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Better Red Than Dead

Simon Warner

In comedy, wherein nothing is sacred, where do we draw the line between witty repartee and savage satire?

Comedy walks dangerous tight-ropes, cocks a snook at taboos, and only works if it makes us laugh. While political correctness is hardly an unworthy principle (which progressives of the early Third Millennium don't want to see women and gays, blacks and Asians, the disabled and disenfranchised, the persecuted and pilloried getting a fair deal from society at large?), the very nature of the comedian's art means that areas of sensitivity sometimes have to be breached to reflect the abundant absurdities of contemporary life and raise a spontaneous smile.

Yet where do we draw the line between where do we draw the line between witty repartee and savage satire? Jewish laughter-makers, of course, have been blurring this distinction for decades, probably centuries. Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, and dozens of others have taken the condition of Jewry as a boundless source of potential hilarity. As Jews themselves, of course, there appears to be an unwritten code that rabbis and the faith, the cautious trader, the doting mother and the princess daughter, can be the basis for lampoonery and laughter. No one has stood up, yet, and suggested that such practices are to be equated with the anti-Semitic, far right mania or the denial of the Holocaust. Yet if Gentile performers took it upon themselves to parody the pragmatism, the pessimism, the parsimony, and the plight of Jewish men and women, it would not be long before those gags were being equated with the very rantings of the Nazi demagogues of the '30s.

In more recent times, ground-breaking American black comedians have challenged similar lines of taste and decorum. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and, most pointedly, Chris Rock have taken traditional notions of blackness and re-presented them as stereotypes rich in comic potential: for them the tag "nigger" can become a tool of mirth rather than a term of subordination. Commentators might argue that it is only when a minority gains a self-belief and a confidence that the liberating process of self-mockery can begin.

The same process applies with blacks as with Jews. If a white comic suddenly decided that black people were a ripe target for humour, it would not be long before the PC wardens, maybe the police themselves, would issue their banning orders. At the same time, women stand-ups of the last 20 years have felt confident enough to acknowledge but also gently send up both the feminism they often broadly support and harangue men as a species, without attracting the venom of the liberal censors. In a similar vein, gay comics can poke fun at the homosexual lifestyle without accusations of disloyalty or disrespect.

All of these are paradoxes of a system that remains essentially patriarchal: as the white, heterosexual male continues to run the important branches of the Western world, outsiders — whether Jewish, black, female and/or gay — have to fire most of their critical shots not in the halls of political power, but on the stages of comedy clubs, where pertinent points can be made in a more light-hearted fashion. Maybe through comedy they can shape consciousnesses, even positive legislation, over time. But what happens when a genetic characteristic — like your very sex or your skin colour or perhaps an inherited imperfection — becomes the subject of such light entertainment? The blind, the deaf and the dumb may have been the target of comic cruelty in the distant past and, I guess, if there were blind, deaf or dumb comics around then perhaps we might, again, tolerate such self-inflicted jokery. But to utilise them as comic subjects in 2004 would surely be a step too far.

Yet there is one British TV show, widely acclaimed, splendidly created, and certainly very funny, that has broken that taboo in recent months with its no-holds-barred send-up of a blind man. The fact that the comic impressionists of Dead Ringers have chosen David Blunkett as their quarry is significant. For this remarkable individual is not only sightless but also the holder of one of the great posts in UK government, Home Secretary, and thus he is responsible for a broad portfolio of key social issues including law and order. How Blunkett feels about this tribute of sorts I'm not sure anyone knows. To wonder if he has actually seen it produces the very jibe that such apparently unthinking comedy thrives upon. Yet I mention these matters for more than just the sake of the Home Secretary, a highly experienced MP who can probably bear the light bruising of a television taunt.

I refer to such topics because while I am neither black nor Jewish, female or gay, blind, deaf or dumb, I have felt the sting of irrational prejudice for quite another reason. To be a redhead in English society is to be another kind of outsider: this Celtic legacy (the colouring is far more common in Irish or Scottish contexts) marks you as a member of a small but not insignificant minority, earns you a range of nicknames — ginger, carrot-top, copper-nob and so on — and attaches the expectation that you will be hot-headed and quick-tempered.

To be frank, I have spent almost five decades barely conscious of this trait. Maybe it is because I am more blonde than red; it is, probably, the deep rust shade that particularly stands out. But by saying that, I feel a little like those black Americans with lighter skin who once felt more accepted because they were less Negroid, and therefore more easily able to integrate with the racist regime they had to face, day-by-day. So I will simply reiterate that I would, in some eugenic test, be considered a redhead.

But to return to comedy and make my principal point. Avid Merrion, a rising TV comedian offering a most idiosyncratic view on the world, has been earning a good deal of attention of late. His series, Bo'Selecta!, has just entered a third season and, if he has taken liberties before, his new show pushes the bounds that little bit further. Suffice to say that if this show ever made the transatlantic leap, the bleeping evident on The Osbournes would, in US circles, find a worthy rival here. Yet in Britain, with its more liberal approach to small screen action, this late-night romp is delivered without such audible intrusions.

Its frontman, frequently bedecked in the most gruesome masks representing stars as diverse as Michael Jackson and Craig David, Elizabeth Taylor and Mel B of the Spice Girls, produces caricatures that brutally de-bunk any remaining hint that these individuals are somehow special. Such grotesquerie, at a time when celebrity has assumed a worryingly powerful connotation, is both disturbing and curiously refreshing; the very antidote to the fawning tones of the mass-selling, weekly glossies Now, OK and Hello, which place movie stars, soap actors, and reality television refugees on ill-founded pedestals.

But this eccentric comic is not merely concerned with the slaying of sacred cows: he mercilessly sends himself up as voyeur and loser, fetishist and freak. And the fact that he has the most dazzling of red crops is not unimportant here: he frequently makes reference to the unattractiveness of redheads. In the last series, he played out a menage à quatre with three of the Sex and the City women, approximated by blow-up dolls, but casually, and instantly, rejected Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) because of her colouring. The first show of the new season saw him pursue the theme further. Masked in one of his hideous latex creations, he assumed the part of the presenter of a programme entitled Walking Gingerly with Mick Hucknall, best known as the lead singer of soul band Simply Red, who has, in reality, not only cavorted with a dozen or more of the world's most eligible women but has also expressed strong words for those who have shown a willingness to fire uninvited jibes at redheads.

Predictably, Merrion, an acute and unforgiving satirist, takes this challenge on with relish. In this section of the show, a familiar and genuine Sky TV presenter, brunette Kirsty Gallagher, is invited to "red-up" and test the waters to see how redheads are treated in everyday life. The sketch sees Gallagher aggressively pilloried by a shopkeeper, merely adding to the notion that redheads are suitable targets for abuse.

Which returns us to our original question. If Jewish comedians, if black comics, can send their own kind up, should Avid Merrion be able to turn his own appearance, his own redheadedness into a comic vehicle, even if others who share this characteristic, this implied affliction, are pigeon-holed as odd, unusual or somehow less acceptable? I'm almost past caring — almost. But I do feel sympathy for younger people, boys and girls, men and women, going through, the traumas of youth, the stresses of puberty. The experience of growing up a redhead has made me, a white middle class man and an insider in so many ways, realise more clearly how those condemned to the margins — because they are Muslim or an immigrant, a woman or transgendered, old, an addict or mentally ill — must feel. For, in the socio-biological battlefield, conceptions of the "other" come in a worrying number of shapes and sizes.

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