I really enjoy radio and TV comedy and comedy clubs. As I tweeted a couple of weeks ago:
“I love laughing. And this comedy series with @RussellHoward always ends with an uplifting story.”
My tweet included a link to the BBC Three show Russell Howard’s Good News. This show, now in its eighth series, is written by Howard and is a light hearted upbeat sample of the previous week’s news stories. The show includes lots of humorous video clips and newspaper headlines, a mystery guest with a whimsical skill which Howard samples on stage, and ends with an unashamedly cheesy story. The show’s material is tested in front of an audience on Sunday, filmed on Tuesday then the show airs on Thursday. It’s the channel’s most successful entertainment show ever.
Last Thursday, to warm people up for the new series that started tonight, Howard’s 2011 stage show Right Here, Right Now was broadcast. The tour played to over 200,000 fans and is one of Howard’s best selling DVDs. That’s a whole lot of people laughing along to the series of jokes I was shocked to see Howard tell on the theme of “madness” and “lunacy”.
Here was Mr Upbeat, Mr Uplifting Story, Mr “It’s not all doom and gloom”, telling jokes using mental illness as an insult. Not only that, the routine repeated inaccurate and damaging stereotypes, linking mental illness with violence.
I wondered why Howard, in particular, was going for cheap jokes and easy stereotypes. Perhaps comedians have run out of groups to laugh at. Perhaps they think laughing at mental illness is still okay, now they’re not supposed to tell racist or homophobic jokes any more. Why not laugh at people who can’t stand up and challenge it, for fear of being the subject of stigma and discrimination themselves? Go for it. It’s easy to laugh at autistic children, as Howard did in his mental illness routine. Fair game.
Last week, a flyer came through my letterbox for a local comedy club. I’d love to go again. I used to sit in the front row with a foot resting on the stage, waiting to be picked on, enjoying every moment of the show.
Would it be the same if I were to go now? How would I feel now if I were in a comedy club and the comedian started telling jokes that make fun of mental illness? What would I do? Laugh along? Sit it out? Heckle? Leave?
What about you? You’re in a comedy club. You’re enjoying an evening out with your friends. The comedian’s really funny. And then the jokes about mental illness start.
Not jokes based on the teller’s personal experience – it can be good to laugh at ourselves after all, especially if the joke is really funny. But no. Jokes that use mental illness as an insult. Jokes that equate mental illness with stupidity. Jokes that repeat dangerous stereotypes, like people with mental illness are violent. Jokes that aren’t clever and aren’t funny. Jokes where the mental illness punchline is throw in where in the past a racist or homophobic stereotype would have done the same job.
Would you laugh along at the jokes, trying to blend in? Would you sit it out, hoping no-one noticed you, waiting for that segment of the routine to pass? Would you excuse yourself quietly and go to the toilet or get a drink from the bar while the routine played out, then rejoin your group? Would you quietly walk out, leaving the comedian and audience to laugh at mental illness while you go elsewhere, or go home?
Would you walk out noisily? Would you heckle the comedian? Would you call out something witty to make him think twice about poking fun with people with mental health problems? How would you feel? What would you do?
Take a look at the varied responses of the lovely twitter people here.
- My Storify of tweets with a discussion with the lovely twitter people about comedians making fun of mental illness
- Russell Howard’s website
- Russell Howard’s Good News – new series starts tonight
- On twitter: Russell Howard’s Good News and Russell Howard
- If you’d like to contact Russell Howard, you can do so through his managers, Avalon Management and here
- Book free tickets to see the recording of the current series of Russell Howard’s Good News
- Clip from Right Here, Right Now – “That’s not music, that’s mental illness!”
- Clip from series 3 – mentally ill toys