Responsibility of comedy writers

Although I had never heard of Graham Linehan before, he’s apparently a writer for some fairly popular UK comedies, including one called The IT Crowd.

Now, apparently there was a recent episode of that show that included a sub-plot involving a transwoman named April. The plot was basically that Douglas, the Asshole of the show, goes out on a date with her and during the date he propositions her. She seems reluctant and eventually tells him that she “used to be a man”, to which he says that it doesn’t matter and his offer still stands. Except, the twist is that he misheard her! He thought that she said she was “from Iran”; this leads to a physical fight where she throws the first punch but he ends it by throwing her through a glass window and the last the audience sees of her is her lying motionless in a pile of glass.

All this played up as comedy, mind you.

So, Graham has a blog and on this blog a commenter named Leanne pointed out to him that he isn’t writing in a vacuum and the kind of violence he used as humor has a real life correlation.

The first comment after hers? A guy telling her that she’s “oversensitive”. So far he’s been the only one and no flame wars have been started, so I suppose that’s something.

Graham’s response to her comment was as follows:

Thanks for the letter, Leanne. I’m sorry you didn’t like the show.

I don’t really feel the need to defend it further as it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously. But thank you for remaining polite on a matter that obviously means a lot to you.

Ignoring all the other problems with the response, I find his claim that “it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously” to be just another cry of “it’s just a television show!” that I’ve debunked in the past. Not only that, but framing it as an issue of being “taken seriously” or not completely misses the point. Just because people aren’t going to look at the show as something 100% true to life, it doesn’t mean that they won’t find truth in the themes.

Graham’s depiction of violence involving a transwoman that resulted from a sexual encounter where the man thought she was a ciswoman draws from real life situations which are prevalent enough that men who commit these violent acts defend themselves using something termed the trans panic defense. It is with this underlying theme that’s rooted in reality that Leanne was speaking to, rather than the “silly” comedy trappings of the final depiction.

In fact, I would go even further and argue that the humor of the scene is dependent on the audience, at least a little bit, sympathizing with Douglas*. While April is upfront about her past (and I do give Graham minor points for not making her “trick” him into having sex under “false pretenses”), it’s significant that she throws the first punch. By initiating the violence, it lessens Douglas’ fault in the assault and one could argue that it even goes so far as to justify said violence***. And, since the violence is played for laughs, the audience doesn’t have to actually think about sad/scary things like how the same kind of violence happens in real life but with tragic consequences.

Ultimately, Graham is right; he doesn’t have to defend his work. He can write whatever he wants to write as long as the networks are buying it. But I find it to be rather intellectually dishonest for him to use “it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously” as an excuse to try and weasel out of the responsibility his writing, as part of a fairly popular television show, plays in not only shaping popular culture but also in reinforcing the beliefs of his audience.

* Darren, the commenter who called Leanne “oversensitive”, argued that it was Douglas who was meant to be the butt of the joke**. While this would seem to fit the way that the show treats Douglas’ character in general, it’s hard to agree that April “gave as good as she got and got the better of him in the end” when he threw her through a glass window and that was the end of it. Or am I missing a part where he actually faced some real consequences like jail time for assault (doubtful since she threw the first punch)? What about even some in-show criticism of his actions from the characters we’re supposed to see as sympathetic?

** Darren also argued that we were supposed to see Douglas’ actions/opinions as bigotry, but I don’t buy that as his views are fairly common. One might argue that those opinions are more extreme than that of the average person, but I’m not so sure. In my experience (which has been backed up by the various research I’ve done into trans* issues) most people I’ve talked to about transwomen believe that transwomen are, if not “men”, at least not fully “women”. In the case of the heterosexual men, most of them say that they would not only not date a transwoman, but if they slept with one and found out later that she was trans they would be “disgusted” and more than a few said that they would want to do violence to her. And, mind you, most of the people I have access to, while not anti-oppression activists, are left-leaning and at least try to be conscious about issues of oppression.

*** For evidence to back up my assertion, I cite Andrew’s comment, where he says, “Leeane – if you recall in the episode, April threw the first punch. She started it and so deserved everything she got.”

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9 thoughts on “Responsibility of comedy writers

  1. Hi again, Tekanji. Good post you have here.
    I agree with your viewpoint. Humor like this (and dismissing criticism because “it’s just a joke”) is unfortunately still all too common.
    One thing I’d like to point out though is that the word ‘biowoman’ you used isn’t such a good choice (aside from rhyming with words like ‘biohazard’ and ‘biotechnology’). ‘Biological woman’ implies that those who are not ‘biowomen’ are in some way artificial or unnatural. A wrong (or at most inaccurate) and rather hurtful implication. Please use words like ‘ciswoman’ or maybe ‘born woman’ (not sure about that one) instead.

  2. Kimiko said:

    One thing I’d like to point out though is that the word ‘biowoman’ you used isn’t such a good choice…

    You’re absolutely right. I always use ‘ciswoman’ and I’m not sure what kind of brain fart I had today that made me use ‘biowoman’. I’ve modified the original post to correct the error. Thanks!

  3. Speaking as a fan of humorous violence, if Douglas was meant to be the butt of the joke HE’D have been the one who got thrown through the plate glass window and was shown nursing his bandages and whining to his buddies in the next scene.

  4. No, no, no. I notice you didn’t bother to actually WATCH the (excellent) episode before you wrote this article. I’m dismissing your criticism on the grounds that it’s based on a series of blog comments, anecdotal evidence, hearsay and little else. The episode can be viewed on – if you live in the UK or Ireland – or downloaded as a torrent for free with Graham Linehan’s blessing. You should watch it and re-evaluate your perspective.

    The show is essentially a live-action cartoon. The character of Douglas is a grotesque, a caricature. His motivations are ludicrously, exclusively selfish and sexual in nature. Nobody ever sides or sympathises with Douglas. After April publicly denounces him as an asshole, he finishes the episode a pathetic, solitary mess, crying out her name. All pastiche and belly-laughs, but the end result is quite telling.

    Without wanting to over-analyse the episode in a po-faced, humourless manner, this much ought to be said. It’s one thing to disregard or carelessly perpetuate attitudes and stereotypes; it’s entirely another for an intelligent, liberal comedy writer to create a situation (in the legitimate framework of a farcical sitcom, no less) in which an insane, bigoted idiot gets an an epic, evenly-matched fistfight with his trans girlfriend, in a clear spoof of ridiculous action movies. That such a scene can even takes place is thanks to the viewer’s awareness of traditional attitudes towards this marginalised and oppressed section of society. The joke is never on the character of April; rather, existing prejudices and perceptions of trans women are brought to their (il)logical conclusion, thus exposing their idiocy. He even turns to her after getting punched and says, “You bastard!” – I mean, we’re all grownups here, let’s credit ourselves with some intelligence and discernment. The punchline, for want of a better term, is the final crash through the glass screen – which she survives, incidentally – and it serves to punctuate the action in a parallel storyline and thereby raise the overall madness level through the roof. The whole thing is riotous screwball stuff and is hugely enjoyable to any and all who take the show for what it is.

    Such a shame to have a sense of humour bypass and needlessly criticise a show you haven’t even watched.

    Oh, and by the way, referring to anecdotes about what sounds like a casual vox pop you conducted hardly constitutes a compelling argument about overall attitudes towards transwomen. Although if these men are your friends, you should probably get as far away from them as possible, because such attitudes are damaging and entrenched.

  5. Responsibility in comedy is certainly an interesting issue. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you are absolved from all blame “just because it’s a joke”. However, I do think that readiness to take offence and a hyper-awareness of an issue close to oneself can interfere with the joke in the first place. In this mindset there is never any joke and so what comes across is pure offence and nothing else. The net result is that the difference between an offensive and inoffensive joke is highly subjective and dependent on who’s doing the interpreting and what mood they’re in at the time.

    As an example of this “joke blindness”, you cite my clearly facetious and tongue-in-cheek comment about “April started it …” as evidence of the audience justifying violence and oppression.

    I’m afraid you’re way off the mark.

    As an excercise, you might want to re-watch the show and mentally categorise and pigeon-hole each character into a social type. You will find that pretty much every joke will be at the expense of one or other “type” of person. You may even find certain prejudices and stereotypes being reinforced through this humour. At the end of the show you can then come to one of two conclusions: a) It is a piece of supreme bigotry, grossly offensive and hateful to everyone or b) it’s a very silly show, and not meant to be taken seriously – and very funny.

  6. Sort of like the scene in Rush Hour 3 where Chris Tucker threatens to beat the shit out of a woman after finding out that she’s wearing a wig (and consequently has very short “man” hair) and believes that he’s been duped as they were just getting intimate…


  7. > fairly popular UK comedies

    In Father Ted, Black Books, Big Train and The IT Crowd and contributing to The Day Today, easily among the top UK comedy writers of the last 20 years.

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