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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 9, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Tommy Tiernan’s Canadian Sort-Of Apology

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Tommy Tiernan has apologised – but only indirectly. For weeks now his website has been breathlessly proclaiming: “Tommy will take part in this year’s prestigious Just for Laughs Tour. The tour will see the best of European, American and Canadian comedians travel for four weeks around Canada. Due to his tour schedule Tommy will miss the first week but will join the tour from October the 28th in Hamilton onwards. The tickets are now on sale!”

     holocyril.jpg

    Holocaust Memorial Day in the Mansion House (Photograph by Cyril Byrne)

    But now, according to Just for Laughs spokesperson Leisa Lee, “both the festival and Tiernan agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest that he drop out of the coming national tour.” And she continued: “He deeply regrets any hurt he has caused.”

    If the story is accurate, then it’s a blow to his career and a completely self-inflicted one, it has to be said. This writer is one of a number who have been calling on him to apologise – not through the spokesperson for a lucrative and prestigious foreign comedy tour but in his own person. It seems to be hard to get a message through to him. Maybe a hole in his pocket and pride will bring home the seriousness of what he did that day in Stradbally when he launched into a tirade about doubling the size of the Holocaust.

     And, in answer to those who said this writer was out of touch with modern comedy trends, well, it seems the organisers of Just for Laughs don’t get the joke either!

    For more on this story, see http://www.canada.com/life/Comedian+kicked+Just+Laughs+tour+anti+Semitic+comments/2079176/story.html

    • Deaglán says:

      Jonathan,

      Have to admit I laughed at the Death-Trap joke. Didn´t get the Tea-Pot one – stupid old me.

      A few years ago, our then-Ambassador to the Court of St James, Ted Barrington (a good Wexfordman like myself), made a big issue out of anti-Irish jokes, and they seemed to disappear from the airwaves as a result. I must say I applauded him at the time. I assume Irish prisoners get picked on in jail, for a thumping and maybe even rape, so anything that encourages such conduct, however unintentionally, is obviously regrettable. But it was funny all the same.

      I imagine the Death-Trap gag will find its way into our own culture as, say, a Kerryman joke. The Kerrymen don´t mind, they just keep on winning All-Irelands. Then there are all those jokes about mean Cavanmen, which I have to say are hilarious, but then I ain´t from Cavan. In the US they used to have Polish jokes, maybe still do. There is little fear of reading similar jokes about Muslims or Black people in such a publication, I would suggest. There would be “´meelah murther”, sackings, headlines in the Guardian, it would be raised in the Commons and there could even be physical repercussions from extremists.

      I guess someone always has to be put down in a joke. The French philosopher Henri Bergson, who has been quoted by Woody Allen, talked of “the dagger side of wit”.

      As with all good comedy, it´s a question of timing. There is never an appropriate time, in my view, for what Mr Tiernan said. You have to judge situations on a case-by-case basis I suppose. As I said when this debate started, some weeks back now, you don´t shout Fire in a crowded theatre. But if it´s only a poorly-attended matinee, then it´s not as big an issue. And if you whisper “Fire”, where you are obviously joking, then it´s not the same thing.

      There is also the fact that Kerrymen (and women), say, are not an oppressed and vulnerable minority. Far from it! But Black people and Muslims in GB are in that category so making a joke at their expense is a different thing. Likewise for the outrageous Tiernan comments on Jews – anti-Semitism never went away and it is politically and socially toxic, as we have seen in Germany and other places over the centuries.

      Does anyone remember Alf Garnett? That was humour on the borderline. I doubt if it would fly today. But at the time I don´t recall it gave offence because there was a bit of wit and style about it, which are sadly lacking in Mr Tiernan´s remarks on Jews, Travellers, etc.

      I guess we live in an Age of Crudity. What say, Aidan, with your ever-ready but admittedly-intelligent pen?

    • Deaglán,

      I’d like to restate; you don’t speak for the Jewish people. I have no idea what the millions of Jews in the world feel about this matter, and neither do you. A number of leaders of Jewish groups have expressed disapproval, but frankly, I wouldn’t want Brian Cowen’s opinions to be seen as representing those of the Irish nation.

      However, I think we might as well draw a line under that discussion, if nothing else I’m glad you actually watched the interview, which was a courtesy few enough commentators bothered with.

      So…

      What I find interesting is that, earlier on, there was a moment I found genuinely distasteful; where the African guy asked Tiernan a question, in response, Tiernan did a very bad imitation of his accent.

      I find the contrast interesting. Whether or not Tiernan misjudged his analogy, I think it’s clear that his holocaust rant was intended to make a quite separate point. Taking the piss out of someone’s accent, on the other hand, isn’t making any kind of point at all. And his attempted justification (“if he was Cork you’d all be laughing”, or something similar) is moronic. Cork people haven’t had monkey chants made at them for generations, or been portrayed as subhuman buffoons by people imitating their manner of speech. Whatever way you look at it, imitating someone’s oh-so-silly accent is rude, and pathetic, and ignorant.

      I find it interesting that no-one’s bothered to mention that exchange. It’s as if, because the person in question was present and went along with the gag (albeit he was under severe social pressure to do so), it justifies what Tiernan did – which I thought was crass and boorish. Is it that we react to the outrage, rather than the actual content?

      Any thoughts?

    • Aidan says:

      Deaglán,
      Anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia etc. are serious issues and they don’t go away, as you said, but I think they have become less and less acceptable in Irish society. I don’t think this is because we have tirelessly demanded apologies from comedians. I actually think it is, in a small way due to the comedians (and otheres) who have refused to apologise for their work.

      There was a time when great works of art, like Ulysses, were banned in this country because people felt they were peurile, crude, and unworthy of a “civilised” people. The horrible, horrible irony is that while the self-proclaimed and self-righteous “moral” guardians of this country were censoring crudity, some of the same people were allowing children to be treated in a way that the word “crude” couldn’t beging to describe.

      “The Life of Brian” was banned in this country, while at the same time children were subjected to systematic malnourishment, molestation, slave labour, rape and torture: Now, there’s an example of a joke that really, really isn’t funny! What is a “crude” joke of a comedian compared to that? These are the sort of things I choose to be offended about, and why I really cannot get exercised about crude words that aren’t said in earnest.

      Salman Rushdie was subject to serious death threats (and if I remember rightly one publisher was shot) and had to go into hiding because of a book he wrote. Some “civilised” people, instead of standing behind Rushdie, said that he got what he deserved for insulting a “great” religion. That is where we inevitably end up when you place the right to not be offended over someone else’s right to free expression (and also why I will not hear a bar of that song about Muslims in GB being a vulnerable minority). Even if they were a vulnerable minority, their demands not to be offended should not be entertained for a moment. It’s also an insult to Muslims, because you are essentially saying that these people are so weak that they cannot take a joke without resorting to violence and murder. I suspect the majority of Muslims would disagree.

      I think we should champion the right to free expression at all times – especially if it seriously challenges deeply-held beliefs! – because without this free expression there would be little to no progress in society, and I for one am happy to live in an Irish society that has progressed in some way. I am not blind to the fact that progression comes at a price, and I would admit that there is more crudity and other problems. But a stream of profanity, or “shock” comedy like “The Aristocrats” joke is simply nothing (and IMO can be funny) compared to the really hateful things that anti-semites, racists and homophobes actually say and mean (which are never funny).

      Tiernan may have been crude, but he was telling a joke, he was being deliberately absurd, and didn’t say these things earnestly (he didn’t really shout “Fire” as you say). If you want to demand apologies, then make sure to demand them from the right people, and don’t single out those who are more than likely on your side against Anti-Semitism.

      The “Age of Crudity”, as you call it, is not by any means perfect, but I would rather live in this Age with it’s off-colour jokes than the Age of “censorship and child rape” which I imagine wasn’t funny at all. Wouldn’t you?

      P.S. Thank you for the compliment about my pen.

    • Deaglán says:

      Nyder, Of course I don´t speak for millions of Jewish people or even a single Jew, since I am not Jewish myself.

      But the Jewish Representative Council, the sole Jewish deputy in the Dail and the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland can fairly claim to represent the views of most Jews in this country and in Israel. There is a Canadian Jewish group which also commented on Mr Tiernan in relation to the Just for Laughs tour. If the rest of the Jewish community around the world knew of Tommy Tiernan´s remarks I think it is a safe bet they would be mad as hell.

      As for Mr Tiernan slagging off the African man´s accent, I, too, felt uncomfortable about that. It is of a piece with his Electric Picnic comments on Jews, Late Late Show remark about having sex with Travellers (are you aware of this?), etc.

      Aidan,
      One small correction: Ulysses was never banned in Ireland. But, irony of ironies, the only place you could get a copy was in the so-called “Red Shed”, the old Communist Party bookshop in Pearse Street, Dublin. This despite the fact that the CP here hewed very close to the totalitarian Moscow line until the invasion of Czechslovakia in 1968 (if I recall rightly).

      I agree with you about the horrors of child abuse which could even be used as part of a case against the whole concept of Irish self-government, and I say that as a convinced nationalist, but I am ashamed to be Irish when I consider those awful events.

      It´s good that there is a very significant relaxation of censorship in this State. But that does not mean I have to love Podge and Rodge, Tommy Tiernan, et al. I wouldn´t have them censored but reserve the right to criticise them.

      I also happen to think there is a relationship between the relentless crudity of speech in this State and the level of violence on the streets which you just don´t get in many other countries.

    • Aidan says:

      Deaglán,

      No-one is asking you to love or like anything, but there is a difference between criticising something, as you would in a review, and asking for an apology for it.

      I don’t think there’s a relentless crudity of speech in Ireland (but I accept my definition may be different from yours) and even if there was I don’t think it has much to do with violence on the streets. I could point to Middle East countries that are heavily censored where any violence we engage in pales in comparison to the violence there. We aren’t exactly stoning people to death in the streets, are we? And, in America they censor the curse words on television, and yet the violence continues at a far worse rate than in this country. I think you should be less concerned about the profanity and more concerned about the other words that people are saying.

      There is nothing wrong with the concept of Irish self-government and no argument against it, just as there’s nothing wrong with the concept of German self-government. Both nations were taken over to an extent by totalitarian regimes. The difference is that the regime that held control of us was far more endemic and harder to shake, but, while it is still prevelant, it is far more benign than it was, thankfully.

      P.S. Thanks for the information on Ulysses. I was labouring under a misconception. I see now that it was the movie that was banned, and the book wasn’t published in Ireland at the time. (No doubt any attempt to publish it would have been unsuccessful) Everyday’s a school day.

    • Deaglán says:

      Yes, I seem to recall that the Joseph Strick film was banned. I remember seeing it at the UCD film society. You could show films to restricted groups that were not allowed on general release.

      Of course the book was also banned in all but name, i.e., there was no legal restriction, you just couldn´t get it anywhere, as far as I know, except the Communist bookshop, and a visit there may well have got you on the files of the Special Branch.

    • Jonathan says:

      Deaglan,
      Yes, I remember Alf Garnett, and his American counterpart Archie Bunker. And also “Love thy Neighbour”, another great sitcom.
      They were indeed on the borderline, but they were worlds away from TT and his so-called “comedy”. As you say, they had wit and style, and there were always other characters around who made the racists and bigots look ridiculous.
      Having said that, TT doesn’t need other characters around – he does a very good job of making himself look ridiculous all by himself…..

    • Deaglán says:

      Check this one out too and contrast the reaction to one Irish entertainer in New York with the response, or lack of it, to Mr Tiernan back home.

      http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2009/1017/1224256900322.html

    • Aidan says:

      Tynan was caught up in an unforunate misunderstanding and seems to have been treated rather shabbily on the face of it (gig cancelled before he had a chance to put his side of the story across?)

      Tiernan was telling a joke in a comedy performance, and some people decided to take words that were meant to be absurd seriously.

      Also, I see the former religious correspondent of The Irish Times is now accusing the current one of not knowing the history of the Jewish people, or else being somehow lacking in moral fibre, all because the guy went and actually met Tommy Tiernan, came to the conclusion in conversation that Tiernan is a thoughtful man, and is not in any way an anti-Semite!

    • Michael says:

      Tiernan’s juvenile comedy is an integral part of the relentless dumbing-down of public discourse in Ireland, the U.S.A., and the U.K.

      The drive towards neoliberalism over recent decades has severely stunted and debased economic, political, and cultural debate.

      Progressive thinking has been pushed out to the margins of society.

      Comedy is part of the zeitgeist.

      There has to be a strong progressive philosophical basis to any worthwhile debate in society, including comedy – however that is sadly missing today.

      The quality of contemporary comedy is possibly a good indicator of the general health of society.

      Mainstream comedy has effectively been degraded to the level of grunting : Tiernan and most of the Irish comedians who feature on RTE, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Sacha Baron Cohen’s films.

      Where are the satirists today who take their inspiration from Bill Hicks, Alf Garnett, Jonathan Swift, Peter Cook, Scrap Saturday ?

      For the most part they don’t exist – comedians have become lazy, complacent, comfortable, and cynical.

      The economic, political, and social controversies in this country should be mined for good satire.

      Why do our Irish comedians instead indulge in crude inanities on The Panel and elsewhere ?

      Critisizing Tiernan exclusively is a waste of time – his comedy is part of the general malaise.


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