"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

3 Dec 2011

Jeremy Clarkson: ironic, or just Neanderthal?

If you have the privilege of being able to share your vacuous and bigoted opinions with the TV viewing public on a weekly basis, then at least have the guts to own them. Following his two latest rants: that public sector strikers should be shot in front of their families and that people who kill themselves by jumping under trains are selfish, apologists for British TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson were quick to point out that Clarkson was only joking, or, that he was being ironic. Irony is far too subtle a concept for Clarkson to fathomif you have to explain that you were only joking then its not irony. But more unforgivably, Clarkson just isn't funny.

In the tradition of great stand-ups such as Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks (those who have mastered the art of irony and laughter), comedian Stewart Lee addressed Clarkson's loutishness when two years earlier he performed a routine about Top Gear (watch video). In a diatribe about Clarkson's diminutive sidekick Richard "The Hampster" Hammond, he referred to the co-presenter's narrow escape from a filmed high speed car crash by saying, "I wish he had been decapitated and that his head had rolled off in front of his wife". Now the similarity between Lee's remark about Hammond and Clarkson's remark about the strikers will not be lost, indeed Lee's remark is perhaps more vitriolic, as he shared with his audience his dislike for Hammond when they attended the same school in Solihull. The brilliance of Lee's comedy is his multi-layered irony and delayed punch lines. Lee throws back on his audience the Top Gear presenters' own overused apology for their offensiveness. When he said that he wished Hammond had been decapitated, he added “like when they do their jokes on Top Gear, it was only a joke”; parodying their oafish behaviour the better to highlight it. But then adds, after a suitable pause, "coincidentally, as well as it being a joke, it's also what I wish had happened." 
Freedom of Speech
Those leaping to Clarkson's defence are right to point out that context is important; citing among other things the principal of free speech, even bestowing on Clarkson the compliment polemicist. But with the role of the polemicist and right to free speech also comes the risks which that responsibility bestows. Eating your own words at the first sign that things might get uncomfortable is not polemicism; it's, as Stewart Lee reminds us, "cowardice". 

The Greek term parrhesia, referring to freedom or boldness of speech, represents everything that Clarkson is not. As Michel Foucault said in his final series of lectures, to qualify as parrhesia, the parrhesiast “is always less powerful than the one with whom he speaks.”  The best known anecdote of a parrhesiastic exchange involves Alexander (the Great) and Diogenes the Cynic. When Alexander came upon Diogenes sunning himself in a public park in Corinth, he asked the Cynic what wish he could grant him, and Diogenes replied, 'Stand out of my light'. It is having the courage to say something that endangers the speaker that defines the parrhesiast. The speaker's truth is spoken out of compulsion. No matter how unpalatable, it is regarded as the parrhesiast's duty to speak out in this way. An example of a modern parrhesiast is the stand up comedian Lenny Bruce who was imprisoned and died for his right to speak out. His long battle against censorship was a personal crusade for his right to speak the truth during a very repressive period in American history, ultimately winning the right for his parrhesiastic legateesJoan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Stewart Lee to push the boundaries of public taste even further. Like them or loathe them, what defines these particular comedians is that they completely own their invective diatribes against everything that sucks about humanity; even when threatened with impoverishment—and in the case of Bruce, imprisonment. They have all also uniquely developed the use of laughter and self-ridicule as a personal strategy for survival. One has to consider just in what way does Clarkson put himself at any risk when excercising his right to free speech. As Stewart Lee reminds us, it is we, the hapless TV license payers, who are not only responsible for endorsing his stupidity, but also paying for his millions and his big boy's cars.


  1. Jeremy clarkson is a bigot. He has abandoned his Yorkshire roots and lost touch with "ordinary people" from whom he earns his living.

    1. Perhaps, but that could be said about many famous people from the north, though I can completely understand why when going there

  2. Jeremy Clarkson may be many things but instead of considering that he is the antithesis of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, consider the similarities with his politically incorrect brand of humor (regardless of whether you think it is funny or not is irrelevant) and thier own. He can get a bit repetitive, but so were they, that's the point of standup. And while Bill (hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever) hicks was many things, his brand of comedy was not "multi layered" or subtle.

  3. Oh and the license payers are "responsible" indirectly. The fact that his show is one of the most watched shows on earth determines directly how much money is allocated by the BBC to it and him. Regardless of what other people think of your opinions and regardless of how right or wrong they may be, would you not gladly take an opportunity to make millions and enjoy broadcasting them to an audience of several hundred million people of you could?

    I do not think it is his intention to be ironic. The Bruce and Hicks comparison holds up in considering their lack of broad appeal where he has it, but he makes fun o everyone, northerners, Americans, Australians, Germans, French, communists, conservatives homosexuals and just about every other "group" the only ones who take offense are the ones who take offense at everything and who need to develop a sense of humor. Just because you do not like something does not mean it is not funny, sometimes sophomoric humor and racist
    Comedy is necessary. The most racist comedic remarks are from black Americans, this is the safe card Steve Coogan played and his career is a joke now. The Clarkson has more viewers on a weekly basis than have been expose to the whole of Coogan's body of work. You think all people should be like you and prescribe to your particular brand of humor? What a dull world we would live in if everyone was "ironic" and politically correct. Political correctness is a direct attack on the freedoms of speech us Americans hold sacred, but we let fringe elements rob our freedoms because we do not want to appear as racist or insensitive. The reason we elected a hopelessly unqualified half black man president twice, funny that he only embraces his black heritage, and never his white, why? Because that does not make people feel morally obligated to vote for him. This liberalist garbage is the downfall of western "free society" and is akin to censorship, but only censorship of things that do not ascribe to thier ideals, how charmingly Orwellian...

    "two legs good, four legs bad"