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.