, was in a 'protected environment', so my incredulous objection met with blank stares or indifference. I'll say this for the foremen though; he didn't claim to be joking; his statement was completely unambiguous: the 'lunacy' was out in the open, clear as day. In that sense, I suspect he was far more honest than Tiernan.

Mark Granier said...

BTW Pablo, if you wish me to post any more responses here I'll require a link to your profile (one that is enabled); i.e., I'll need to know who you are. If you won't put your full name to it I won't post it. No more anonymous comments on this blog.