The surest way to kill comedy is to pretend we’re all the same

Jim Davidson, the unacceptable face of British comedy, is on a truth-and-reconciliation tour with a play he has written in which he co-stars with the black comedian Matt Blaize. Publicising it, he has apologised for any offence he may have caused in the past. John Cleese has recently revealed problems in America he had with a routine in which he tells a joke about the English, Germans, Australians and Americans before turning, to the embarrassment of most audiences, to Mexicans. The presenter of Top Gear, on the other hand, can cheerfully make nasty, unfunny Mexican jokes.

Have we ever been in such a muddle about the way race should be handled in our culture? One would think that comedy would lead the way in laughing at hypocrisy and confusion but, increasingly, it avoids the issue. There is a new nervousness about, as if laughing at prejudice is always in danger of being mistaken for laughing with it.

How odd it is that race has become such a tricky topic. We think of ourselves, with some justification, as being less conditioned by unthinking prejudice than previous generations have been. Logically, we should now be able to laugh at bigotry and celebrate the difference between cultures. Instead, we prefer to pretend that those differences do not exist.

To see the effect of this nervousness, it is worth watching an episode of Channel 4’s new sitcom, Friday Night Dinner. The writer Robert Popper, who has been involved in many of the most interesting and adventurous comedies of recent years, decided to rescue the well-worn domestic comedy format from the ghastly smugness of My Family and the cuteness of Outnumbered. Every Friday night, the idea goes, a mum (offbeat) and dad (bewildered) play host to their two adult sons (childish).

Despite having a great cast, the show is almost aggressively unfunny. There is an uncertainty of tone which, it occurred to me after watching the first two episodes for Radio 4’s Saturday Review, was caused by a central problem: it was a Jewish comedy in which, presumably for reasons of cultural correctness, all but the briefest passing mention of Jewishness was avoided. Asked about this reticence, Popper explained that the set-up would be obvious enough to Jewish viewers. He was tired of seeing comedies in which characters said “Oy vey” a lot. It was a cliché and not something he recognised from his own life.

This is a tricky, perilous area. In the recording of the radio show, I confessed that until the end of the second show when there was a passing reference to a Jewish internet dating site, the possibility that these Friday night dinners were cultural indicators had not occurred to me. My fellow critics seemed faintly shocked by my ignorance. Why, I was asked, should it be obligatory for a Jewish family comedy to include Jewish references?

It was a reasonable enough question, perfectly attuned to the hyper-sensitive times in which we are now living. It assumes that we are all now grown-up enough not to find humour in behaviour which reflects a particular culture. A racial reference is, so the thinking goes, a sort of racism.

The problem is that these assumptions, sensible as they may be, strike at the heart of good comedy. Difference is funny; the clash of old and young, the past and the present, become meaningless if the writer is too nervous of offending the sensibilities of viewers, however unthinking those reactions may be. The result of this carefulness is to reduce the interesting, funny contrasts between different parts of our changing nation to a bland sameness. It is easier, less discomfiting, to look at what have in common.

A true sign of taking an adult approach to racial and cultural difference is to include them in the comic mix. It makes no more sense for a comedy set in a Jewish home to set an exclusion zone around any jokes or routines which reflect that fact than it would be to have Fawlty Towers without a parody of the snobbery and insecurity of a middle-class Englishman, or to exclude the cliché of the drunken Scotsman from Rab C Nesbitt, or to present Marion and Geoff without its tragic Welsh amiability.

Strangely, it is beginning to seem as if comedy is lagging behind other art forms when it comes to shining a light on contemporary forms of prejudice. In the West End, Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park confirms its audience’s comfortable sense of superiority to attitudes of the past in the first half, then skewers the liberal hypocrisy of today in the second.

In fiction, writers like Bret Easton Ellis have taken an uncompromisingly incorrect attitude. “If you’re writing about a misogynist, does that make a book misogynist?” he asked an interviewer, adding a touch recklessly, “So you’re misogynist – so what? So you’re a homophobe, or a racist – so what? Does that make your art less interesting?”

Easton Ellis may be pushing the argument uncomfortably far, and nobody is expecting a cosy Channel 4 sitcom to address such weighty issues. All the same, there is surely an argument that, in a society where difference is all around us, it is something of a cop out for a writer to include cultural references that will only be understood by those on the inside.

Playing safe is the enemy of comedy. The motivation behind Jim Davidson’s play Stand Up and Be Counted may have been simple desperation. Exploring his own bigoted comedy of the past in the manner of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and confronting his alter ego with the arguments of a black and a gay comic, will doubtless be seen as an attempt to rehabilitate a ruined career.

At least, though, he is having a go. “That’s always been my problem – I don’t think we’re all the same,” he has said in an interview. “I like to talk about our differences but you can’t do that anymore because it’s been ruined by people like me – how I was in the past, which has made the PC brigade come out in full force.”

He may well be wrong. His play is probably not a dramatic masterpiece. But in an age when TV executives increasingly opt for safety-first comedy, we need a few Jim Davidsons around to irritate and provoke.

Independent, Tuesday, 1 March 2011