The Russian-born comedian Konstantin Kisin was saluted by John Cleese recently after refusing to sign a behaviour contract for a comedy gig to support UNICEF.
This remarkable document read as follows:
BEHAVIOURAL AGREEMENT FORM
This Comedy night organised by [ ] Society aims to provide a safe space for everyone to come together to listen to Comedy, with all proceeds donated to UNICEF.
This is a chance for all to be entertained and overjoyed by the different performances here on this day, 23rdJanuary 2019. Hence, the importance of this contract. This contract has been written to ensure an environment where joy, love and acceptance is reciprocated by all. By signing this contract, you are agreeing to our no tolerance policy with regards to racism, sexism, classicism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.
All topics must be presented in a way that is respectful and kind. It does not mean that these topics cannot be discussed. But, it must be done in a respectful and non-abusive way.
Konstantin said: “I grew up under the Soviet Union. When I saw this letter, basically telling me what I could and couldn’t say, I thought this was the kind of letter a comic would have been sent there.”
Whoever thought that such a document could apply to a comedy gig evidently has no understanding of, or tolerance for what comedy is. The word derives from the Greek, komoidia, meaning “a comedy, amusing spectacle,”. That in turn is said to derive from komodios “actor or singer in the revels,” from komos “revel, carousal, merry-making, festival” + aoidos “singer, poet” from aeidein “to sing”.
According to Mahaffy, Oscar Wilde’s classics tutor at Trinity College Dublin, Aristotle was thought to have argued that, like tragedy, comedy was essentially cathartic:
a purification of certain affections of our nature, not by terror and pity, but by laughter and ridicule.
The contract that Kisin rejected seeks to put severe constraints on laughter and ridicule, instead demanding respect and kindness. It also set out a long list of no-go areas. But much of comedy consists of a willingness to slaughter sacred cows, upset apple carts, and take risks.
Who can forget (to take an example at random) Ali G’s interviews? Much of the enjoyment of comedy derives from an audience’s willingness to accept the joke, not to take things literally. Some Ali G interviewees got the joke and played along; others were evidently bewildered.
The theologian and BBC sitcom-writer James Carey has astutely observed that, if Jesus had been invited to the UNICEF event, he too would be obliged to reject the contract.
Read the gospels and you will find someone who was rarely in “an environment where joy, love and acceptance were reciprocated by all”. Jesus is full of love, and ate with the outcasts, but his words were often harsh, painful and embarrassing. He called people vipers, whitewashed tombs and murderers. He told troubling stories, called the crowds evil and drove demons into pigs who went mad and jumped off a cliff.
Authority figures, tyrants and dictators the world over dislike comedy and humour, ridicule and satire, because they are a form of truth-telling about real life, which authoritarians find unwelcome and subversive.
As the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff explained in a 1985 interview In the Chicago Tribune, Soviet Russia really had a Humour Department:
Actually, the Ministry of Culture has a very big department of humor. I’m serious now. Once a year they censor your material, and then you have to stay with what they have approved. You can’t improvise or do anything like that. You write out your material and mail it to them, and they send it back to you with corrections. After that, you stay with it for a year.
He later explained in a 2014 piece for the Huffington Post:
We could not write jokes about government, politics, sex or religion. The rest was fine. We could talk about mothers-in-laws, animals and fish.
In those days, the Soviet government wanted to control all the information that people were given because information is power
Now the clock has been set back. In 2014, Putin’s Russia enacted a censorship law which bans all swearing in public performances, broadcasts and the media. Books containing swear words must carry warnings. The impetus for this, according to Russian news, was research showing that swearing is common in two-thirds of Russian companies. The new law was stated to be part of the Kremlin’s goal of “protecting and developing language culture”.
To control language is to control thought. It is deeply ironic, then, that self-appointed grassroots censors in the UK are now seeking to exercise thought control, and language policing of public performances, without any legislative fiat. That would make the Kremlin envious.