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Two very different sorts of offence

The BBC has been in the news yet again for perceived offensiveness, with the Mexican ambassador slating Top Gear for calling his countrymen backward and lazy, and the Japanese ambassador slating QI for, erm, let’s get back to that one. But although lazy commentators on both sides (especially the ‘PC HAS GORN MAD’ side) have been keen to link the two examples, they’re very different.

Here’s the transcript of the Offensive Top Gear Mexico Routine.

Richard Hammond: Cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they, so German cars are very well built and ruthlessly efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick, a Mexican car’s just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight… leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle as a coat.
James May: It is interesting, isn’t it, because they can’t do food, the Mexicans, can they? Because it’s all like sick with cheese on it, I mean…
Hammond: Refried sick!
May: Yeah, refried sick.
Hammond: I’m sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you’re Mexican: ‘awww, no’.
Clarkson: No, it’d be brilliant… because you could just go straight back to sleep again. That’s why we won’t get any complaints about this, because at the Mexican embassy the ambassador’s going to be sitting there with a remote control like this *mimes being asleep*

Hammond’s initial comment is a reference to a fairly stupid but well-known stereotype. The comic phrasing and timing is decent – and the concept of a car leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus and wearing a poncho is entertainingly surreal. If followed up by “but this Mexican car is actually rather good”, it wouldn’t be particularly offensive – it’d be clear that the speaker was citing an old stereotype and then pointing out that it didn’t apply.

May’s follow-up is entirely witless, pointless and offensive. Hammond sycophantically tries to come up with something slightly funny based on May’s routine, which May then repeats to claim The Witty Thing for himself. Then Hammond goes somewhere very bad indeed (switch “Mexican” for “black” in the “Imagine waking up…” line). This is the appalling bit, and it seems to come out of Hammond’s attempts to amuse May.

Clarkson’s involvement is more interesting: rather than running with the invective Hammond and May have started, he shuts it down with a meta-joke about the whole routine. Unlike Hammond’s comments, and very unlike May’s comments, he’s got a good line followed up by a great line – and it moves the main attack from ordinary people to lazy, pompous bureaucrats. Which is another stereotype, of course, but hardly one that’s worth puncturing.

Anyway. Steve Coogan’s article on the debacle is worth a read – but to me, the dynamics of that routine highlight the truth of Stewart Lee’s Top Gear routine from five years ago. Clarkson is witty but lazy, Hammond is a desperate sycophantic tosser, and May is a thug.

Overall, it was absolutely right for the BBC to apologise for Hammond’s comments about Mexico, and it’s a pity that Jeremy Clarkson isn’t surrounded by smarter and more interesting people.

Meanwhile, from the entertaining-if-smug QI (I’ll note in passing that when Clarkson appears on QI he’s much better than he is on Top Gear, probably because he’s surrounded by smarter and more interesting people. But he wasn’t on this one. I can digress if I like; it’s my blog):

Stephen Fry: Now what is so lucky about the unluckiest man in the world?
Rich Hall: He got killed by a horseshoe?
Fry: Well, this man is either the unluckiest or the luckiest depending on which way you look at it.
Alan Davies: Something like he’s had more accidents and operations than any other man in the world and he’s still alive?
Fry: Bear in mind we’re after places beginning with H, and if I tell you his name this may help – his name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi, and he died in January 2010 aged 93. He lived a long time, so he wasn’t *that* unlucky…

Davies: Hiroshima?
Fry: Hiroshima.
Davies: Bomb landed on him and bounced off?
Fry: He was in business in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. He was badly burned, spent a night there.
Davies: …and he went to hospital in Nagasaki?
Fry: The next day, he got on a train, bizarrely, which shows you that even though the atom bomb fell, the trains were working. So he got on a train to Nagasaki and a bomb fell again. He became a sort-of hero, but only got the recognition in his 90s.

Fry: He’s either the luckiest because he survived an atom bomb twice, or the unluckiest because…
Bill Bailey: Well, he lived to 93, so his life was not curtailed.
Rob Brydon: Is the glass half empty, is it half full? Either way it’s radioactive. So don’t drink it.
Davies: He never got the train again, I tell you.
Fry: The astonishing thing to me is, you drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima and the train service is working the next day. In our country…
Davies: “Keep Calm And Carry On”
Bailey: …a couple of leaves and that’s it.
Fry: Yes, for the rest of the winter.
Bailey: “The wrong kind of bomb”. *station announcer voice* “Sorry, the wrong kind of bomb”.
Fry: Well, it was clearly the right kind of bomb. “It’s fine everyone, don’t worry, this was the right kind of bomb”.
Bailey: *station announcer voice* “The right kind of bomb has landed on the 4:30 from Potters Bar. Please proceed to the nuclear area. The sandwiches have not been affected”*.

So, there’s absolutely no trashing of national stereotypes, nothing at all racist, and nothing that even personally attacks Mr Yamaguchi. The only national characteristic or trait mentioned is the fact that Japan’s trains are better than the UK’s. The whole thing is good-natured whimsy, based simply on the fact that for some poor bastard to get caught up in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings – and to survive for 65 years afterwards – is a funny coincidence.

And yet the Japanese embassy still complained.

The text of the embassy’s letter isn’t available. But the BBC’s apology is available – and it’s completely and utterly inappropriate.

The difference between the QI piece and the Top Gear piece is obvious to anyone with more than half a brain: one is saying insulting things about individuals based on their ethnicity; the latter is pointing out the humour in a tragic situation, while also engaging in light self-mockery over the UK’s ineptitude at public services. The former, although it can be justified on occasion, often ends up as bullying and perpetuating racism. The latter doesn’t. It’s just what comedy is.

The BBC shouldn’t be making shows that insult brown people for being brown (sure, it can make shows that include racist lines or stereotypes, but only if there’s actually a point behind them – which wasn’t the case in Top Gear). But if the BBC isn’t allowed to gently and non-scornfully mock tragic events that occurred more than 60 years ago, then it might as well close its comedy department for good, and focus solely on pleasing mad arseholes who wouldn’t understand a joke if it bit them on their, erm, mad arsehole.

  1. vavatch
    February 7, 2011 at 7:37 am | #1

    I much prefer Doug Stanhope's unrepentant defence of offensive comedy to steve coogan's predictable PC piddle: http://www.heraldscotland.com/mobile/comment/gues

    People have every right to be offended, of course. But only wankers publicise their sense of offence by trying to close down discourse and censor comedians.

  2. February 7, 2011 at 8:07 am | #2

    Absolutely right – I linked the Stanhope piece on FB and Twitter, but couldn't think of anything to say about it here.

  3. February 7, 2011 at 8:35 am | #3

    I was going to write something about this very thing and now I don't need to. I have little to add to your great post, John. Well said.

  4. dsquared
    February 8, 2011 at 5:33 am | #4

    But only wankers publicise their sense of offence by trying to close down discourse

    saying "hahaha Mexicans are lazy" isn't really "discourse", though, is it?

  5. February 8, 2011 at 11:53 am | #5

    The last thing I saw that Hammond creature on was a show where people got knocked into pools of water by great, swinging bars. The role suited him perfectly. Sadly, though, he just presented it.

  6. Matthew
    February 8, 2011 at 6:10 pm | #6

    My initial reaction was that it was unfunny, and embarassing to watch. But I now wonder whether they (especially Hammond/May) meant it as a joke, or actually just think that is the case? That would explain the lack of any obvious humour, wouldn't it?

    On the Japanese thing, presumably the complaint is not about racism or similar, but that the atomic bombings are not something one should be joking about, similar to the extermination camps. I'm not saying I agree.

  7. Newmania
    February 11, 2011 at 9:44 pm | #7

    You are an interesting chap John.
    You want to be a humourist but a you are an inveterate moralist by nature.This is a quite a problem for the left, don`t you think, especially in this country. My first thought was Bernard Shaw as a heroic attempt to solve the dilemma.H G Wells is a rare example of a naturally humorous man who was also a commited utopian. I watched Charlie Brooker the other night and god it was wearying. Quite like him in small doses but thats enough Brooker I think
    Can`t manage much more than a shrug as far as your actual judgements are concerned.

  1. February 7, 2011 at 11:05 pm | #1

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