A bad week for Tommy Tiernan, then. First, the Sunday Tribune published articles recounting his ‘startling attack on Jews‘ which took the form of a ‘shocking anti-Semitic tirade’, an ‘expletive-filled outburst against members of the Jewish community’ that the Tribune suggested was ‘hateful, revolting and insupportable on any level‘, and ‘also probably illegal’. Tiernan had made the remarks two weeks previous to the Tribune story, on September 5th. One is inclined to wonder if the audience in attendance were too reeling with shock to do anything about it. Then, the Archbishop of Dublin came out and condemned the remarks. Public intellectuals Ian O’Doherty and David Adams also weighed in.
You can listen to the interview here. It’s worth listening to in full because he says some interesting things.
Somewhat irrelevant to the anti-Semitism charge, but worth remarking on, was him saying in the interview that he was more worried about Brian Cowen’s remarks at the Ard Fheis that Ireland was a ‘brand’ than the blasphemy law. Olaf Tyaransen, his interviewer, said he had been at the Ard Fheis and that in fact, Cowen did not say that Ireland was a brand, but a land. This contradicts the account of Cowen’s speech on the RTE website in which Cowen says Ireland is a brand. But it was interesting to see Tiernan cede to Tyaransen’s assured declaration. It was as though the tone of Tyaransen’s voice were sufficient to convince him he was wrong.
A man with an African accent starts asking a question, and Tiernan starts imitating him. Tiernan tells the audience that if the man were from Cork, the audience wouldn’t have a problem with him doing the accent. It’s as though in Tiernan’s vision of the world, everyone’s from some county or other. But though he might think anyone’s accent is fair game for imitating, he seems oblivious to, or perhaps thinks he can override, any broader historical considerations; what he does here is clearly not the same thing as impersonating a man from Cork: the inter-county badinage is a long tradition; deciding for someone else that they are going to be part of it isn’t.
Digressing for a moment, it’s also worth remarking here about the way accents work in these islands. Some accents are held to carry a weight of authority about them, and many people who don’t speak with such an accent can feel their own accent places them in an inferior position, as though there were a link between accent and knowledge. Relative to a notional ‘neutral’ accent, people hear certain accents and infer stupidity, backwardness, dourness, mean-spiritedness, thievery and so on. It’s no small part of the private education industry to produce individuals whose way of speaking, inclusive of accent, confers an air of poise and authority. There are Irish people who went to England in the 1960s and attended classes to remove traces of their Irish accent, which they saw as an impediment to getting ahead. If you think accent is a minor matter, try and imagine a set of RTE TV license advertisements in which the accent is a product of Finglas. Accents still connote the authority that comes with class privilege, even if, especially in Ireland, they can be a misleading indicator of class power. Tiernan seems to believe any accent is fair game for mocking, which is at odds with the view that he later attributes to Frankie Boyle, who seems more in tune with the power the stand-up comic has with a complicit paying audience:
“There’s still a lot of racism in stand-up,” he says, “but they [the comics] don’t seem to recognise it. They just think they’re doing a ‘funny’ Spanish accent or a ‘funny’ Chinese face. I find it offensive that these people haven’t grown up or educated themselves. I have pointed it out to them at times.”
Toward the end of the Question and Answer session, which entails such matters as silver dildos and the Edge’s hats, Tiernan is asked by a man in a Viva Palestina t-shirt if, on account of his jokes about Nazis and Israel, he has ever been called anti-Semitic. There’s a video of Tiernan on Youtube, partially censored by the person who posted it, in which he characterises Israelis as saying to the people of Palestine “Ye can’t be living there. Fuck off to some place where you don’t come from. We applied for planning permission in the Old Testament. It’s just come through now, so fuck off.” I wonder if it was this routine that prompted the question.
Tiernan confirms that he has, and recounts the joke that prompted it… “The Jews say they never killed Jesus…well it wasn’t the fuckin’ Mexicans”. He then talks about the fanatical righteousness of the two Jewish people who confronted him for their inability to take a joke.
“Have you ever seen people whose eyes are so aflame with righteousness… The whites of their eyes are so pure and fucking white. They’re just one-stream people, they’re not people that have gaps for more than one train of thought. This one train of thought fucking purifies them. And these people were just that ‘the Israelis are a hounded people’. And God, Olaf might have more to say about that than me, but… You know, whatever, I’m not here to hound anybody, but these people come up to me afterwards…”
The Tribune article classified this as ‘a stinging criticism of Jewish people’. In a way it is, but only, I suggest, in the same way that referring to Cóir as fascists is a stinging criticism of Irish people. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the problem with his complaint about their intolerance is his failure to take account of the fact that the joke is anti-Semitic in content.
If all stand-up comedy boils down to is someone telling jokes to more than one person, then the best case you might make in defence of Tiernan is that his idea of ‘the Jews’ seems to come from a view of the world in which everyone comes from county somewhere. ‘The Jews’, ‘the Mexicans’, ‘the Dubs’ and ‘the Africans’ are basically the same, they all have their own peculiar way of life, and that therefore there’s no reason why they can’t all rub along together, and hence they’re all fair game for comic attention. And sure if they killed Christ sure what odds? The problem with this would be that these names -Jew, Mexican, Dub- don’t fulfil the same function, and the first one has a long history of being mobilised for the purpose of persecuting minorities. There is the Jew of European Christian anti-Semitism, the money-grubbing figure held responsible for the killing of Jesus, and the Jew of Nazi ideology, the necessary other to Hitler’s doctrine of Aryan racial supremacy, which led to the extermination of millions of people on account of the fact that they fulfilled Nazi racial criteria. When you talk about ‘the Jews’ killing Christ, you’re implying a real connection between a specific group of living people and the anti-Semitic figure of ‘the Jew’.
But, if this is all simply an act, and stand up comedy is really a form of performance art, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that delivering an anti-Semitic line constitutes an anti-Semitic act. On stage, Tiernan’s persona fluctuates between refined raconteur and muck savage. These turns and twists are all part of his act. If it’s art, it would be in the context of the overall act that any particular joke acquires its full effect. A barbarous joke is implicitly recognised as the joke of a barbarian. This is fairly obvious in other established forms of art. If you have a novel with a character who makes anti-Semitic jokes, it might be stretching things to classify the novel as anti-Semitic. At the same time, it might also be stretching things to say, of a novel about a heroic figure who overcomes anxiety about only having one testicle to regenerate his country and rid it of the racially impure malign subversives, that the fact it is a novel means it is not anti-Semitic.
Tiernan immediately goes on to object about Frankie Boyle’s view on accents, and he says ‘that comedy about trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special, protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously’. Clearly this post is getting a bit long to start talking about what constitutes art. But there are a couple of relevant questions here, since Tiernan’s talk of a ‘special, protected environment’ is very similar to the space normally claimed for art. Is some sort of consensus needed in order to establish that a particular act is art? Does the ‘artist’ need to declare that it -whatever it is- is a form of art in order for it to be experienced as such? Is calling it ‘art’ enough to protect it from censure? I think the difficulty with stand-up comedy, by contrast with other performances conventionally recognised as art, is that it depends on the consent and complicity of the audience to get going. This means involving real people. No-one is likely to imagine that a character in a novel is insulting them personally. You can’t make the same claim for stand-up.
The meaning of what came next –
But these Jews, these fucking Jew cunts come up to me. Fucking Christ-killing bastards. Fucking six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No fucking problem! Fuck them. Two at a time, they would have gone. Hold hands, get in there. Leave us your teeth and your glasses.
was plainly telegraphed in advance by his remarks about a ‘special, protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously’. Listened to in their original context, it is immediately clear that he intends them as an example of how you ought to be able to say anything, no matter how barbarous, in a space preserved for comedy. The subsequent outrage indicates many people, not least the Sunday Tribune, who ‘broke’ the story two weeks after the remarks were made, don’t agree that such a space should exist. Tiernan appears to have fallen victim to the gap between ‘ought’ and ‘is’.
The Tribune story headlined ‘Comedian’s startling attack on Jews’ reports the remarks, in the following terms:
Before making the remarks Tiernan said a comedy stage “is about allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously”.
However, there is no way of inferring, from the Tribune piece, that Tiernan had any intention other than to produce “a shocking anti-Semitic tirade”.
A Tribune editorial comment offered its own slant on what was permissible in comedy:
There’s nothing wrong with a gag being offensive. And a good comedian has a positive duty to deal with subjects such as race, religion, politics, minorities, sexual relations, sexuality, gender balance and even the great unmentionables such as paedophilia and terminal illness.
But the jokes should also be funny.
In that case the obvious question is: who decides what’s funny? The Sunday Tribune?
Demonstrating a solid commitment to free speech, it continued:
This time, he has crossed a line so far that a transcript of what he said needs to be investigated by the gardaí to see whether it breaches race or incitement to hatred legislation.
Those who offer Tiernan a stage and a fee also need to ask themselves whether this unfunny person is worth a platform.
So whilst a comedian has a duty to deal with ‘the great unmentionables’, comedians should be investigated by the police if they make remarks that the Sunday Tribune does not deem funny, even if these remarks are obviously intended as an illustration of a particular point about how comedy should work, and even though ‘there’s nothing wrong with a gag being offensive’. Why the Nazi holocaust should be so unmentionable that it is not allowed to figure among the great unmentionables is a matter for another day. Perhaps, like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Tribune believes that it constitutes ‘a sacred memory’. That should make for some interesting cases involving blasphemy legislation.
Whatever the motivation, the Tribune story has the mark of a stitch-up. But at least it was given some degree of thought, which is more than you can say for Ian O’Doherty’s remark on Tuesday:
And, since Ken Sweeney’s story in the Sunday Tribune about Tiernan’s undeniably anti-Semitic diatribe at the Electric Picnic, he has managed to offend an entire race.
It will be interesting to see if the Tribune’s crusade against anti-Semitism picks up on the fact that a national newspaper publishes an article in which the writer, in keeping with Hitlerite racial ideology, contends that Jews are a ‘race’. Something to look out for this weekend. OK, maybe the weekend after.