Posted tagged ‘humour’

And still on inappropriate humour…

September 26, 2009

It may seem that I don’t have much of a sense of humour, or that I am jumping on to every bandwagon that happens to come rolling along involving disapproval of someone trying desperately to be funny. Readers from outside Ireland may not be aware of this, but an Irish comedian, Tommy Tiernan, has come in for strong criticism for making anti-semitic remarks at the Electric Picnic  music festival recently.

If you want to make up your own mind, Tiernan has published the interview session where he made the remarks here – it is right at the end of the session. He has also argued that criticism of his comments has not taken account of the context in which they were made: he was making the point, he says, that comedy has to be edgy and take risks, and if necessary be offensive.

I have listened to the entire interview, and I’m afraid I cannot possibly repeat here what he said in the passage in question. The remarks are grossly offensive, playing on the Holocaust. I also could not help feeling that they did reveal a strong anti-semitic and racist message. But even if that was not intended, there must be some limit to what can be acceptable even in an apparently humorous context. I agree that it is right that comedy should challenge and take risks; but it has gone way beyond that when the ‘risk’ is the expression of cruelty and hatred.

I have seen other appearances by Tiernan and have found them funny. Not this one. And I could not help a sinking feeling when hearing that what he said was applauded by the audience.

Joking apart

September 2, 2009

While sorting through some memorabilia of my student days in a little-known Dublin university, I came across a magazine that had been produced for a student rag week in 1975. I sat down for a moment, expecting to be entertained afresh and maybe being able to use some of the material. By the time I had flicked through the first two or three pages I was aghast. It was all jokes. Well, ‘jokes’. Not only was it absolutely inconceivable that I would ever be able to quote anything I was reading to anyone, I found myself feeling distinctly queasy. I swear that it is very very hard to shock me. People have tried it in as diverse places as my family dining room and in the law courts, and have never succeeded. But this was stomach churning stuff. Absolutely nothing in there was funny, and almost everything was grossly offensive. I could not even begin to recreate the state of mind that the authors must have been in. Well, the cover said that it was being sold for various worthy charities, and I presume that’s why I bought it (or maybe I never looked inside the covers at the time); but that hardly justified the stuff that was in it.

The odd thing is that around the same time that someone was concocting this garbage, some clever and genuinely exhilarating comedy talent was being developed in other university settings. The most famous academy of comedy was the Footlights society in Cambridge University, and in the 1970s and early 1980s people such as Clive Anderson, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones were gaining a reputation there – just as John Cleese, Eric Idle, Peter Cooke and others had done earlier. But there have also been several other universities that have been homes to extraordinary comic talent, as it happens including my own Dublin City University: Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Dougal from Father Ted) developed his act while a student in DCU’s School of Communications. While we shouldn’t think of comedy as something elitist, there is something pleasing about humour that is ‘knowing’, both in the comic sense and in the sense of a well applied but lightly worn intelligence.

And yet, it seems that good comedy must always do battle within the campus world with stuff that really isn’t funny. This week the Oxford University Conservative Association got into the headlines for holding an event at which members were encouraged to tell ‘inappropriate’ jokes. It appears that at least one such ‘joke’ was highly racist, so that Oxford has required that the association remove the reference to the university from its name and has, in effect, banned it from activities on the campus.

I suppose that, at a level of generality, it is worth asking questions about the dividing line between humour that tests the limits of conventional tolerance and that therefore represents a tradition of pushing the boundaries, and humour that is simply offensive and that targets vulnerable groups. It is not necessarily an easy line to draw, and it is probably tempting to say that we cannot define it but will know it when we see it transgressed. And of course universities should not encourage intellectual and cultural caution or prudish attitudes. So I don’t know the answer. I love good humour, and believe that much humour that has flouted convention and respectability has played a hugely important role in developing a insights that have helped society to mature. But humour is never good when it tries to get laughs at the expense of human dignity or equality. Maybe we cannot do more than be sensitive to this. Or maybe we sometimes have to accept the juvenile offensive stuff as the price we pay for the humour that genuinely builds us up.

So how can you find me?

October 6, 2008

WordPress, which hosts this blog, has a rather neat feature that allows blog authors to see what search terms people may have entered to find them. In my case, some of these are obvious enough (like “prondzynski blog”), but some others are less so – and in some cases it is downright mysterious or even funny how the particular searches actually got to me.

Here are some of my favourites.

describe dcu free no-obligation quote
cappuccino spellings
female-dominated society future
is feck a swear word?
how to run a small bookstore
iPhone screen goes blank
small bookstore what can we do 
how to properly use an expletive
spelling of august in Portuguese
expletive string
men who enjoy wearing a suit & tie
australian spelling is canadian spelling
spelling of the number fourteen in portuguese
correct spelling of arguement
social benefits of war
good old german retro
speaking in tongues blog
expletives from the 50s
is singing a song using rote memory
university delicious
brazil spelling of august
why were people afraid of old technology
10 common good manners and courtesies
retro photography of time
left of karl marx

And my personal favourite:

ferdinand von prondzynski drivel

Amen to that.

Paying the Bills

July 30, 2008

This is a tale about bureaucratic chaos in a utility. It is also (I swear) a true story.

The utility in question supplies me with energy in a property I own (away from DCU). Some time ago, I noticed that the bills I was getting could not be correct – they were based on an energy consumption which was way above what I was using. Eventually, after reading the meter myself and several phone calls to the utility, they admitted that they had been reading the wrong meter and had been charging me for someone else’s energy use. But they declared themselves unwilling to refund anything: because they had never read the correct meter, they claimed they could not actually tell how much energy we had used, and for all they knew – they said – we could actually have used more than what we were billed for. I pointed out that I was only in the property for a few days every year, whereas the family who lived in the property for whose consumption we had been charged was there full-time.

Well, when on one occasion I explained all this to the very pleasant man (called Bill) in their customer relations department, he assured me he would look after it, and I should for the moment pay no more money until it was sorted out. Reassured by Bill, I did nothing more, and in fact forgot about the whole thing until, a year later, I got a notice telling me I was about to be cut off for non-payment. I immediately rang the company and asked for Bill. I got Bill, but as it turns out, not the same Bill. We’ll call him Bill II. Bill II was very different from Bill I. He was surly, and frankly didn’t believe a word I said, and knew nothing about the promises made by Bill I. He looked at the file and declared it told him that I had been charged for the wrong property, and that I owed the company a considerable amount of money because I had been under-charged. In fact, when I dug a little deeper, it transpired he had come to the conclusion that I had to pay both the money from the wrong property (which I had paid, wrongly) and the charge for my own property. When I protested that this was nonsense, he declared that he was under no obligation to put up with such language and that I was harassing him. He then hung up.

About ten minutes later I got a phone call, and it was Bill I. As he was my friend, we chatted about this and that, his son’s (unsatisfactory) school results and what he might do career-wise, the terrible summer we were having. And then he apologised for Bill II, who had briefed him and who, he confided, was ‘highly strung’. Bill I was helpful as ever. He had no idea why it hadn’t all been resolved, but he would get on to it immediately, and in the meantime I should pay nothing. I made a mental note to send Bill I a Christmas card and a note with some career advice for his son.

However, it turned out that highly strung Bill II had not passed on the baton, for I next got a curt letter from a collection agency, who were going to get my outstanding money from me – which inexplicably had now increased by over €100. I tried to ring Bill I, but was told that there was nobody called Bill in the company’s customer relations department – did I mean William? OK, let’s have William. William (of course called Bill by his friends and customers, therefore Bill III) was someone entirely different, and refreshingly honest. ‘Our way of sending out invoices is total crap’, he offered. He would get this sorted out at once, he knew how to do it. And in just a few days I received a cheque in the post, with a ‘refund’ of a sum I couldn’t recognise at all. It was more than I had ever paid them in the first place (and therefore definitely more than I was due).

I rang and asked for Bill, and got Bill II. Something life-changing had happened to Bill II, because he was now polite and cheerful, and offered the view that I had been badly treated and deserved the refund I had got, and shouldn’t query it. When I showed signs that I would query it, traces of the old Bill II emerged, and he indicated that some customers were never satisfied. He would send me a new bill, but I should cash the refund in the meantime.

The new bill never arrived. In fact, no bill arrived, for ages, new or old. I was (modestly) using energy, and could not imagine what was actually going to happen. Then, back in DCU, I received a letter addressed to my office but not to me – it was to a Mr A. Shindig (name changed slightly to protect the innocent). Nobody here knew anyone by that name, and so the letter had been passed around a bit before anyone decided to check with me. The envelope contained a letter threatening to cut off the energy supply to my property, and Mr Shindig was told in no uncertain terms that he was a vagabond and a rogue for not paying his bills – or rather, for not paying my bills.

So I rang the company. Should I ask for one of the Bills? Yes, I did. I just asked for Bill. And Bill answered. No, no Bill I had ever come across before. It was Bill IV. Bill IV looked into my file, and told me that I owed them a lot of money, and that I was seriously delinquent in not paying up and not even contacting them. I pointed out they were writing to Mr A Shindig, and that was not a sure way of getting me. ‘You have a point’, Bill IV said graciously. Who is Mr A Shindig, I asked. ‘Good question’, Bill answered, ‘I was wondering that myself’. Bill IV has promised to look into all of this, and has advised me not to pay anything, and to ignore the threats from the collection agencies.

So that is where we are now. I spoke to Bill IV three weeks ago, and I have heard nothing since. I am expecting a knock on the door, with court documents for my trial for non-payment. If you do not hear from me again, it will not have gone well. Please call Bill for me.