06 February 2011

A Short-Lived and Probably One-Off Feeling of Positivity towards Top Gear

Most of what we need to know about Top Gear's attitude to offensive "humour" has been said by Steve Coogan. Everything anyone will ever need to know about Top Gear in general has been said by Stewart Lee. But I don't think that actual Mexican joke they told, and their delivery, has been pulled to bits enough. Too much Big Waggy Finger of Tut-Tut and not enough Interesting Screwdriver of I Wonder What Its Little Cogs Do.

But before I pin the frog down and dig out my rusty old scalpel, here's something I noticed about Top Gear recently. After Richard Keys and Andy Gray got their P45s, Clarkson claimed on the Evening Standard front page, that they'd have been "sacked 100 times". They've not even been sacked once. What this implies is that hardly anyone takes their opinions seriously. The point of Clarkson is to be an offensive cunt, we watch Top Gear because it's funny to watch an offensive cunt be offensively cuntish, but then afterwards, we switch off thinking "Well, that was offensive. What a cunt". Even when the joke amounts to expressing their real opinions and sniggering, it's still treated as a joke. Though this brand of unspeakable humour might still be nasty, nobody is nearly as worried by it as we are by straight-faced opinions with no entertainment value. I can't help wondering if Jeremy Clarkson's rousing defence of free speech isn't at least partially motivated by jealousy, that nobody gives enough of a shit what he thinks to sack him too.

Anyway, Richard Hammond opens with this:
Cars reflect national characteristics, don't they, so German cars are very well built and ruthlessly efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick
Already there's a clue as to what's going on. Cars can be efficient, or efficiently engineered, but ruthless? It makes no sense! If I didn't know better I'd think he was throwing in a little nonsense for humorous effect. He goes on:
a Mexican car's just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight...(laughter)
Again, these are all entirely standard ways for a half-arsed racist to describe a Mexican. But a car? No. None of them make sense. He's mocking the stereotypes. While we might associate German and Italian national characteristics with tendencies in their respective automotive industries, and with roughly 80% accuracy, when it comes to the stereotypes we have of Mexicans, it all falls apart. Not convinced? He winds up:
leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle as a coat.
What he's done here is made the stereotypes ludicrously specific. He's invoking classic static images of Mexico that even Top Gear viewers won't take seriously, and that couldn't in anyone's imagination apply to a car. He structures it very cleverly, moving on from believable human stereotypes that don't work for cars, to a slightly silly one no-one takes seriously (fence), to complete nonsense (looking at a cactus), and finally a more familiar stereotype, but as an amusingly unwieldy phrase (with a blanket with a hole in the middle as a coat). It's a incisive, observant and downright funny satire of national stereotypes, and precisely the way they should be countered - using friendly belittlement to point out the enormous flaws in their logic.

Defending a Top Gear presenter has made me feel a little dirty, so it's lucky for me they couldn't keep it up:
May: It is interesting, isn't it, because they can't do food, the Mexicans, can they? Because it's all like sick with cheese on it, I mean... (laughter)
Hammond: Refried sick!
May: Yeah, refried sick.
Suddenly, the hilarious banter isn't about stereotypes about people not working with cars. It's about how shite the food is over there. It's gone from sly satire to three pathetic, unadventurous Little Englanders whining about ghastly foreign food which has the audacity to actually fucking taste of something. The best Hammond can come up with to follow it up is a vague attempt at a play on words, and all May can do is say "yeah" and repeat it. It's actually pitiful. This then descends into straight-out abuse:
Hammond: I'm sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you're Mexican: 'awww, no'.
Clarkson: No, it'd be brilliant… because you could just go straight back to sleep again.
It's pretty pathetic here that Jeremy Clarkson has to step in to save the exchange with some actual humour. He does a moderately witty call-back to the earlier stereotypes, but naturally without any kind of identifiable irony.

What I find fascinating about this exchange though, is that, of the three out-and-out deteriorations, one is by James May, and the other two are Richard Hammond (Clarkson, for all his undiluted prejudice, at least uses some kind of humorous mechanism). Quite a clever joke which undermines national stereotypes quickly descends into unfunny, jingoistic abuse which reinforces them. What seems to have happened, mixed with an expectation of deliberate offensiveness, genuine disdain for basically all other countries and most of this one, and his legendary cowardice, is that Richard Hammond told a joke that not only went over his colleagues' heads, but was actually too clever for him as well.


  1. Brilliant analysis, Alex and the only one I have bothered to read. I havent even read the Coogan article. You make Enemies of Reason look like James May's grasp of how to tell a joke.

  2. One of the best blog-posts I've ever read. Thanks.

    Hadn't given Richard Hammond any credit for managing to stumble across irony when portraying a stereotype, and only 40 or 50 years after Monty Python did it rather more deliberately. I'm being facetious but I genuinely hadn't thought about it this way and I'd like to crawl up your bumhole about how good this post is.

  3. Aww, thanks, the digital rimming is much appreciated.

    I don't even think Richard Hammond stumbled across it. I think he, and everyone else on Top Gear, finds the idea that cars share national stereotypes with people ridiculous. Stereotypes are funny things, and I doubt anyone believes them more than about 80%. He made a funny joke about stereotypes not applying perfectly, which then got dragged down by his burning contempt for all foreigners.