In a bizarre move, the state has decided to expand its remit into the realm of comedy criticism. Paul Gascoigne has been found guilty in a criminal court of racially aggravated abuse, after a joke he made last year during a stop on his An Evening With Gazza tour at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. At one point during the show, he turned to Errol Rowe, a black security guard, and said, ‘Can you smile please, because I can’t see you’. For this, Gascoigne has been fined £1,000 and forced to pay a further £1,000 in compensation to Rowe.
In truth, it isn’t even Gascoigne’s joke. Barry Humphries used the same line at an Amnesty International comedy benefit gala in 1976 while playing his alter ego Dame Edna Everage. Perhaps Humphries will now be extradited for racial abuse. Although, arguably, the shame of having Paul Gascoigne plagiarise your work is punishment enough.
I’ve always found that the best response to an unfunny joke is not to laugh at it. Even better, don’t buy tickets to a show called An Evening With Gazza. Was anyone really expecting to find that Gascoigne had somehow morphed into a witty raconteur to rival the likes of Peter Ustinov? Of course the jokes were going to fall flat. Aside from the joke that has left him with a criminal record, he also quipped about the ‘ugliness’ of footballer and third-degree burns victim Carlos Tevez, and the suicide of gay footballer Justin Fashanu. There are comics who are skilled enough to make any topic funny, irrespective of its sensitive nature. Needless to say, Gascoigne isn’t one of them.
In his summing up of the case, Judge Graham Wilkinson said that ‘it is not acceptable to laugh words like this off as some form of joke’. What, then, is to stop the police investigating the likes of Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Jefferies or Sarah Silverman for their routines on race, gender or sexuality? Can it be that the state is simply punishing Gascoigne for being a bad comic? If so, I dread to think what would happen if Judge Wilkinson ever visited the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Any comedian who got a two-star review would probably be forced to undertake community service.
It should go without saying that the state has no business criminalising any form of speech, or redefining jokes as ‘abuse’. Offence is an entirely subjective matter. From my own personal perspective, nothing that Gascoigne will ever say could possibly be more offensive than ‘Fog On The Tyne’, the single he released in 1990. Why didn’t the police intervene back then?