I’m often asked why Channel 4 recently banned an episode of my show The IT Crowd because of ‘transphobia’. I blame spell check. Before the internet, people who sent in crazy, entitled, demanding complaints were known as the ‘green ink brigade’ because of their tendency to write letters in what they thought were attention-grabbing colours. These same lunatics are now taken seriously because spell check means they no longer confuse ‘there’, ‘they’re’, ‘their’ and ‘antelope’. It’s still the same crazies, but these days they’re on Twitter and jumpy executives carry out their every wish. A Sydney production of the musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch was cancelled because the lead actor is a bisexual man rather than the trans survivor of a botched cross-sex operation the part requires. Anne Hathaway had to apologise to people with ‘limb differences’ because of the new film of The Witches. Halle Berry had to say sorry just for considering a role as a trans person even though she didn’t take it. It would be funny if it were fictional. The arts have no chance if the mob influences the creative process. Any creative person is in the business of giving people what they do not know they want. Once you let the green ink brigade into the editing room, you’ll never get them out.
Simply to preserve my own mental health, I have become obsessed with proving that people are, at heart, essentially good and that more often than not they would prefer to do the right thing. To this end, I’ve made it my mission to explain to confused fence-sitters what’s actually going on in the gender identity debate. My hope is that once everyone sees how serious the situation is — a day that came a little closer this week thanks to Keira Bell’s victory over the Tavistock — they will eventually feel, as J.K. Rowling put it in her moving essay, that we are living through the most misogynistic period in recent history, and join the fight to resist it. Because I wouldn’t stop saying things like ‘men aren’t women’ — which was true at the time of tweeting and remains so — Twitter bounced me from their premises a few months ago. So I set up a website and email newsletter to catalogue the various offences women are suffering at the moment. I’d rather be writing a sitcom, but how can I ignore something that so fundamentally affects my mum, my wife, my daughter? How can anyone?
People are worried about entering the debate because it’s so vicious. We have seen what has happened to Rowling and Suzanne Moore, to name just two out of thousands. One of the most shameful aspects of the Rowling affair was the chair of the Society of Authors, Joanne Harris, failing to condemn the abuse sent to a fellow writer. I’m proud to say I helped get a few famous names on the letter in defence of Rowling. My old writing partner on Father Ted, Arthur Mathews, is on there. Griff Rhys Jones, who first employed me to write comedy sketches, didn’t hesitate. And to my delight, Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong, who most recently employed me to write sketches, also signed. David Walliams, who achieved fame partly because I attached myself to the pilot of Little Britain, didn’t respond to my emails.
So that people don’t come to dread my email updates, I’ve taken to putting at the end of them an ‘and finally’ section, named after the bit that used to close the news where they would interview a dog who wrote a novel or something. While looking for something suitably cheering I found a website where people take animal rescue footage and reverse it so that it looks like people are being pointlessly cruel. In ‘Coast Guard forces deer to live out life at sea’ the coast guard take the deer out of some towels, place it carefully in the water, and drive the boat away until the animal is just a tiny dot in the middle of the ocean. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
On a whim, I recently picked up a Viz annual. When Viz started in 1979 it was unmissable, but its reluctance to kill off its characters meant that loyal readers like myself eventually drifted away. But now it has a few new geniuses, a few proper geniuses from the old crew, several new characters, and its tabloid parodies remain pitch perfect. This is the story under the headline ‘EVERYONE APOLOGISES’: ‘There were angry calls last night for everyone to apologise to everyone else after they said something in a series of tweets and Facebook posts. Everybody was unavailable for comment yesterday, but a spokesman for them said: “Everyone is extremely sorry if anything they have said on social media has caused offence to everyone else.”’ It’s funny because it’s true. Now that everyone is online, the personal is political and comedy is becoming increasingly scarce as a result. We are all the poorer for it.
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