Thursday, 9 April 2015

When You’re Dead And Buried In The Grass. I’ll Dig You Up And Fuck You Up The Ass

I re-watched ‘Jerry Springer - the Opera’ today. It’s still amazing. Sadly I never saw it live, so my first exposure was the January 2005 TV broadcast, which in retrospect was a pretty formative experience for 13 year old me. The most complained-about TV broadcast in history. The most swear words ever*. How cool is that? And the outgroup was so… outgroupy. Old stuffy Christians trying to crack down on everyone’s fun. The sort of stuff I heard about from America, but thought we were above in civilised Britain. People were actually trying to press charges of blasphemy! It fell into the great tradition of ‘equal opportunity offenders’, a phrase now pattern matched into oblivion by its association with dog-whistle racists.

The show did eventually manage to tour, with moderately sized pickets following it around the country, but a planned Broadway run never materialised in spite of universal critical acclaim. The show eventually faded away, never the all time great hit it deserved to be. Director Stewart Lee puts this firmly down to the protests, and it seems pretty likely this was the case.

In spite of the ultimate failure of Jerry Springer the Opera, it fell near the start of a ‘moment’ for secular liberals, Sam Harris had just published his ‘Letter To A Christian Nation’, ‘The God Delusion’ followed a year later, and Hitchens’ ‘God is not Great’ in 2007. New Atheism was here and it was the coolest game in town. My young ego lapped it up. We weren’t just right, we were better than they were. Those dumb right wing homophobic christians and their retarded cowboy king.

Flash forward a few years and the battlefield looks pretty different. That particular skirmish in the culture wars is long over. The conservative christians lost comprehensively, though bands of liberals still roam the battlefield ready to execute survivors

The new atheists are in little better a position. The good Hitchens is buried, Richard Dawkins is a twitter punchline, Sam Harris is decried as every kind of racist. Online atheists are loser neckbeard virgin misogynist gamergaters who live in their parents’ basements. Whether the movement got pwned by its own contradictions or its own stupid internal politics is a matter for better historians than me to decide, but it has certainly lost its sheen, Cthulhu swam straight past it.

So what would happen if Jerry Springer the Opera had arrived a decade later? How would it have differed in today’s political climate? I very much doubt Christian Voice could command anything like as much influence these days. Half their members have probably left this mortal world behind. But is taboo conserved? As we cease to condemn one thing, do we instead find others to proscribe. Which is the most likely group of people in the UK to picket a theatre production in this day and age?

I genuinely don’t know, and am wary of tarring people with hypothetical slights against free expression, but it seems pretty likely that any student company trying to put on a production of Jerry Springer the Opera these days would face opposition from progressives and its student union. When feminists such as Germaine Greer are boycotted and protested on university campuses for past transphobic slights, it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that it would be the women’s or LGBT campaigns stood on picket lines protesting the cishetwhitemen making money off a show where a pre-op transwoman sings:


I’m no expert on what is problematic and what isn’t, but there’s a whole bunch of similar lines in the show. Indeed it opens with a chorus of:

“My mum used to be my dad, used to be my dad, snip, snip”

And that’s not even to start on the potential for class hatred in its portrayal of ignorant redneck audiences... I'm not trying to mock the 'new puritans' on the left here, I think it's a genuinely interesting question, and would like to hear opinions about the show from anyone who sees themselves as on that side. Stewart Lee himself is a very clever man, and someone who firmly sees himself on the politically correct vanguard. He has himself explored at length on stage what it means to be offensive and what is acceptable in the name of humour. I’d love to see someone pose these questions to him.

*I don't think it was actually the most swear words ever shown on TV. Tabloid figures were generated by multiplying every one by the number of people singing it in harmony. If anything this was even cooler to 13 year old Rory.