Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Holocaust As Joke Fodder: Tommy Tiernan's 'Joyous' Rant

I heard about stand-up Tommy Tiernan's anti-Semitic 'rant' third hand, from a rather outraged friend. So I was cautious about judging it too quickly. As I said to my friend, I'll wait till I can put it in context. Then I read the article by Brian Boyd in The Irish Time's Friday insert,The Ticket. Context is the very word Boyd brings up, in his second paragraph:

TOMMY Tiernan used to do a joke about the old Christian contention that the Jews killed Jesus: “The Jews say they didn’t kill Jesus. Well, it wasn’t the f**kin’ Mexicans was it?” In the context and confines of a live comedy club, it was a line that always worked well for him. He brought this joke up in a question-and-answer session [with Olaf Tyaransen] arranged by Hot Press magazine at the Electric Picnic earlier this month.

Asked by an audience member if he had ever been accused of anti-Semitism (Tiernan has been accused of many “isms” during his career), he replied that the above line had upset two Jewish people at a show he did in New York.

They approached him afterwards to remonstrate with him about the nature of the joke. The couple’s complaint, he said, was that “the Israelis are a hunted people” and therefore the joke was insensitive.

Only two Jewish people complained? Well, perhaps they were the only ones in the audience.

Boyd then continues his short lead-in to what Tiernan called his 'rant'. I'll give that lead-in, because it does provide a kind of context, which I have come to think is actually as good as (perhaps even better) than the live interview itself:

He spoke about the nature of his material and how it can cause offence: “It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful. It’s not about being careful ... and mannered. It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing is being taken seriously."

“But these Jews, these f**kin’ Jew c**ts came up to me. F**kin’ Christ-killing b**t**ds! F**kin’ six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**kin’ problem! F**kin’ two at a time, they would have gone! Hold hands, get in there! Leave us your teeth and your glasses!”

As Boyd admits, the written words are shocking, even with those euphemistic asterisks. 'Context' is being asked to bear an awful lot of weight here.

Tiernan, on his own website, is clearly on the defensive. Here's his 'statement' about the rant and some peoples' reactions to it:

Firstly, I would like to say that as a private individual I am greatly upset by the thought that these comments have caused hurt to others as this was never my intention; yet, the Electric Picnic public interview with Hot Press Magazine has been taken so far out of context that I am quite bewildered.

The things that I said in front of a live audience were in an attempt to explain my belief that one of the duties of the comic performer is to be reckless and irresponsible and that the things that they say should NEVER be taken out of context. If you read the full transcript or listen to the podcast you will see that I preface my rant by saying that it should not be taken seriously and as such, the rant took place as an example of my argument. While it is out of context, which it most definitely is now, it seems callous cruel and ignorant.

This is not the first time that something like this has happened and it probably won’t be the last. However, as a public performer I can only hope that whatever wild, irresponsible and reckless things that come into my head will be taken in the context in which they were said.

According to Hot Press editor, Niall Stokes: “if you see or read it in context, there is a comment in there about people who are fanatical and who can’t take a joke. But to interpret it as anti-Semitism is wrongheaded in the extreme. The way I see it, he is satirising anti-Semitism, while making a more general point that we should all be able to laugh at ourselves.

Tommy Tiernan

That word context, again. I suppose much of this depends on whether you go in for Tiernan's kind of stand-up/rant comedy, as delivered by Tiernan. Boyd obviously does. And Niall Stokes, the editor of Hot Press, also defends Tiernan. He dismisses Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter's statement in the Sunday Tribune, that Tiernan's was “a disgusting and unacceptable outburst” and who thought it "particularly sad that people found this sort of outburst in any way amusing.” As Stokes [quoted by Boyd] puts it:

“If Alan Shatter reads the interview and comes to the conclusion that Tommy Tiernan is prejudiced against Jews, then he is suffering from a life-threatening humour by-pass and needs to get it attended to quickly ... The fact is that the interview turned – as many of Tommy Tiernan’s interviews do – into a spontaneous comic performance in which he improvises around whatever subjects are thrown at him ... What he said was strong, referring to the fact that he’d have killed not six million but 10 million or 12 million Jews.

“But, while you have to read the full interview to understand what was going on and to see it in context, only an idiot could think that he was expressing his own feelings.”

Context yet again. Well, I did better than read the interview. I listened to the whole damned podcast, which is downloadable from Tiernan's website.

Boyd's article presents Tiernan as a hero (what Americans might call 'a maverick'):

Tiernan is not your typical comic, chucking out tepid observational inanities to get a guest slot on a TV panel show. His is an intense and passionately felt style of comedy.


The attraction, for many, is that he is not just a gag-merchant but someone who dances around the lines of taste and decency. Controversy follows him around like a stalker.


If you were to take Tiernan’s remarks about the Holocaust at face value, it would be hard not to view them as wicked. But you might also choose to see them in the way he says they were intended. He asks that we consider them in the context of an entertainer reaching around during a live interview for dramatic and extreme imagery. The decision on how to interpret them lies with the receiver.

'Remarks about the Holocaust'? I didn't hear any remarks, just a remarkably vicious diatribe. And if 'the decision on how to interpret [the so-called remarks] lies with the receiver', well, that receiver might interpret them very differently to how they were intended (though the intention seems to me to be far from clear). In any case it is is not humour as I understand it. Listen to the podcast. It's a Tommy Tiernan love-in (at one point the crowd starts chanting 'we love Tommy'). Certainly a 'well-protected environment'. No wonder Tiernan felt he could say whatever he pleased. But, why would he (why would anyone) actually want to say those things? What 'feelings' or 'lunacy' is he actually expressing? Not mine. Yours perhaps? Or yours, over there in the back row?

I must be an idiot, one sandwich short of a picnic, lights on but nobody home. Because I just don't see how raving about 'Jew c**ts' being shoved 'two at a time' into the gas chamber, is funny, in any context. Nevertheless, I listened for a 'context' in the podcast interview. But I am obviously stone deaf.

The Holocaust has left us with some of the most disturbing, heartbreaking and enraging images from the 20th Century. We know what these images are, and I think most people with a modicum of imagination sense what they mean, how they stand as indelible proof of precisely what we are capable of when supreme arrogance rules and we forget how to reach out and touch each other. So we should take such things very personally. Because they ARE personal; they are part of our reservoir of grief, even if we are barely aware of this. Anyone who dips into this reservoir certainly needs more of a context than Tiernan provides, essentially declaring that the mere act of voicing a bottom-feeding scumbag's point of view, stinking and harsh as vomit, creates its own context. If this is true then the likes of Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning are great comedians, pure geniuses. And if you really think Tiernan's Holocaust routine is hilarious how about replacing it with something closer to home? I'm not talking about Catholicism here, which Tiernan mocked on his first appearance on the Late Late Show (afterwards he was apparently detained in the studio for several hours after irate members of the public came looking for him). But priests and Catholicism, like Nazis, are woefully soft targets nowadays. Instead of laying into the perpetrators, how about making a few nasty jabs at the innocent victims of the ongoing clerical abuse scandal, or The Famine or The Troubles? Let Tommy give those a go, and see what 'dramatic and extreme imagery', what 'wild, irresponsible and reckless things', what 'lunacy' he can pull out of his hat.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spot of Dying

Across The Road From The Graveyard, Achill, County Mayo
Conversation between my wife and our five year old son:

Son: Mummy I don't want to die.
Mother: Neither do I.
Son: But you get to choose when you die.
Mother: Really? How do you do that?
Son: You go to the dying spot and jump in.

Death has been on his mind recently. Of course, we have explained already that he won't die, not for a long, long, looooong time, that he's safe, we're safe, etc. Nevertheless, death resurfaces, bobbing into the conversational slipstream at odd moments. What probably brought it up today was the fact that I had let slip that I'd attended a 'removal' yesterday evening, a septuagenarian relation of ours, who contracted cancer of the liver and was gone in eight months: a kindly man, 'a gentleman', as people noted.

If we were religious, we would have been quick to reassure our son (largely the whole point of religions) that he will never die, not really, and that his parents will no doubt be waiting for him when he eventually does die, having wiped our feet on Heaven's welcome mat and joined the party; as Donne so eloquently (and comfortingly) put it: 'One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.'

But neither of us is religious. My wife is cheerily atheist and I am strongly inclined that way (though hedging my bets behind an all-but-hopeless agnosticism). My gut tells me there is nothing afterward, nothing but our cheerless, time-leased apartment in nothingness, the same infinitesimal/enormous place the galaxies are speeding to. So it is a little chilling to hear the d-word being shaped by a five-year-old's lips. But it is also, I believe, natural, and rather healthy. His 'dying spot' could hardly have anything to do with suicide, a concept we have never discussed. It is far more likely what my wife suggests: a way of exerting control over something which he is, some day, in danger of being controlled by. He is right to be indignant, even appalled. But he knows he is well-loved, and I trust it is this (and the assurance that he is here and now, in the infinitely present present) which will allow him to deflate death and stow it in its proper place, for now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Butcher's 9/11

Butcher's, Bray, Co Wicklow
I have attempted three poems generated (I recoil from saying 'inspired') by the most memorable event of September 11, 2001. The following did not begin as a '9/11 poem'. I only really started to think of it in such a context after it was published in The Irish Times last Saturday.

At The Butcher's In Colmenar

A framed, blown-up photograph hangs on the wall:
the t-shirted butcher’s son and his wife, on their honeymoon
in Manhattan, the towers in the background, the date:
September 10, 2001.

Behind the counter, a steel door opens: a glimpse
of pale waxy carcasses, smell so thick I could colour it
black-red: the colour of history. Outside, I breathe
warm streets, damp from a recent shower.

An old man swings past on crutches. What do I know
about history? Dawdling under a nearby orange tree –
its perfect glimmering system – I think
of reaching to pluck one.

Andalucía, 2004

(from my third collection, Fade Street, forthcoming from Salt in 2010)

It took me well over five years to finish this poem (or bring it to a point where I felt it could be safely abandoned). As far as I can recall, I began to make notes, the first sketchy drafts, not long after leaving that butcher's shop, probably the same afternoon. I think what I was trying to get at, initially, were sensations, the texture and colour, particularly the overwhelming smell inside the butcher's . Incidentally, that butcher is highly respected, and his meat is of the best quality; the smell wasn't one of rottenness, but rather of fresh, visceral meatiness (an early image was of finding myself inside a 'meat tent'). I wanted to contrast this with the orange trees on the street outside, which had also made an impression on me.

The big framed photograph on the wall (which my cousin David had pointed out) was an otherwise fairly innocuous tourist snap, made remarkable because of the date, clearly printed in a panel below the image. The photograph may have featured in early drafts, but only in passing; the gist had been largely about the experience of finding myself in a foreign place, the oddness of real oranges growing, unplucked, on trees. That sense of dislocation is ground I (and of course many lyric poets) have covered before, and this time it ended in a cul-de-sac; the poem traveled into nowheresville and got set aside, if not quite abandoned.

Then I took it up again, a couple of years ago, and put it through another series of drafts, eventually focusing more on the photograph, which is now in the opening line (it took me years to realise its importance). Now the poem seems to have found its shape: three simple quatrains, just short of a sonnet, each shifting the location a little bit. I like the fact that an element of that uncertainty, that at-a-lossness, survives from the early drafts. It belongs in there. This is far from being a complex poem, but I think it just might contain something of that blurred little zone of almost-mystery, what Heaney called 'a hole', somewhere inside it. At least, I hope it does.

The photo above (pigs' heads with radio) was not taken inside the butcher's in Colmenar, but one in Bray, in the early 1990s.