Terry Gilliam has done a joke. The former Monty Python actor has gone down the “self-deprecating white successful Oxbridge-educated man” route, and mocked his privilege. “I no longer want to be a white male,” he said at a press conference recently. “I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world: I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian... My name is Loretta and I’m a BLT, a black lesbian in transition.” Cue nervous audience laughter.
To me, this is the biggest problem with Gilliam’s comments on diversity: he has phrased them as a joke. By doing so, he has ensured that people of colour (POC) like myself have no choice but to laugh them off in the name of comedy. If not, we’re accused of having zero sense of humour and told to “calm down – it’s only a joke”.
But… his comments aren’t funny. They’re damaging, because they turn something quite serious into a frivolous joke, and they’re frustrating, because they’re not true. They’re suggesting there’s a truth to the fact that white men get blamed for everything, while black lesbians have all the privilege. When, really, the Lorettas of this world do not have it easy.
You just have to scan a few statistics to see that ethnic-minority people are more likely to be victims of homicide in England than white people; unemployment rates for ethnic minorities are almost double those of white people; and black African women have a mortality rate four-times higher than white women in the UK. I could go on but, in short, it is definitely not easier to be a Loretta than a Terry in the UK – and it is downright dangerous when white men assume life is so much easier for people who can “tick the diversity boxes”.
There has been much talk lately of comedy shows and news panels trying to increase their diversity, i.e. not just having a group of all-white men on screen, but quite possibly having at least one – or sometimes even two! – women on their shows. Recently the BBC’s controller of comedy commissioning, Shane Allen, stressed that the channel is committed to “the stories that haven’t been told and the voices we haven’t yet heard”. In response to a question about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, he said: “If you’re going to assemble a team now, it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes. It’s going to be a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world.”
It’s this particular comment that has riled Gilliam – and, indeed, other Monty Python members. John Cleese took to Twitter to say: “Unfair ! We were remarkably diverse FOR OUR TIME. We had three grammar-school boys, one a poof, and Gilliam, though not actually black, was a Yank. And NO slave-owners.” While Gilliam went on to say: “It made me cry: the idea that ... no longer six white Oxbridge men can make a comedy show. Now we need one of this, one of that, everybody represented... this is bullshit.”
When things are diverse, they’re better. When there are comedians of all colours, genders and backgrounds on our TVs, then comedy itself becomes more varied, interesting and fun
Maybe they’re half-joking but, even in doing so, they’re denying the fact that there are still far more white male comedians than diverse female ones. There are millions of Google searches for “why aren’t female comedians that funny”, and you just have to turn on Have I Got News For You or Mock The Week to realise that male comedians are still on top.
But the positive news is that things are slowly changing – and it’s all because people like Allen are moving away from six white Oxbridge blokes and moving towards this “diverse range of people” who represent actual society today. Take Nanette – a new stand-up show on Netflix that is being hailed as unique, original and a masterpiece, because of its mix of standard jokes and deeper, touching insights into dark topics like rape, homophobia and domestic abuse.
It’s the work of an Australian lesbian, Hannah Gadsby, and it feels so fresh and different because she, as an individual, is different to the standard comedians on our screens. Much of her comedy is based on her own experiences, and that’s why she’s able to broach areas like abuse and rape – two crimes that have far, far more female victims than male (20% of women and 4% of men have been victims of sexual assault in England and Wales, while 63% of domestic abuse victims are female).
Think how many more masterpieces we could have if more TV channels took chances on representation. Diversity might have become a buzzword in society today, which means that it is of course a fair target for its share of mockery, but it’s worth remembering why everyone is so obsessed with it.
It’s not just about the earnest (though seriously important) reasons of making sure people are represented, and providing role models for future generations. There is also the very simple and more superficial reason that when things are diverse, they’re better. When there are comedians of all colours, genders and backgrounds on our TVs, then comedy itself becomes more varied, interesting and fun. Monty Python was great, and no one is saying that white Oxbridge men can’t be on TV anymore (there are already masses of them on there), but what we need now is a chance for more Lorettas to be able to launch their careers alongside the Terrys of the world