You sneaky little Jew, I found myself shouting during a show. And again: You sneaky dirty lying little Jew. It’s probably the hardest lines I’ve ever said on stage. Not because I’m a big censor of words. I don’t think art shouldn’t hurt. Sometimes it’s needed to wake the audience, look at the same stories from a place of discomfort to create some change.
The guy I spit the lines out to is one of my best friends. He’s Israeli and, yes sometimes with glee, I compare him to an IDF soldier kicking in the door of a poor Palestinian. It’s usually after he tells me my solution to difficult situations is to shout Allahu Ackbar and blow myself up. We have fun with it and only rarely do we cross the subjective invisible borders that turn a provocative joke into a vulgar stab.
So, why is this remark so different? Maybe it’s because I remember walking down the street of Prague with my friend. Two struggling artists in a city that displays the history of its disappeared Jews for tourists to consume. In the shops we saw little figurines of happy Rabbis for sale. Between the ones playing instruments and clapping their hands we saw a few clasping a big bag of money. In another we saw the statue of the devil, a squat little man with a pot belly, a bald head and a big hook nose. If they hadn’t put the horns on his head he would have simply been the charicature of the greedy Jew of Nazi propaganda. Scratch that, I’m sure there’s more than a few images of the Jew with horns. That day ended with us having a kabab in an immigrant shop. When the owner asked us where we were from I answered with a cheerful Iran and Israel. The Iran he was happy to hear, but he made sure to tell me my Israeli friend has a million Euros tied to each finger of every hand. I tried to make a joke out of it, what we don’t have money for a proper meal when we perform but all this time you have been hoarding a secret treasure? My friend simply looked at me with a tired look in his eyes.
In that trip I could joke about the IDF and my friend could denounce Israeli policy or hit me back with the politics of my own native country, I could mock extremist Rabbis and my friend would point at the Ayatollahs, or simply distance himself from this or that cult. But if I would call him a sneak with his hidden money, manipulating the world, simply for being Jewish, that would be an accusation he could never run from. Because that’s what a sneaky Jew would do, right? Every one knows it. It’s in their blood. It’s a taint that will forever follow him.
I knew that if on stage I would call my friend a sneaky Jew an intelligent audience wouldn’t see it as an insult to him. They would find me the pathetic one. That’s what we wanted in our piece, in one moment I became a weak coward and very little of what I would say after that comment could be taken seriously.
The same night of my performance a comedy show was happening in the Mezrab. I always regret not being present at one of our nights. I like to see the success and the struggles of the artists, the mood and enjoyment of the crowd. I like to see what works and what can be improved. Especially when something big happens. And oh boy did something big happen this night. We where visited by a rowdy group of female visitors. The host in his frustration called them out a few times and finally said he’d like to put his dick in their mouth, just to shut them up. From there it escalated. The comedian after added similar choice words and what could have been a night of thought provoking humour ended in frustration on the side of the visitors, the staff and the performers.
Now, anyone who’s been on stage has said things they’ve regretted. You try to be edgy, but fall on your face from time to time, especially when you say something from a place of frustration. We check our inner compass and try to do better next time. The Mezrab audience is a pretty forgiving one, especially when the performers come with intelligent material. They give beginners a chance without giving them a hard time. But they also expect a performer not to shut up a black heckler by shouting in frustration that he wouldn’t have to deal with this shit if the niggers just went back to their coloured-only clubs and left us in peace, or a Jewish heckler by telling him you’d wished they’d gassed just a few more of them. Yes, the shifty boundaries of comedy are unclear, but subconsciously the performers of today know that would cross a line.
Not so when it comes to shutting up a woman apparently. I’ve heard more than a few comedians defend the remark. Because not defending it apparently means giving in to the ills of political corectness leaving us only with boring feel-good material. The guests who objected where told this is what you can expect from a comedy show, just grow a thick skin. Or stay home.
Well, no. If there’s anyone who needs to grow a thick skin it’s us performers. If the audience doesn’t like what you do they can stay home and leave you with an ever more homogenous echo chambers that adore your work. Or they can engage in discussion with you, which will hurt, but can lead to understanding and more intelligend material. If only because you understand how to communicate with audiences you don’t agree with, not just the ones you do.
The reason Dick-in-Mouth was objected to was not because it was simply too vulgar. It was because it reduced the audience member to the one thing they can’t run away from, the gender they were born with, and because of which they have likely experienced sexual intimidation or objectification. I’d like to put a dick in your mouth is at best reducing someone to a piece of meat and at worst a threat of rape. It’s also, and this is the cardinal sin for any artist, a lazy cliché. It’s not a joke made up on the spot to deal with a situation, it’s the brain finding the trope that’s been used almost as often as teenage boys telling women to “go make me a sandwich”. Just google the words, here’s what comes up:
(many more at the bottom of this post)
If this spooky political correctnes many people fear creates boring art it will not be in the Mezrab. We’ve never been afraid to shock and try new things. We’ve had comedians talk about sucking off multiple dicks in a Turkish bath house. We’ve spent a whole night watching hardcore porn while Mama Mezrab served soup. We had an artist convince the audience he was an immigration officer and talk about the inventive ways he kills the dreams and ambitions of newcomers. We’ve invited a missionary on stage even though audience members where afraid of him and listened to him call us to the one true religion of the god most of us didn’t believe him. We objected to his story, not because of the content, but because he thought his story was more important than the other ones told that night.
Art in the Mezrab will also not be boring because we will not tell any artist to censor him or herself. No one will be excluded from the line up. But we will call performers out on material if it’s racist or sexist. We will engage in discussion about how the pieces are received and wether they hit the mark or not. Discussions on why if today we’re not ok with casual racism, why we give casual sexism a pass. We will flirt with the line of course, which means that we are absolutely ok with someone writing scathing poems about Turkey’s Erdogan, because he’s becoming a totalitarian ruler, while at the same time we find it intellectually lazy to call him a goat fucker. At the same time we’re not ok with calling Sylvana Simons a monkey and we see there’s a difference there.
Yes, it does take a thick skin sometimes to enjoy comedy in the Netherlands. As a result some people have simply stopped going to comedy shows. If you think that’s something to be proud of then consider the Mezrab audience: it’s grown tremendously in the past twelve years, and it’s the most diverse audience in age, gender, sexuality, religion and race of all the audiences in the Netherlands. Why would anyone not want them as an audience?
Maybe because there’s the fear that performing for such a diverse audience means you can’t cause offence. Wouldn’t that go against the words of our performing heroes such as Louis C.K. and Stephen Fry, who have beautiful quotes on the need to offend people?
It’s in the spirit of the these performers that we want our performers to offend. With material that’s so intelligent and well crafted that the one who feels offended comes out looking like a fool. It’s comedy that attacks institutions, outdated social norms, our hypocricies. It punches up rather than down. It’s not material that makes you stop listening to the performer, like after the moment I made my stinking Jew remarks.
I very much doubt they’d tell a dick-in-mouth joke to shut a woman up. I also suspect they’d love to play a Mezrab audience.
And finally, some internet advice on what to do with a woman who doesn’t shut up:
(post was slightly edited for clarity on 7-11-2016)