The guiding rule for lampooning minorities? If at all possible, leave it to the minorities themselves. Not only does it remove a very strong likelihood of causing offence, but the humour is also more likely to be funny for the right reasons. It takes one to know one, and all that.
It’s why Father Ted worked far better than Popetown when it came to sending up the Catholics, and why The Richard Pryor Show was much funnier than The Black & White Minstrels when lampooning Afro Americans. It might sound OK when Jerry Seinfeld cracks a joke at the expense of the Jewish; it doesn’t when the same gag comes from the mouth of Mel Gibson.
I only mention this after noticing the commotion last week in Britain caused by comedian Jimmy Carr, who was forced to apologise and promise not to repeat this quip, made in front of a 2,500-strong audience in Manchester: “Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a f***ing good Paralympic team in 2012.”
Now if Carr had been in a wheelchair with a limb or two missing he might have got away with it. Might have. Stand-up comedian and cerebral palsy sufferer Christopher Widdows (better known by the stage name “Steady Eddie”) carved his reputation out of jokes he made at his own expense. Ditto for American Geri Jewell, who has the same condition. She reckoned she once pierced her ears while trying to pluck her eyebrows.
For the same reason, Cast Offs, the most outrageous television show in Britain for decades, and one almost certainly heading for New Zealand in the near future, is being tipped to become a runaway success. The synopsis? A comedy-drama about the making of a disabled version of Survivor. That’s right. A comedy featuring six disabled actors, each playing the role of a disabled contestant in a fictional reality TV show.
According to reviews in Britain, Cast Offs has a script full of sexual innuendo and politically incorrect dialogue that, among other things, helps to break down barriers and provoke viewers into looking beyond mainstream stereotypes. Its acting cast includes a blind man, a deaf woman, a paraplegic man, and woman with dwarfism, another with cherubism and a Thalidomide-affected bloke. Two of the show’s three writers have disabilities.
It throws up some fascinating misapprehensions. The blind actor said people always expected him to have bionic hearing. The actor affected by Thalidomide said there seemed to be a general assumption that his arms must hurt.
As Victoria Wright, who plays the research scientist with cherubism, told the London Times last week: “This is not something that’s really been seen before; showing us as adults who drink, swear and have sex. I am sure there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘My goodness, I didn’t know disabled people could do that’.”
Which, when you think about it, is one of the best reasons to wish Cast Offs well; not to mention its speedy arrival in New Zealand.