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People & Ideas

Nov 28, 2012

No joke, freedom of speech is worth debating

Crikey -- among others -- raised concerns about a recent "there's nothing funny about rape" comedy night. The event's host, Melbourne comedian Kieran Butler, asked for a right of reply.


Earlier this year I was informed the “Raw Comedy” competition administered by the government-funded Melbourne International Comedy Festival had a judging policy that banned material that was “racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise seriously offends the sensibilities of the audience”. I wondered out loud: so who is finding comedians for the other 50% of Australian taxpayers who vote for Tony Abbott?

Comedy is democratic. Something is funny if people laugh. You might not like the audience, the joke teller or the joke. But laughter makes it funny. Even racists should have a few laughs. It relieves stress. I want my racists relieved of stress.

The interplay of comedy and censorship was on display again at a recent event I hosted — which caused media controversy and was criticised by Crikey.

I have been running a weekly Open Mic comedy night at Station 59 in Melbourne for 18 months. Free to get in. Free to perform. From the beginning I informed venue management that the night would run according to the maxim: “No Cliques. No Fear. No Favour.” Fledging comedians can perform safe in the knowledge that they will always get booked again in the order they apply. I’ve never knocked anyone back. I wanted to provide a stage space where experimentation was encouraged. Absolute freedom of speech. Including a licence to offend, to play in dangerous territory. Comedians continually tell me there is no other room like it. It is considered supportive and friendly.

The room at Station 59 stood for freedom to speak long before “Destroy the Joint” started boosting the ratings of Alan Jones. So when Angelo D’Costa suggested the topic for a debate — “There’s nothing funny about rape” — to be staged as part of our regular open mic night I supported the idea because it was topical and a discussion I think comedians needed to have. A poorly thought out poster was circulated online by Rob Caruana which went viral and sparked a series of phone calls to venue management from people who opposed the debate taking place.

I argued with management that we needed to hold the line in keeping with the values of the room but the debate (what debate?) was cancelled unilaterally because of the phone calls they had already received. That is how the folk who succeeded in having the debate shut down achieved their aims. I saw a tweet by a person I can only assume is anti-sexual assault that said: “Someone should find Kieran Butler and punch him in the dick!” That’s comedy gold.

What also perplexed me was that people had been offended by something that hadn’t happened yet. People made assumptions about what an all-male line-up were going to talk about. They were wrong. One of the participants burst into tears when he told me he had planned to speak about being raped. He felt as though he had been silenced. Stereotyped. Pigeonholed before he even got the chance to express an opinion.

People said an all-male line-up was wrong in principle. I would counter that by saying it is male comedians who needed to have this discussion. And they’ve been talking. The mob has most definitely spooked them.

Freedom of speech is easy to support when everyone is nodding in agreement. It’s much harder when a mob thinks they have a moral imperative to bring down the veil of censorship because it seems like right thing to do. If the planned debate had gone ahead, I’d have welcomed any subsequent clamour, outrage and vitriol. But it didn’t.

Instead I invited one of the leaders of the campaign against the event to the venue to join a replacement for the debate; a hastily convened discussion of a statement I planned to make where I would restate the values of the room and speak generally about offensive material. The heckling that followed led to a story in The Age

This time last year I was working with a small group of people who were preparing to take on Eddie McGuire at the Collingwood AGM regarding a matter of conflict of interest. It didn’t make us popular but we did it. To McGuire’s credit he rejected a call from the floor that night that sought to silence any future criticism of the Collingwood board by people like us on the grounds he supported freedom of speech — even if he didn’t enjoy the consequences.

Last week Courteney Hocking wrote in Crikey that “until comedians like Butler and co understand the importance of kicking up rather than down, it’s probably better that they avoid the subject altogether”. Well, over the years I have gone head-to-head with McGuire, publicly satirised MICF director Susan Provan and ruffled feathers at The Scotsman. I’ve been kicking up since you were in short pants. More importantly, I also consider any censorship as a step down what will become a slippery slope. I support freedom of speech completely, without any qualification.

Last year Jeremy Clarkson made an awful comment about executing striking workers in front of their families. People were outraged. Andrew Bolt crowed: “It’s just a joke!” And so it was. He thought it was funny. I want to live in a world where Clarkson, Bolt and Jones can say whatever they like. Then I can be free to lampoon them.

Shutting the likes of us down doesn’t seem to be working too well.


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18 thoughts on “No joke, freedom of speech is worth debating

  1. Simon Roberts

    I like the way this guy frames the problem he created as the work of others. Boo hoo.

  2. amct

    Freedom of speech doesn’t protect you from having a gig cancelled, it protects you from going to prison. Get a clue.

  3. mikeb

    I always find it curious when people are outraged by something they imagine will happen. Being offended must be a comforting state of mind for some.

  4. Mike Smith

    @Mikeb – I think many of them go looking for something to be outraged about.

    @Amct: nice to see how well that doesn’t work.

  5. Ruprecht

    Way to avoid the main issue, which was how the crowd jeered insulted and heckled a woman talking about her experiences with sexual assault. Just because you bagged Eddie McGuire once doesn’t make that right.

    But yeah, poor poor blokes being told their all-male rape debate idea sucked.

  6. Kevin & Julie Harris

    Dear Kieran

    Do you mind if Julie and I call you by your first name? It’s a bit more warm and personal that way.

    Firstly, I know both Julie and I are about to make ourselves about as popular as a red headed step-son at christmas lunch, but is n’t ironic that Eddie McGuire is showing our friends at Cr-key a thing or two about free speech?..now that’s funny!!! ..is n’t it?

    Did you know that Julie and I posted some very important information regarding a certain “male” health issue to Cr-key recently and guess what!..they edited it, yes, they edited out a possible cure for pr-strate cancer. Can you believe that? Are Cr-key really just a bunch of mansoginists?…hmmm?!?!

    I dunno, but both Julie and I absolutely support you on your crusade for comical free speech.

    We were not privy to r-pe issue thingy, so we can’t comment on that, but as you intimated, comedy is therapeutic ( sp ) and you don’t seem like a young lad that would purposely go out of your way to harm someone.

    Now, take Julie as an example, she continually suspects me of having an affair with Judy Frump.

    Judy plays tennis at our local club, well, she does n’t really play, she sort of goes out there and tries to swat the ball like you would swat a fly with a fly swatter, but…..hang on a sec Kieran, Julie wants to say something.

    Julie: Sorry about this Kieran. Kevin))))))))))…what about Judy Frump and that single red rose she had delivered to your office?…and what about her coming to your bedroom window at 3.00am in the morning?

    Kevin: Just because she delivered a single red rose to my office does n’t mean to say there’s anything in it….and just because she came to my bedroom window at 3.00am in the morning does n’t mean to say there’s anything in it…like hellloooooo! ..where do you get off Julie?


    Your Sincerely
    Kevin & Julie Harris

  7. Andy Sorlosa

    The problem with Cr-key is censorship. I feel sorry for them, Kier-n

  8. Tom Jones

    Love the way that freedom of speech = freedom to put forward any material whether it is funny or not. Jokes are used by a powerful group against those who don’t have power. Women are often the targets of male so called comedians with the boy’s club thinking it uproarious to humiliate women. That is why the the rape joke wasn’t funny before it was aired. Bullies are always happy to find humour in the humiliation of their victims and rape is the worst kind of bullying. Freedom of speech doesn’t override the need to be safe in public spaces. Trying to make rape a joke is puerile and quite disturbing. Grow up Kieran. You might then find material which is both funny and intelligent.

  9. Stephen Luntz

    Wow. So Kieran butler thinks the debate about whether rape is funny is one that should be restricted to male comedians. The all male line up wasn’t an oversight but a deliberate attempt to exclude women’s voices. “It is male comedians who needed to.have this discussion.”

    Not really surprising butler ripped the microphone away from a rape survivor while she was being heckled; he didn’t think she should have had it in the first place.

  10. samquigley

    One of the participants in your “comedy debate” cried when he told you he planned to speak about being raped? You’re right, it’s a terrible shame it was cancelled. Sounds hilarious. I can only presume you are the love-child of Richard Pryor and Aung San Suu Kyi, and hope that someday the world will appreciate your genius.

  11. JamesH

    I don’t want my racists to be stress free, or “relaxed and comfortable” as somene else might put it, while they tell racist jokes. I want racists to feel uncomfortable about their racism. I want them to know that society is against them. Perhaps Mr Butler thinks racists are a valued part of society, but I dont’t think many people would agree.

  12. Saugoof

    JamesH #11
    Exactly what I was going to write. Racists being “stress free” only feeds them the idea that it’s ok to be racist.

    To paraphrase a quote I once heard, if you really believe freedom of speech should give you the right to say anything you want, try yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre.

  13. Black Spot

    @Tom Jones

    What about all the “female” bullying of “males”, that occurs everyday right under our noses and not a finger lifted or a word said?

    When was the last time you watched a sitcom and the lead-male or males were not humiliated or ridiculed to the point of stupidity?..that’s bullying on a massive and global scale my friend.

    The green green grass gulag of home beckons you Tom, please go back there.

  14. CheshireCat

    WOW. i normally agree with the crowd here on crikey but today I’m saddened by how obviously loopy the left can be as well as the right.
    Freedom of speech should be all encompassing and jokes are essentially always a negative. They are sexist and racist..they are about death and disease, pain and humiliation..thats what humour is..we laugh at things that are horrible. Can anyone provide a joke thats not ‘silly’ that is humerous? Australias funniest home videos is basically ‘people mildly hurting themselves’…the germans even have the glorious word schadenfreude.

    I don’t agree with censorship at all….illegal acts arent censorship so they are still covered and can still be stopped..but everything else is fair game in an intelligent, open and educated society.

    In the epic words of stephen fry ‘So, you’re offended? So F*^king what’

  15. Chris Gardner

    Just because you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean you should say it.

    I love the “I love my racists relaxed” bit. I like my racists really, really far away from me, and I’d rather not attract them by giving them an environment where they can get together and laugh about being racist together. Ditto sex offenders.

  16. fractious

    @ CheshireCat I agree with much of that.

    I wasn’t there at the event described above, nor was I aware of the uproar it caused. I did however do a bit of reading, and had a shufty at the comments on The Age article linked to (which seemed even worse than most of the comments here.

    Let me be clear, I am not an apologist for r-pe (men on women or men on men or women on men) or any kind of violence. That said it strikes me that those who decree that r-pe is beyond the pale and not fit material for jokes largely miss the point of humour. Dying is about the worst that can happen to us and can be nasty and painful for the bereaved, yet it’s the source of much humour and some very funny jokes. Ditto disease. Ditto also being disabled – yet some of the funniest and most cutting jokes I’ve ever heard about disability were told by disabled people. Humour is one way (and an important one) in which those in all sorts of pain and strife relieve the suffering, if only for a few minutes. Why then shouldn’t those who suffered r-pe or their loved ones be allowed some relief from it all through some wry and well-delivered humour? If we can joke (and laugh at jokes) about death, disease and disability, why is r-pe off the menu? If humour is a tonic for those who’ve sufered disease and disability, why whould the victims of r-pe be denied the same medicine? Makes no sense.

    Some of the comments above that seem to assert that a bunch of blokes has no business discussing the merits of jokes about r-pe aren’t just wide of the mark but blindly ignorant.

  17. Tom Jones

    @ Black Spot I doubt that you have heard the term false equivalence but that is what you exhibit. You may not have noticed but sitcoms are fiction – that means that it isn’t real. It isn’t bullying because no-one is hurt and if you don’t like it you can just turn it off. Rape on the other hand involves both force and violence and is something that real people never get over and it certainly can’t be turned off; bullying occasions real harm and is never funny. Being a comedian is more than having the freedom to be offensive – it means that people actually laugh at your jokes.

  18. moonkid

    Agree that nothing should be off-limits for humour, but restricting the the rape gig to an all-male line-up does seem like very poor judgement.


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