TV character Vicki Pollard in a scene from TV program Little Britain, which helps us laugh at bigotry. Picture: supplied
TV character Vicki Pollard in a scene from TV program Little Britain, which helps us laugh at bigotry. Picture: supplied

If we can’t laugh at racism, we can never defeat it

A healthy society laughs at itself; an unhealthy society censors itself.

That's easy for me to say as a white man. But the debate around whether broadcasters should host problematic and outdated comedy is not black and white - it's very much a shade of grey.

BBC iPlayer removed Little Britain and Chris Lilley's shows have vanished from Netflix. Also chopped for racial insensitivity: Faulty Towers, The Mighty Boosh, The League of Gentlemen and potentially Bo Selecta.

I want to start by checking my white privilege. Come at me, commenters, but it's something all white people should do. The statement that black lives matter is the easiest statement in the world to support. No brainer.

Little Britain has been pulled from streaming services because Matt Lucas and David Walliams used blackface for some characters. Picture: Supplied
Little Britain has been pulled from streaming services because Matt Lucas and David Walliams used blackface for some characters. Picture: Supplied

What's less easy is getting behind the removal of content from public or corporate broadcasters because it was made in different times - even recent ones. The content is still obtainable; what's questionable is the decision of major platforms to take it down.

We won't erase prejudice by pretending it never happened. That risks unsavoury history repeating itself.

I never want white people to rewrite history by glossing over, hiding or diminishing their errors so fewer people can see them; it'd portray us in a more favourable light than we deserve in a systemically racist system from which we've benefited.

Before rushing out my own voice, I wanted to elevate those of people of colour, and I've read and listened to what is being said.

And there's not a unified voice out there on this particular issue.

When I asked broadcaster and actor Faustina Agolley, she said "blackface is not debatable."

But that isn't what's up for debate here. The debate is about whether we'll accelerate the removal of racism by banishing it to the naughty corner.

Writer and rapper Senator Briggs tweeted: "What @NetflixANZ can do is fund more Indigenous content & creators and put it front and centre. Enough with reactionary responses. Removing content doesn't empower the next gen, make something that does. Put your money up."

Faustina Agolley says blackface is “not debatable”. Picture: Supplied
Faustina Agolley says blackface is “not debatable”. Picture: Supplied

Indigenous writer and performer Nakkiah Lui said that private companies not wanting to endorse blackface is their right, although she warned against "policing other people's art." She also warned about it distracting from bigger issues: "More white media upset about the removal of Chris Lilley than they are about actual people dying in custody" she tweeted.

Comedy is an essential part of a functioning democracy and satire is designed to challenge us by pushing boundaries, going to uncomfortable places, forcing difficult questions, making us realise our ridiculous follies through larrikinism and self deprecation.

Southpark does this superlatively. It laughs at and targets everyone; it's absolutely non-discriminatory in who it lampoons. It ridicules our systemic racism - the black child character is called Token.

Matt Lucas has expressed regret, saying if he could make Little Britain again, he wouldn't play black characters.

Little Britain did also satirise the casual racism I remember abhorring growing up in Britain.

The Conservative-loving country is all polite tea and scones etiquette until it has to face multiculturalism, lampooned by the show's two Tory ladies who projectile vomited each time they discovered their cake was made by someone of colour.

By removing opportunities to scorn the unprogressive mindset of many Tories, we lose valuable teaching moments and risk gaining new Tory voters wrongly thinking the dinosaurs have died out - or never existed.

Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams as racist conservative voters. Picture: Supplied
Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams as racist conservative voters. Picture: Supplied

There's simply no better way to teach people history, culture, equality or context than through humour. A more equal society is more comfortable laughing at itself. We're not there yet; but censorship of any kind won't get us there. Context will.

Australia has led the way on the global stage with a new wave of socially progressive humour that punches up to the powerful rather than down to the powerless.

Hannah Gadsby, Tim Minchin, Adam Hills, Zoe Coombs Marr and Josh Thomas have directly tackled topics such as misogyny, homophobia and disability discrimination. Shows like Black Comedy and The Family Law showcase indigenous and ethnic minority talent. We should be proud of this.

Chris Lilley's blackface characters are certainly problematic and lack that empathy.

But perhaps the solution is more - not less - information.

Rather than remove content, add context to it. That could be a short intro and outro by a person of colour, giving information about society's prejudices. Watch Whoopi give a disclaimer to Looney Tunes for a masterclass in how it should be done.

HBO has confirmed Gone with Wind will return unaltered with additional information; comedy shows should do the same.

I was formerly Communications Manager at UK charity Comic Relief (a night of BBC comedy often featuring work by Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, Richard Curtis). That did something revolutionary and daring: it combined poverty with humour, and became a fundraising powerhouse - proving that humour can be attached to the riskiest of subjects, when done the right way.

TV program Queer as Folk had straight actors playing gay men. Pictures: Supplied
TV program Queer as Folk had straight actors playing gay men. Pictures: Supplied

There are depictions of gay men from the past based on outdated stereotypes and prejudices - the two dimensional campness of Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? or even Stuart Allen Jones in Queer As Folk, reinforcing uncomfortable stereotypes of gay men being promiscuous, vacuous and predatory (and played by a straight man). I'm relaxed about it as a gay man because it's art; it comes with context.

I'd never advocate for their removal from any platform. Create new comedy characters reflecting where we are now. Don't insult the intelligence of viewers.

Streaming platforms: don't sanitise or erase the past. Help us learn from it.

Gary Nunn is a RendezView columnist

@garynunn1

Originally published as If we can't laugh at racism, we can never defeat it

Nakkiah Lui has warned against ‘policing’ art. Picture: Thomas McCammon
Nakkiah Lui has warned against ‘policing’ art. Picture: Thomas McCammon
John Inman in the TV series 'Are You Being Served?'. Picture: Supplied
John Inman in the TV series 'Are You Being Served?'. Picture: Supplied


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