Top Gear lads lose comedy plot

Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May. Photo / Supplied
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May. Photo / Supplied

Writing in UK newspaper The Observer, British comedian Steve Coogan says Top Gear's offensive stereotyping has gone too far.

I am a huge fan of Top Gear. I normally regard the presenters' brand of irreverence as a part of the rough and tumble that goes with having a sense of humour.

I've been on the show three times and had a go at their celebrity-lap challenge, and I would love to receive a fourth invite.

But I think that's unlikely once they read this. If, however, it makes the lads question their behaviour for a second - ambitious, I know - it will be worth it.

I normally remain below the parapet when these frenetic arguments about comedy and taste break out. But this time, I've had enough of the regular defence you tend to hear - the tired line that it's "just a laugh", a bit of "harmless fun".

OK guys, I've got some great ideas for your next show. Jeremy, why not have James describe some kosher food as looking like "sick with cheese on it"?

No? Thought not. Even better, why not describe some Islamic fundamentalists as lazy and feckless?

Feel the silence. They're all pretty well organised these days, aren't they, those groups? Better stick to those that are least problematic.

Old people? Special needs? I know - Mexicans! There aren't enough of them to be troublesome, no celebrities to be upset. And most of them are miles and miles away.

The BBC's initial mealy-mouthed apology was pitiful. It cited the more benign rivalry that exists between European nations (ah, those arrogant French, over-organised Germans), and in doing so neatly sidestepped one hugely important fact - ethnicity.

All the examples it uses to legitimise this hateful rubbish are relatively prosperous countries full of white people. How about if the lads had described Africans as lazy, feckless etc? Or Pakistanis?

What's more, this was all spouted by the presenters on one of the BBC's most successful programmes. Forget the World Service; overseas, Top Gear is more frequently the public face of the BBC. The Beeb's hand-wringing suggested tolerance of casual racism, arguably the most sinister kind.

Besides, there is not a shred of truth in Top Gear's "comic" stereotype. I can tell you from living in the US that Mexicans work themselves to the bone doing all the dirty thankless jobs the white middle class won't do.

What makes it worse is that the lads wear this offensive behaviour as a badge of pride, pleased they have annoyed those whom they regard, in another lazy stereotype, as sandal-wearing vegans with beards and no sense of humour.

Well, here's some Twitter hot news: I don't have a beard, I'm not a vegan, I don't wear sandals (unless they're Birkenstocks, of course), and I have, I think, a sense of humour.

I also figure I know something about comedy. It's true there are no hard and fast rules; it's often down to judgment calls. It's safe to say, though, that you can get away with saying unsayable things if it's done with some sense of culpability.

I've been fortunate enough to work with the likes of Peter Baynham, Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris, Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Caroline Aherne, Ruth Jones and the Mighty Boosh - some of the funniest and most innovative people in British comedy. And Rob Brydon too.

It's a diverse, eclectic group with one common denominator: they could all defend and justify their comedy from a moral standpoint.

They are laughing at hypocrisy, human frailty, narrow-mindedness. They mock pomposity and arrogance.

If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans.There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them. In comedy, as in life, we ought to think before we speak.

If I can borrow from the Wildean wit of Richard Hammond, the comic approach was "lazy", "feckless" and "flatulent". Richard has his tongue so far down the back of Jeremy's trousers he could forge a career as the back end of a pantomime horse. His attempt to foster some Clarkson-like maverick status with his "edgy" humour is tragic. He reminds you of the squirt at school as he hangs around Clarkson the bully, as if to say, "I'm with him". Meanwhile, James May holds their coats as they beat up the boy with the stutter.

Some of the blame must lie with what some like to call the "postmodern" reaction to over zealous political correctness. Sometimes, it's true, things need a shakeup; orthodoxies need to be challenged. But this sort of ironic approach has been a licence for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they'd been keeping in the closet since Love Thy Neighbour.

Archaic attitudes are endemic in a lot of motoring journalism. I confess I am an avid consumer and wade through a sea of lazy cliches to get to anything genuinely illuminating.

Jeremy unwittingly cast the template for this. Twenty years ago, when I bought Performance Car magazine, his column was the first I would turn to. It was slightly annoying but unfailingly funny. Since then there have been legions of pretenders who just don't pass muster.

There is a kneejerk, brainless reaction to any legislation that may have a detrimental effect on their God-given right to drive cars anywhere at any speed they consider safe. They often remind me of the US National Rifle Association who, I'm sure we can all agree, are a bunch of nutters. It's a kind of "airbags are for poofs" mentality and, far from being shocking, it's just shockingly dull.

It would be fine if it was confined to grumpy men in bad jeans smoking Marlboros at the side of the Millbrook test track, but it's not. As I pointed out, it's the voice of one of the BBC's most successful programmes.

The lads have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative (which, I'd suggest, is not very cool).

Gentlemen, I don't believe in half-criticisms and this has nothing to do with my slow lap times. But, increasingly, you each look like a middle-aged punk rocker pogo-ing at his niece's wedding. That would be funny if you weren't regarded by some people as role models.

Big viewing figures don't give you impunity - they carry responsibility. Start showing some, tuck your shirts in, be a bit funnier and we'll pretend it all never happened.


* Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat. - Richard Hammond.

* Mexican food is "sick with cheese on it". - James May.

* "That's why we won't get any complaints about this because at the Mexican Embassy, the ambassador's going to be sitting there with a remote control like this". - Jeremy Clarkson, who then slumped in his chair and faked a snore.


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