Racial tension

OK, here’s the good news: the Collings & Herrin Podcast is, once again, riding high in the iTunes charts, peaking at 15 in the all-podcast chart, which includes Harry Potter. (When I last looked, we were above Bruno and Adam & Joe.) Why the surge? Because a man called Leo Benedictus named it as one of the Top Ten best comedy podcasts in daily newspaper the Guardian yesterday, in a “Comedy Special” edition of its tiny G2 supplement. (We were at number 7 in this list, but only three podcasts were stamped with a red “highly recommended” star – ours, Adam and Joe and Marsha’s comedy interviews for XFM – so in fact we must have been in the top three.) This is what Leo Benedictus wrote about us:

Comedian Richard Herring and jobbing journo Andrew Collins meet once a week to quarrel obscenely about the contents of newspapers and their flagging careers. A gathering cult.

This is essentially flattering, and not especially misleading – it certainly suggests he has heard it, to get the “flagging careers” angle – and the “gathering cult” is nice. I think it’s funny that a man who really is a “jobbing journo” has labelled me one, even though journalism is now only a small part of what I do, and “comedy scriptwriter” might have been nice, or even “broadcaster” or, as one wag put it, “ex-EastEnders scriptwriter”, in the style of Celebrity Masterchef schadenfreude. Still, it was good of him to include us.

This, though, was not the problem with the “Comedy Special”, which also included some vox pops with comedians, an interview with Ruby Wax, a column by Charlie Brooker, some “tips” on how to attend a comedy gig, and – its centrepiece – an article by comedy critic Brian Logan about what he christened “The New Offenders”. This is the piece in full, but I’m going to fillet bits from it, in the same way that Brian Logan filleted bits from what Richard Herring said to him.

This is the basic thesis: that comedians are moving away from the “political correctness” laid down by alternative comedy in the 1980s and attempting to inject some spice into their acts by actively seeking to offend. Brian Logan has interviewed Scott Capurro, Jim Jeffries, Brendan Burns, Jo Brand, Alexei Sayle and Richard Herring, and used what they have said to illustrate his point. However, because I know Richard Herring, and know what his new show Hitler Moustache is about, having watched it take shape before my very eyes and been involved in many of the discussions that shaped it on our gathering cult of a podcast, I also know that this gives a very misleading impression of it:

This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues “that racists have a point”.

This is a complex, hour-long show, which I know goes in many different directions, but is ultimately about the reclamation of a certain type of moustache for non-racist ends from its current, abiding Nazi associations. If Richard argues that racists “have a point” it is within the contexts of an ongoing comedic discussion about racism. The way Brian Logan has written it, if you hadn’t seen the show, or heard the podcasts, which most people reading the paper wouldn’t have, you might assume that … hmmmm … Richard Herring thinks racists have a point. Logan’s boxing-gloved summation of his show is not expanded upon further in this section of the article.

Here, for balance, is a thing that Richard Herring did say in the interview, and which reflects what he thinks: “In the 1970s, black and Asian people were getting shit put through their letterboxes … But the world has moved on. Now we accept the [anti-racist, anti-sexist] tenets of alternative comedy as true, and don’t need to patronise audiences any more.” There are other quotes along these lines from other comedians. But soon, Brian Logan goes back to Hitler Moustache (whose poster image has proved a very handy one for the Guardian picture editor and website editors), and has this pretty unequivocal thing to say about Richard’s racism:

Herring now does most of his work on the web. His weekly podcast, presented with Andrew Collins, makes a point of “pushing back boundaries and saying anything we want”. One recent episode aired Herring’s purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set. In another routine, he claims to support the BNP’s policy to deport all black people from the UK.

Now, if you are familiar with Richard’s work, you will know that the issues mentioned will be discussed in both comedic and challenging ways in his show. If you are not familiar with it, you might once again assume his show is racist. If he did “purport” to hate Pakistanis it was within the improvised context of a heated and ridiculous discussion about racism, one of many over the weeks. He doesn’t hate Pakistanis, any more than he hates any ethnic or racial group. Richard Herring hates racists. And he hates the BNP. But who wants to hear a comedian say that for an hour? That’s not challenging anything. I am troubled on Richard’s behalf that he has been portrayed as a racist in the Guardian newspaper. I am troubled on my own behalf that our podcast – which is a “highly recommended” Guardian comedy podcast – is being partly tarred with the same brush. The same toothbrush, you could say.

It is not for me to seek redress. But I hope that anybody reading the article in yesterday’s Guardian, or online, will join me in spreading the word that Richard Herring is not only not racist, he is anti-racist. It would be deeply offensive if the way his words have been chopped up to fit a thesis in a national newspaper had any unpleasant knock-on effect, either at his coming shows, or in the street. I wonder if the people who write these pieces think about the actions of their words? I am a “jobbing journo” – sometimes – so I am one of those people, and I hope I would never misrepresent an interviewee on a such a serious subject to suit my own ends.

It is no laughing matter. Looking forward to the podcast this Thursday.

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