CLASH OF COMMENTS: Should comedy shows from the past be taken off streaming services?


Three members of the nouse team give their strong opinions about whether certain shows are too insensitive for modern audiences

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By Patrick Hook-Willers , Alex Thompson and Izzy Hall

Comment Editor's Foreword: It's been a while since we've done a Clash of Comments, our move online has made it harder to facilitate the kind of debate that being on Campus and in person would allow us to have on some of the key issues of our time. However, the removal of certain television shows from their streaming platforms over the last few weeks for sensitivity reasons got some members of our team caught up in an intense discussion on the topic. So, we thought the best outlet for them to express their opinions would be with our first-ever three-person Clash of Comments. We invite you, our readers, to engage in discussion with any of these talking points respectfully in the comments if you so wish. Enjoy!

Izzy Hall: It's good that Netflix is joining us in 2020

Did you know that 167.1 million people have Netflix? And realistically, you can times that number by three because we all leach off other people’s accounts. Removing racist content from the platform is their societal responsibility.

The Mighty Boosh, The League of Gentlemen, Little Britain and Come Fly with Me have all been rightfully removed from Netflix this week. As much as I am worried about the knee-jerk reactions of lads on Twitter with the England flag at the end of their username, spouting “this is political correctness gone mad!”, there are bigger fish to fry. I think we should all use this time to ask yourself and your friends what is it that bothers you about this? I mean, if you’re that desperate to watch offensive, terrible, blackface comedy then damn, buy the boxset and have a movie night with your racist friends!

The power of Netflix can shape our society through what it shows us. This is not a “lefty agenda” to silence your free speech, it’s about taking social responsibility to state that racism is not a debate and it’s not political. A sentiment that cannot be emphasised enough right now. In 2018, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced regret over the delayed dismissal of communications chief Jonathan Friedland from the company. Friedland used racial slurs among top executives at Netflix and Hastings stated, “I need to set a better example by learning and listening more so I can be the leader we need”. And as problematic as it is that this billionaire only just realised shouldn’t allow white people to use the N-word in his boardrooms, it seems Netflix is finally checking itself into 2020.

1.       Ferreira,
R. M. C. (2014) ‘Media effects on the audience attitudes and behavior’.
unknown, 8(1), p. 255.

Alex Thompson: Cancel shows, just don’t blame it on political correctness.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that blackface is bad, but the problem with Little Britain wasn’t just a blacked-up David Walliams, but also the vile stereotypes and caricatures which accompanied it - a sort of racist triple threat. These jokes were not ok 20 years ago but they were popular. Now they are neither, and rightly so. If these past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that we should be interrogating our attitudes towards race, and a large part of that comes from the culture we consume. This means that occasionally we have to cast off certain shows and leave them in the past.

Little Britain is one such program.

Our attitudes towards comedy and offence are changing and streaming services are just trying to keep up. Netflix isn’t censoring your entertainment, nor are they attacking free speech - they just don't feel comfortable giving a platform to racial slurs, blackface and blatantly offensive jokes. I’m surprised it took until 2020 to start seeing this, but I’m glad it’s happening.

On the face of it, I have no problem with this moderation of content. My main issue isn’t the action itself but the response, drawing attention away from the pressing issue of race in the UK, and onto the classic British defence of “it’s political correctness gone mad”.

This argument has been the staple of the tabloid arsenal for years, suggesting that no one can take a joke anymore. Yes, they can still take a joke, but no, they can’t tolerate your outdated views on race, sexuality or gender and you have every right to be called out for your bullshit. Yet time and time again, “PC gone mad” is plastered across Twitter or violently spewed out of some tabloid columnist like a cracked fire hydrant full of piss. It’s the de facto defence for intolerance, deflecting any discussion away from systemic prejudice in the UK, and onto the nature of the offence.

The two are, of course, interlinked, but to only discuss race through the lens of offence is to ignore the roots of the problem and blame the reaction. That episode of Fawlty Towers wasn’t removed because it had ‘unPC’ jokes about Germans (moments which clearly satirised xenophobia) but because of multiple uses of racial slurs. It’s not that the ‘snowflakes’ can’t handle the jokes, it’s to do with the context. And in 2020, white people dropping the n-word isn’t funny; it’s part of the problem.

Little Britain being taken off of Netflix isn’t “PC gone mad”. It’s symptomatic of a far larger shift in attitudes towards race in comedy and culture in general. While the de-platforming of offensive comedy is important, it’s essential that we understand why, and that it leads to further discussions about race - not simply “how no one can take a joke anymore”.

Cancel the shows, just don’t blame it on political correctness.

Patrick Hook-Willers: Banning entire shows isn't the way, editing must be selective

It's wrong to say that the removal of content from eras past is "PC gone mad", because it isn't. With recent events and the seismic, long overdue, shift of public attitudes towards historic and contemporary racial injustice, every field in the public eye has had to be seen to be doing something positive. I feel that Netflix and other streaming services are missing the mark with the removal of old shows though.

Removing content that is vulgar in its offensiveness is acceptable, and content of that ilk should never have seen the light of day anyway, but the rules were different back then. Comedy is the same as any other area of society, it evolves and constantly shifts into something new, reflecting the society in which it was created. If we blanket censor anything that doesn't meet today's moral standards, which have thankfully been raised considerably over the last 15 years, we set a dangerous precedent for the entertainment industry.

Little Britain is a parody of a society that has long since changed, and I feel it should stay available to people with editing. Scenes involving blackface or the portrayal of blackface should be removed from episodes without question, but elements of the show that make fun of people in an acceptable manner (Mr. Man, Kenny Craig the hypnotist, Carol Beer the travel agent) should remain even if it may offend some. If we remove the ability of comedians to poke fun at people in any way then we threaten the very existence of comedy.

Instead of blanket removals, companies should take the lead of UKTV in their response to an episode of Fawlty Towers which includes the n-word and various references to Nazism and the war. They have edited the episode in the past to remove racist language, and have again taken the episode out of circulation to review it, with a view to restoring it to air following review.

Rather than acting totally on anything that involves morally questionable content in isolation, edits should be made to content over time and disclaimers added to any unedited content that remains available. People have to be trusted to make decisions themselves on what they watch, and I feel that if the appropriate moves are made and momentum is maintained on shifting societal attitudes like the brilliant movements we are seeing now, then we will see people policing themselves. The energy needs to be focused in the right areas, and if we try and change everything at once, public desire may change and the privilege to switch off from social reform may return.

Remove blackface scenes. Remove shows where the entire story is advanced by blackface. Offer disclaimers on the content that remains.