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A Sick Joke

with Graham Linehan,
hosted by Helen Dale

Comedy writer Graham Linehan joins host Helen Dale to talk about cancel culture, comedy, and his new book Tough Crowd: How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy.

Brian Smith:

Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. This podcast is a production of the online journal, Law & Liberty, and hosted by our staff. Please visit us at lawliberty.org, and thank you for listening.

Helen Dale:

My name is Helen Dale, and I’m Senior Writer at Law & Liberty. With me today is Graham Linehan. Graham is the writer and creator of multiple beloved British sitcoms, most famously Father Ted and The IT Crowd. With so many star-studded successes to his name and multiple BAFTAs—including a coveted lifetime achievement award—one would assume his place in the nation’s comedy firmament would be assured. Well, it was—until it wasn’t. Graham Linehan was one of the first prominent people in the UK to raise concerns about gender identity ideology (in 2018). He did so using the only tool available to him at the time, a Twitter account with 900,000 followers. 

Over the next five years, Graham’s career was disassembled.

Not only was he abandoned in his hour of need by people he’d worked with for decades and known for longer, but current and future projects were also cancelled, including a completed West End musical based on Father Ted. Given his literary gifts, he’s fought back with a book, Tough Crowd: How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy, released last month in the UK and coming to US shores soon. Tough Crowd is both a wise and amusing guide to writing funny things for television and an account of the madness that has overrun the arts and universities throughout the developed world in the last two decades. 

Thank you for joining us, Graham.

Graham Linehan:

Thank you for asking me.

Helen Dale:

You were—until a Comedy Unleashed show featuring you at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was also cancelled—probably the most cancelled major figure in the UK. All the 2023 Fringe did was make your cancellation into a national scandal. You talk about the wider cancellation in Tough Crowd, but for obvious reasons, you don’t discuss what happened at this year’s Fringe. What’s it like to be cancelled on this scale?

Graham Linehan:

Well, it’s a destabilising thing for a comedy writer because when you’re a comedy writer, you want to be an observer of human frailty and confusion and all the other comically negative things about humanity. And so when you’re in my position, I’m now no longer outside things looking in. I am at the centre of a story. I am a figure who is incredibly divisive and scandal-ridden, and it makes even thinking about comedy somewhat difficult. I mean, in terms of coming up with a new idea or a new show—for the last five years, six years, I’ve been basically firefighting trying to protect my reputation, trying to rebuild it—and you can’t really write comedy when you’re in that kind of state. You’re in a kind of constant fight or flight mode. So yeah, it’s a very destabilising and upsetting place to be, but I just have to live with it now.

Helen Dale:

Has there been any sense since the book came out…It’s only been out for a few weeks now, three weeks now. Has there been any sense of… Are more people starting to talk to you now, apart from the sort of obvious media and publicity around Tough Crowd being released?

Graham Linehan:

Well, it’s an interesting thing because when you bring out a book—and this was actually part of my plan—I did think of it as a two-stage plan. The first stage was the book, but also the interviews that followed it because there were lots of things I couldn’t put in the book because they didn’t fit thematically to each chapter or it was simply too much information. And I thought I would use the interviews to fill in the rest of it for people. But it’s an interesting thing. I get two types of interviews. 

The first is what I’m getting here, which is being interviewed by people who know the issue, who understand the points, who understand what’s happened to me. And the second is what you might call the more mainstream interviews on TV and national TV over here—in the national press—which is usually with people who sort of understand the issue, but really are just kind of reporting on my Wikipedia page rather than anything that’s actually true about me.

So far, it’s been okay. Just before Edinburgh, I was ambushed on TalkTV by someone who simply did not understand the issue in the slightest and was responding to the portrait that’s been painted of me by others in our profession. But yesterday I had an interesting one. I appeared on Times Radio, and even though the interviewer was taking the usual tack—which is making me apologise for either things that I didn’t do or things that have been misreported—and for once, he actually gave me a chance to respond. So, I was able to put the points as clearly as I could, and I’m hoping that will just go on.

Helen Dale:

Well, that’s something at least. I should just note here that some of the questions in this show were provided by subscribers to Liberty Law Talk and to my Substack. I did this last time, in my previous podcast, and it was very successful—that podcast was with Helen Joyce and Maya Forstater. And so I’ve decided to do it again. Subscriber questions are of course mixed in with my questions, and you don’t necessarily know which ones are which. However, this question is from a subscriber. Do you think most other comedians in the industry who didn’t support you are scared to speak up, or do you think they’re true believers?

Graham Linehan:

It’s a very good question. It’s really hard to know. What I find extraordinary is that even people I was extremely close to don’t seem to understand the issue. I heard recently that Adam Buxton—who was a very close friend of mine when I lived in Norwich, and our families hung out with each other—and you would think someone so close would make a special effort to find out exactly what the issues were and to approach them in a serious way. But no, he’s platforming people who engaged in harassment against me, and he’s allowing people on this show to smear figures like Posie Parker.

So I think there’s… What you might call it is a kind of protective ignorance. It’s like, I saw an interesting thing today: two people interviewed who were at a Hamas march, and were kind of pretending they didn’t know about the October 7th attacks. And I think it’s a similar thing going on here. They don’t know about this stuff, but they deliberately don’t know about it because knowing about it to the extent that they would have to do what I do and protest about it means they might lose their careers. So it’s a kind of a faux ignorance, if that makes sense.

Helen Dale:

It’s a very interesting take on the idea of pluralistic ignorance or preference falsification. It’s like people are participating in those willingly.

Graham Linehan:

Yes, I’ve never heard those terms, but I will start using them because they sound like exactly what I’m talking about.

Helen Dale:

Preference falsification is when everybody says that they believe a thing, but the majority of people saying it don’t actually believe it, and then there are revealed preferences—where what they actually believe tends to be shown at the ballot box. So, they vote in a different way from what they say.

Graham Linehan:

Yes, that’s one thing I’ve been doing for the last five or six years is trying to find a way that people can safely make their complaints or their worries known. But it’s very difficult in this world where we’re always on a… I mean, that was one of the other reasons why the theme of audiences goes through my book. I think one of the things we did that we didn’t realise we were doing was, we decided to step on a stage. 

The internet is a stage—and we all decided without really knowing what we were deciding to do—to play out our lives to a public-facing audience. Once these movements started to make themselves known—the gender identity movement is obviously the one I’m fighting—but there are many others out there. Everyone realised, I think simultaneously, that it’s a little bit difficult to be a political person if you’re on a stage.

You can suddenly have tomatoes or rotten fruit thrown at you. And I think it’s made, and this sort of goes back to the earlier question, I think it’s made many people very, very shy. Shy in a way that’s actually harmful, shy in a way that means that they can… One of the things I put in the book is that I always thought the Holocaust, another Holocaust, would be impossible in a connected world because you wouldn’t be able to build the concentration camps, you wouldn’t be able to commit atrocities because too many eyes were on you. And instead of that, what we have is a situation where the people committing the atrocities are filming it themselves. 

It’s like I heard an interesting thing about CCTV cameras in crime-ridden areas. Apparently, they had a very good short-term effect. The cameras would go up, and the crime would just disappear.

But then, after a few weeks, when everyone got used to them, these places would simply resume their old kind of character. And it’s just so strange. I just think that the effect of everybody having a camera, everybody being able to spy on everyone else, has been not to suppress bad behaviour, but to amplify it. And my rosy view of what the internet would bring was completely decimated.

Helen Dale:

A lot of Tough Crowd is devoted to Twitter, or TwitterX as it appears to be now, and how it ensnared you. And I found it a fascinating part of the book I must say. I’ve since heard you talk about—and you’ve touched on it here—how social media produces a type of digital panopticon. I’d be grateful if you could outline some of your thinking on this here. What has this done to us and how is it playing out?

Graham Linehan:

Well, I think the main thing it’s done is it has turned us all into Stasi operatives. I’ve been reading a lot about the Stasi recently, and I believe it was something like one in four or one in five people in East Germany were Stasi members. So that kind of speaks to a… What’s the word? People seem to be predisposed to spying on neighbours. People seem to be predisposed to being an informer, being an operative, being a kind of member of the religious police, you might say. Unfortunately, Twitter has just allowed us all to take this role to report on our neighbours and friends for thinking the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, and making the wrong joke. It’s one reason why I think comedy is in a really bad place at the moment. There’s a famous quote by a comedian over here who said, “the joke that will destroy my life is already out there.”

And what that means is that, let’s say this comedian enters into a contentious debate. It can be about anything, not even as contentious as Israel, Palestine, or feminism. It could be about football. Well, the enemies of that person will be able to simply do a search through that person’s timeline to find a tweet that uses a forbidden word or says a forbidden thing. And again, this forbidden thing might not have been forbidden at the time the person wrote it. It’s just forbidden now. And so what you have, again, sorry to use all these references, but there’s a quote I think by Cardinal Richelieu who said something along the lines of, “give me three letters by any man and I will find enough to condemn him.” Which means that it’s the interpretation that’s the killer. What you say is one thing, but the interpretation applied to it can be used to destroy you at any time.

And unfortunately, comedians are particularly susceptible to this because their whole existence, their job depends on them being able to walk a very fine line between what’s acceptable to say and what’s not acceptable to say. So again, if there’s an enemy of this particular comedian out there, he has the power now to destroy that man’s or woman’s life. So that’s what I mean by panopticon.

Helen Dale:

What do you think will happen to British comedy in the future, near or far? Do you see any future where there is diversity of thought allowed in the wider industry?

Graham Linehan:

I think so because I think in the end, people will follow the money. I believe that Disney in the States, it’s now very easy to… There are no queues, there are no long queues at Disney. That might’ve changed recently, but this was the last time I checked at Disney World because people are so disgusted by the propaganda that Disney is pumping out. And you can see as well the popularity of shows like South Park in their recent attacks on Kathleen Kennedy that have just really struck a chord. I think Cartman has the line—which he plays Kathleen Kennedy in it—and he says the line, “Put a chick in it and make it lame.” And it’s a very funny way of looking at what’s going on. There’s this concentration on things that do not make for good stories, forced diversity, again—the lack of diversity of thought. 

These things don’t resonate with audiences who are themselves diverse. When you get a diverse audience, they’re not looking to see diversity. They’re looking to see things that connect them to a shared humanity. And these stories have been told down through the years for centuries. And yeah, sure, some of them are out of date and some of them have creaky opinions and so on. But replacing those creaky opinions with modern-day creaky opinions, it’s no substitute. So I think that eventually people will… I think what you’ll find is that companies like Netflix, companies like Disney, they will suddenly get sick of losing money and their shareholders will take over. And I think at that time, you’ll find people actually actively seeking out comedy that is challenging and confrontational and exciting.

Helen Dale:

I’ve heard you comment to the effect that writing Tough Crowd made you feel like a comedian again. Do you have any comedy work or more creative work in the pipeline? And if so, how can we support those projects beyond buying the book of course?

Graham Linehan:

Ooh, that’s a good question. I think, no, you know what? I think buying the book is really the only thing I need at the moment, because what I need to do, what I really need is to feel a sense of safety in terms of my financial situation. It’s really hard to write comedy when you’re worried about where the money is coming from. So if the book kind of takes off, and if people realise that it’s not just me whining about being cancelled, there’s a lot of stuff in there about how to write comedy and comic observations in themselves. If that does well, then once I feel that the rubber hits the road on the sales, I’ll be able to just start thinking about the next project. But at the moment, my whole existence is spent trying to overcome the devices that are in place to stop the book from selling. For instance, WHSmith isn’t stocking it at the moment, which is the big retailer over here for the…

Helen Dale:

Are you in Waterstones?

Graham Linehan:

We are in Waterstones, and with Waterstones, it’s a shop-by-shop basis. From what I’ve been told, every shop is the subject of a power struggle with the kind of people who would be offended by the book and the kind of people who just love books and want to sell them. So it’s up to individual shops, whether they hide it in the stockroom or put it out on display. But yeah, it’s a tough one. But I have-

Helen Dale:

Have WHSmith even told you why they’re not stocking it?

Graham Linehan:

They’re even refusing to answer emails.

Helen Dale:

Oh, wonderful.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah. But we were expecting things like that. And I think also they would be very clever just to try and not have any controversy about it and keep it quietly hidden because these types of things, when they try and suppress a book, it’s a bit like, I don’t know if you remember the episode, but it was an episode of Father Ted where Ted and Dougal protested outside of a cinema, and all they did was drove people to go and see the film. And I think these activists within every organisation are beginning to get wise to that phenomenon. And quiet cancellation is the order of the day. So yeah, I’m just trying to fight that and trying to raise awareness of the book as best I can.

Helen Dale:

In Tough Crowd, you observe at one point that you love audiences, and this is a direct quotation for listeners. “They’re smart, they keep you on your toes. The reason so much content is so bad at the moment is because the audience is being edged out of the relationship.” I know what you mean, and I think Liberty Law Talk listeners will know as well, but what does this look like? Because I’m assuming your comedic antennae must start to twitch when it starts.

Graham Linehan:

Well, it kind of speaks back to what I was saying earlier. It just looks like a box ticking. When you see a cast that’s made up of one black person, one white person, one Asian person, my antennas start to go up that I’m being lied to. And I feel like for me, a show like The Wire is a much more honest and kind of meaningful attempt to get black faces and black folks’ voices on screen because it speaks to a world that’s hidden, that’s very uniform and it feels truthful in the same way Reservoir Dogs feels truthful. It’s like basically five or six white men on screen the whole time, but it feels authentic. It does not feel like these guys would be feminists or would be great kind of battlers for race relations. They’re just what they are. And I think those stories are just as valid as every other story.

And I think that what you will find—and this is what I mean when I say audiences are being edged out–—is that a black audience would love Reservoir Dogs just as much as they would anything else. It’s a very funny joke. I can’t remember who said it, but he said… Oh yeah, it might be Shane Gillis, who’s an American comedian, and he was talking about slavery movies, and he was talking to his black friends and he said, “Do you guys like these movies?” And his friends were going, “No, no, we thought these were for you.”

Helen Dale:

That’s so true.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, so it just feels like… When I cast The IT Crowd, the central comic figure in it is Moss who is played by Richard Ayoade, and I just responded to him as a human being, as a person, and it kind of gives you what you might call a natural diversity to the cast.

Helen Dale:

And also he’s the nerdiest nerd nerd who ever nerded.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Which gives another twist on it that’s also useful. And also, again, it’s truthful; because I was talking to the commissioner at the time who asked me to do it, and he said I find a lot of these IT guys are usually… Are often, sorry, not usually, but often Black or Asian or whatever it happens to be. So it kind of feels right. So when I see a show where they are forcing something and they are pretending that something is a, I don’t know what you would say, a kind of truth. They’re pretending that something is truthful and it’s not, that’s when I think the audience’s alarm bells go off and they don’t even know it. You can watch something and feel slightly unsatisfied by it and not really realise why. And it’s because at some level, you’re being lied to.

Helen Dale:

Do you have a favourite comedic period or era, and if so, why?

Graham Linehan:

Oh, that’s a good question. I really love the whole… I mean, feel very, if I could go back in time and be in one place, it would be on the Bilko writing team. That was Phil Silvers, Mel Brooks, and I think Sam Simon was on it. Woody Allen I think was in there. And I just think that it felt like… I mean, you look at Bilko and it was shot in the fifties and so on, and yet it’s really authentic. It’s rough. Again, it’s diverse, but truthfully so. Yeah, I just think that must’ve been a wonderful time to be around. Also, it was a time, I guess, when Jewish comedy was really being installed in the American consciousness, and I think that Jewish comedy and the voice of Jewish people became the dominant comic voice over the next 20 years. I’d love to have been at the start of that.

Helen Dale:

Yes. And I think a Jewish-Irish collaboration would’ve been very interesting.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Helen Dale:

Following on from the Twitter issues we were discussing earlier, you talk in your book about your old Twitter persona in the form of the conflict you had with Markus Meechan, who’s better known as Count Dankula. Yes. He’s a comedian, too, hence the name. How did that incident help open your eyes to left authoritarianism?

Graham Linehan:

Well, that’s a good question. It was around then that I started realising that the words fascist and Nazi were being thrown about way too liberally. And I kind of fell under the spell of it and became just another node in a network passing on received wisdom that I was getting from other left-wing people. And after that, I kind of thought, well, if that wasn’t quite true, then what else is not quite true? What else have I been unthinkingly copying and pasting, copy and pasted opinions? How many of them did I have? And I did look at many other things, and I won’t go into them because when you go into them, people say you’re denying X or denying Y. But I did think, well, I do have to now look at everything with a lot more scrutiny, serious scrutiny, and I need to start thinking about these issues carefully.

Because for me, in the last few years, the black-and-white version I had of politics–which was very much left as good, right as bad–has been incredibly stress-tested. And I’ve found it lacking in lots of different places. So my thing now is to try and find people who are genuine, honest, brave, and telling the truth as best they can tell it and try and lose all the previous delineations of left versus right. One thing I found absolutely inspiring was a brilliant Zoom kind of round table of black voices who were all talking about police shootings. And it was absolutely fascinating, and suddenly, it revealed to me that the one thing they pointed out was that the big problem with police shootings in America is not racism. The big problem is the fact that everyone has guns and police are terrified.

I’d never thought of it along these terms before. And of course, when you hear it like that, it’s not like a right-wing view that guns are a problem. It’s a left-wing view, and yet you never heard it really expressed because the overwhelming tide was coming to the conclusion that–if a tide can come to a conclusion–that the police were irretrievably racist, or I’m not sure what the word is there, but they were just kind of institutionally racist. And seeing this round table of these black conservative voices made me realise, oh, it is a lot more complicated than that, and it’s not helpful to drill down into one particular way of looking at the problem. A more holistic approach is what’s always needed. So yeah, what I did to Mark, and I’ve apologised a few times for it now, kind of joining in with his-

Helen Dale:

Note to readers: Graham also apologises to Markus in the book as well.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, yeah. I didn’t realise that he was a kind of a canary in a coal mine for that kind of Stasi desire to punish and to destroy that I subsequently became a victim of.

Helen Dale:

Because I will make a little observation here, and it’s one that I can’t prove. So I’m just putting it out there, and it’s perhaps worth doing some more research and thinking about for both of us later. But I do think that the Count Dankula incident may have contributed to the slowness of conservatives in coming to your aid when you were being monstered.

Graham Linehan:

Oh, very possibly true.

Helen Dale:

Because what it was is you had a—and I say this as being someone on the Tory side of the benches, for what it’s worth—among the relatively small group of Tories who are also reasonably successful artists, you had a reputation as a canceller.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah.

Helen Dale:

And I think that had roots with Count Dankula.

Graham Linehan:

That’s absolutely fair enough and can’t… All I can do is keep moving forward and trying to figure out what’s going on. If there’s one excuse I’ll give myself is that, although I don’t want to, but one of the things you realise the longer all this goes on, is that people do go into silos and their opinions and their beliefs are framed often by who they choose to follow on Twitter. And also they don’t want to fall out with the people who they follow on Twitter.

So I mean, I may look like I have strong opinions now, but I’m also influenceable. And when you’re in one of these silos, it’s very hard to break out of them. It was only, in fact—possibly one of the only positive things that have come out of all this—is that I have broken the head of the silo. I mean, I’m in a few silos now, but I like to think that they are pretty varied and questioning and sceptical, but I’m always kind of checking myself and making sure that I’m not just following along or I’m not just repeating information that I’ve heard somewhere else, that I’m looking into things and coming to my own conclusions. It’s all you can do really.

Helen Dale:

This question may seem like a bit from left field—it’s from a listener, but I actually think it ties into the politics point, about conservatives having a view of you as a canceller. That was nothing to do with the view that we might’ve had of you as the person who wrote Father Ted, The IT Crowd, or did all these other things, that kind of thing. And it’s another political question, another question from a listener. What is it with the Greens and gender woo? They never talk about conservation anymore.

Graham Linehan:

It’s so true. I don’t know. It’s very weird. The Greens have been particularly bad on all this. They have gone mad. Do you know, one of my early theories about gender is that I feel that the success of Brexit and the success of Trump slightly drove the left mad. They suddenly realised they had no power. They had no power in the real world. The real world saw what they believed in, saw what they wanted, and said, “Nope, we don’t want either of those things. We don’t want any of those things.”

And what happened was they retreated to an area where they felt they did have power. And this happened to be women’s rights. Because even among right-wing people, a lot of the discussion around women’s rights is dismissed as a culture war issue. And if you can dismiss something as a culture war issue, it means that committed people like the Greens can wreak absolute havoc while everyone else just ignores it and treats it as trivial.

So what we’ve had is this movement growing and growing and growing, causing untold damage to young people and their bodies and their minds and their sanity while what you might call mainstream voices simply ignored it. And so the powerlessness that these groups felt when Trump and Brexit prevailed was able to be kind of… They were able to redirect their energy into something where they felt they did have power.

And now, gosh, what is more powerful than giving hospitals the advice that they shouldn’t use the word mother in maternal advice? What is more powerful than getting to destroy a fundamental word in the English language? So yeah, they just retreated into their little worlds, and they started behaving like tin-pot dictators.

Helen Dale:

I have to say I did have the reaction expressed somewhat differently because obviously when this first started emerging, I was still in practice. And so it was very much not on my radar because the legal profession is quite conservative, but I could see it in the distance. And it was just the sense of, this is bonkers. Surely people are going to wake up to this. This is completely mad. And if people weren’t speaking about it seriously on the tellybox or whatever it is, we would all be laughing. This would be like, and I have to say, like the Pythons were doing, which was John Cleese’s observation in your book. I thought “This is so bonkers. People are just going to start falling about the place laughing.” And they didn’t.

Graham Linehan:

Yes. And one of the big problems we’ve had in fighting this is that people simply don’t believe it’s true. John Cleese had to be convinced that the story of Laurel Hubbard was true, who I think now holds the New Zealand record for women’s weightlifting, took it off two indigenous New Zealand women and he’s a man. And I think that for many people, it’s a combination of things.

First, not taking women’s sports seriously. I think a lot of men outsource their opinions on women’s rights to their wives. And because this is a kind of a middle-class movement, the movement, the gender movement, a lot of the women who are telling them–I’ve said this before, but I’ve heard it from a lot of people, the phrase, a lot of men, I’ve heard the phrase–“My wife says it’s not a problem.” And these are people who are in the media, in theatre, in publishing. These are well-off people. And of course, their wives don’t think it’s a problem because their wives won’t need a shelter or a rape crisis center, God willing. So they don’t see it as an issue.

So I think what happened is it has just flown under the radar for a disastrous amount of time. And every time men stuck their head in and they saw one of these extraordinary outrages committed against women, they either thought, “well, it’s not true,” or “it’s not a problem because my wife is fine.” So, unfortunately, it’s still a very male-dominated world. Men dominate the media and every other area. So they’ve just been merrily fiddling away while Rome burns, and it’s just gone as far as it has because it’s never received a kind of serious attention from the people who we expect to give it serious attention, politicians, news media, it’s just not seen as an issue.

Helen Dale:

There’s the thing, too–where they talk about men outsourcing–middle-class men outsourcing their opinions to their wives. There is this element, and it’s something that I’ve noticed over many years, that a lot of straight women struggle with solidarity. And so it’s quite easy to set them off very nastily against each other. And that’s how you finish up in a number of areas, you notice the sort of the loudest trans enforcers, pro-trans enforcers tend to be young women. And a number of Jewish people have pointed out, in the UK at least–I don’t know about other countries–but certainly in the UK, that the plurality of people tearing down posters of Israeli hostages are also young women.

That leads me to the next question I want to ask because you write about the importance of chivalry towards the end of Tough Crowd, which is something that many feminists dislike, but that most normal people see as necessary. I’m coming out of the political right, so we tend… We’re not feminists, we tend to think it’s a silly ideology, sort of in it’s fighting biology, basically. So a lot of feminists don’t like the idea of chivalry, but I think it’s actually necessary for the reasons you give in Tough Crowd. And much of that argument that you make, which I found very compelling, came from your late dad. So to what extent was your dad not only an influence on you, but also representative of the good side of Irish Catholicism?

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a good question. He was just plainly good. He was so genuinely good in every area. He was driving people to the hospital. He was volunteering at Special Olympic events. He was just plainly good. And I think that many of the things we associate with these things, like chivalry and so on, just came naturally to him.

We seem to have intellectualised ourselves into a position where–and I think this is another thing that kind of gave rise to the trans movement–where we fooled ourselves into thinking that women were exactly the same as men in every way. In fact, I remember saying to my son, “Well, women have a disadvantage in sport because their bodies aren’t as strong and they’re not as tall, their lung capacity is smaller, their reach is shorter.” And he was blown away. He was blown away by the concept because he had been fed this line that there was no discernible difference between men and women. And that was one of the ways I kind of sold him on the idea of chivalry. But Dad didn’t need explanations. Dad just knew it the way that human beings do know it. And unfortunately, the internet has come in and has kind of separated us from our instinctive human understanding of these issues.

So yeah, just basically we disagreed on a lot of things. And as I said in the book, he once used the words “the gay agenda,” which I was so mortified by because I’d heard it thrown around a lot by homophobes and so on. But again, good would always win out with him. And when the marriage equality vote came along in Ireland, he voted, after a discussion with me, he voted in favour of it because really, in the end, he couldn’t do anything mean-spirited. I know there are arguments against marriage equality and some of them from gay people and some of them are compelling, but he would see these images that were being heavily played of gay couples getting married, and he just thought, “Yeah, how can I stand in the way of people being happy?”

So yeah, he was such a good man. And also, the way he treated my mom was very… It had a big effect on the way I kind of feel about women. And he remains a model for me.

Helen Dale:

You’re very, very fortunate. I think, I’m not a psychologist, I’m a lawyer, but I think one of the things that has stood you in good stead through all of this–through five years and nearly six years now of nonsense and the extraordinary attacks you’ve had on you and finishing up nearly destitute and that kind of thing–I think the figure who has sustained you is actually your father. That’s how it comes to me anyway.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, yeah. He’s something to aim for, something to aim for. I wouldn’t quite like to be quite as self-sacrificing as he was. He would go to church every day and don’t think I could manage something like that. But yeah, he’s a good thing to reach for. Maybe sometimes, even if you can’t quite get there, it’s still a good thing to reach for something.

Helen Dale:

The question about your dad provides me with a lead into something more general, and this is where I want to, I hope, bring the two halves of both your book and this podcast together in one place.

When you were writing Father Ted, Ireland’s Catholic Church was still very powerful. Listeners, I strongly recommend the lengthy section in Tough Crowd where Graham discusses the care he and his co-writer took to ensure that Father Ted didn’t rely on Irish stereotypes or mean-spirited religious mockery. The show only featured a single joke about Ireland’s clerical abuse scandals, for example.

Because of that Irish Catholic history and its complexity, I’ve wanted to ask every Irish person I know this question but missed out on asking Helen Joyce in the last podcast because Maya was there as well, and we had so much else to discuss. I should say I’ve had a wide variety of answers to it from my Irish relatives and so I want to know yours. 

Why is Ireland so woke?

Graham Linehan:

There’s a few things going on there. First of all, I believe there is some kind of tax break. That means a lot of Silicon Valley companies have moved to Ireland. So Silicon Valley is basically ground zero for a lot of these ideas. The same people who are writing the code for these platforms are the people who are calling themselves non-binary and embracing this movement.

Another thing that’s happened is it’s a reaction against the UK. The UK is seen as–there’s always been a bitterness–in Ireland. Sometimes, it takes quite harmless forms like the rivalry between our football teams or sports teams and so on. But other times, there’s a real resentment at what Ireland suffered at the hands of England.

So when, for instance, the UK became known as TERF Island, there might’ve been a kind of backlash against that and a feeling also that Ireland also had to make up for its sins in the past against women and gay people. Unfortunately, as happens so often in history, it’s a complete overcorrection. And Ireland has gone back to putting women under the thumb, but just in a different way.

So yeah, there’s a number of things going on there, but those are definitely a few aspects of it.

Helen Dale:

Yes, I’ve just had some very interesting responses to that question, and I do want to buttonhole Helen Joyce on a public recording at some point and ask her, why is Ireland so woke? One of my relatives–who still lives in County Cork–did make the point that part of the problem was that one of the voices objecting to the trans treatment of women was coming from the Catholic Church. And the Catholic Church had previously–in the clerical abuse scandal–told so many lies people didn’t want to believe that they might now be telling the truth. That was one version that I’ve heard from an Irish relative.

Graham Linehan:

That makes sense. That makes sense, yeah.

Helen Dale:

But I think it’s a number of things. It’s not monocausal.

Graham Linehan:

Yes, yes. There’s a couple of things. There’s a kind of perfect storm of things going on. And Ireland, as well, it always has this kind of scrappy attitude to itself and to the world, and adopting something that’s so contentious and so counterintuitive, there’s a feeling, “Oh, we’re marching into the future and our little country is doing it better than anyone else,” and stuff like this. And it would be admirable most of the time, but on this, unfortunately, again, it’s just led to women being put under the thumb of a new sacred class.

Helen Dale:

Because that’s got real power in Ireland, the power of the… Because my memories of Ireland are all through my relatives and from when I was a child as well. And I can still remember visiting the Republic and going to Dublin and getting a very strong sense of: this is a very conservative country and priests and cops are the people who run it

And then suddenly it wasn’t.

Graham Linehan:

Yes, yes. Well, one of the things that people used to say about Father Ted is that someone said—this is in the book—someone said it was Ireland’s punk. And one thing that the show did do was show people you are allowed to laugh at silly people. No matter what they do, whether they’re priests, policemen, or whoever it happens to be, you’re allowed to laugh. And I think it was a bit like lancing a boil.

I think a similar thing is needed with this movement, but at the moment, I have no idea how I would approach it. This is an incredibly silly movement. I think actually one of the big problems with this as a movement is that it’s so silly that it’s almost impossible to parody. It’s almost impossible to do-

Helen Dale:

Apart from that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: Loretta.

Graham Linehan:

Yes.

Helen Dale:

That’s the only thing I can think of. That film came out in, what, 1979 or something?

Graham Linehan:

That’s right. Yes, absolutely. They figured that out very quickly. Then, of course, there was Rick in The Young Ones, but-

Helen Dale:

The Young Ones.

Graham Linehan:

… as I was saying to someone recently, if you did The Young Ones now, it would be four Ricks. You wouldn’t have the dynamics that you need for a comedy because everybody would be speaking in this monotone way. But that’s simply because I’m a 55-year-old man. I am not as attuned to the personalities that are around at the moment in terms of writing a sitcom about people that young.

In fact, one of the things I did want to do was graduate from writing comedy to teaching other people how to do it or to producing stuff because I do think that it’s a young man’s game. I think young people are funnier in general than older people, simply because they have a novel way of exploding certain things that have become calcified in everyone else.

Helen Dale:

One of the things you brought out very well in Tough Crowd—and it’s really well worth reading for anybody who’s got ideas about making it in this industry, never mind all the wokery—it’s just how much work is involved.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, yeah.

Helen Dale:

All the script development, all the read-throughs, and then you only get one shot with a live studio audience. If it turns to crap, you’re stuffed—that kind of thing.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s an interesting thing. The book went through a similar process in the sense that it may be easy to write something, but for it to be easy to read, there has to be a process. It has to go through a process. It was interesting writing a Tough Crowd and reading one bit, and the next paragraph doesn’t seem to flow naturally from the previous bit. You have to rethink either the previous paragraph or the next paragraph to make that flow happen. Sometimes things would—good scenes or good moments would naturally fall out of the book—because they didn’t have that flow. That’s the art of it. Everything has to flow.

When people come to the end of a show, a sitcom episode that they really love, it’s almost like time hasn’t gone by. They just started laughing and the next thing it’s over. That’s what you’re aiming for, but you can’t get there unless you are really disciplined in feeling the show on an audience level. Feeling it on an audience level means that you sometimes have to disappoint the writer in you or you have to ignore the writer in you. You have to meet the audience halfway. That takes work. That takes work. It’s a question of feel. I know it’s a cliche, but you do have to kill your babies a lot of the time. Funny moments, funny scenes, they can disappear because they just don’t fit.

When we had DVD extras, when there were DVDs, we only once put on a deleted scene. As soon as we put it on and it went out, I realised that was a huge mistake because part of the art of it is making people think that the show or the characters or whatever, they are just getting on with their day. That it’s not written, that it just kind of exists. It was…

Helen Dale:

They emerged fully formed into the world, basically.

Graham Linehan:

Yes, along with the story. That the story is just telling itself. When you show deleted scenes to someone, you’re reminding them this is all artificial. This is a series of decisions. They don’t care. They don’t care. One reason I think that movies about movie-making are never a success is because people don’t really want to think about that. They want to think that the stories they’re watching are real people experiencing things in the way that they naturally should be experienced.

I think that one part of the art of writing, creative writing, not just comedy writing, is what you don’t show people. Because if you don’t show them the failed experiments, and you don’t show them the jokes that don’t quite fit, they just think you’re a genius.

Helen Dale:

It’s funny. My father was very far from being a comedian of any sort—but one of the comments he made to me when I was young and showing some talent myself as a writer—and dad used to say when I gave him a draft or something that subsequently was published in a pretty decent outlet, he just said, “People don’t want to see the man behind the curtain, Helen.”

Graham Linehan:

Yes. Yes, that’s it. That’s it. Especially when it turns out to be someone like me. One thing I noticed—and it took me a while to get used to this—is people don’t give a damn about the writers. They don’t even know the writers exist. The sad lot of the writer is that when you do your job particularly well, then you are writing yourself out of the relationship. It’s the reason I think Tarantino didn’t become as great a writer as I always thought he would become. For me, he’s always too present, even to the extent of putting himself in entirely inappropriate roles in his own films.

Helen Dale:

Yes, it’s not like Hitchcock with one tiny little scene, what is it, going into the pet shop at the beginning of The Birds or that kind of thing.

Graham Linehan:

In Django Unchained, he played an Australian! It’s like, oh, my God. I think to become the writer that you want to be, you have to be able to disappear from your own work. I came to terms with that as soon as I became the centre of the story.

Helen Dale:

Yes. This is just leading into the final question now. This is one where I have had a few go-rounds publicly with different people I’ve interviewed or spoken to. I did ask Helen and Maya this question. It emerges out of something that is flummoxing a lot of people right now. It not only takes in things like queer theory, but also the decolonization narratives that have been used to justify Hamas atrocities in Israel, which we’ve all seen. That’s the background to this.

In Tough Crowd, you talk quite a bit and accurately about the extent to which these mad ideas escaped the lab of American academia and colonised vast swathes of the internet before getting their claws into the UK and European Union. I think it’s fair to say that the universities are cultures of our broken wings now. You live in one broken wing, which is the creative arts and comedy. The other broken wing is the universities. You’ve talked quite a lot in this interview and in Tough Crowd about one way we can resuscitate the arts. What do we do about the universities?

Graham Linehan:

Well, I think one of the most important things to be done is to simply…I think basically queer theory has to be treated like any other ideology that was found to be corrosive and dangerous to humanity. I think queer theory is an absolute busted flush. It may make sense when you’re sitting around having thought experiments in a college dormitory, but once you apply it to real life, it’s a disaster. It’s leading to incredible unhappiness and confusion. It has to be treated like a rot that just needs to be cleared out.

I think that it’s fraud. The Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay experiment where they handed in all these fake papers, including Mein Kampf. They actually got a chapter of Mein Kampf and sprinkled a bit of feminist language over it, or queer theory language, and it was published by a feminist magazine, a feminist journal. There has to be some way of addressing this problem of the fake body of knowledge that has been created by fraudulent academics quoting each other. That’s what it is.

Helen Dale:

Because that’s all it is. I mean, the hoax that you mentioned, the Pluckrose, Lindsay, Boghossian hoax— which actually happened back in 2018 before this story became all-consuming in 2020—but they showed the extent to which entire academic journals—for which taxpayers were paying an absolute fortune, by the way, because all of these systems are all state-funded—and they were just full of nonsense. You could get nonsense published in there if you used the right nonsense words.

Graham Linehan:

I was talking to someone else about this today. One of the worries that I have is that we are in such a state of chaos at the moment with the Palestine-Israel thing, queer theory, etc. I saw a thing today, I don’t know whether you saw it, but a man calmly got out of traffic and walked up to a Just Stop Oil type protest and just calmly shot two people.

Helen Dale:

Yes, I saw that, but admittedly, in a South American country where they tend to have more violence.

Graham Linehan:

Sure.

Helen Dale:

But even so, it’s still very worrying.

Graham Linehan:

Yeah, the look on his face—someone pointed out you didn’t see any rage on his face. You just saw a feeling of exhaustion. I think people are becoming exhausted by the chaos. Unfortunately, when people are exhausted by chaos, they tend to look for a strong man. I’m worried that, as I often say, the strong man better be a nice person because if he’s not, then it’s a very fertile time to grow a fascist leader who will just say, “Well, I’m sick of all this stuff. We’re going to take care of it.”

What we need is a popular but not undemocratic approach to cleaning up the universities, and cleaning up the various worlds that have been taken over by such concepts as queer theory and critical race theory. I’m just worried that if it goes on much longer and the chaos these disciplines are engendering in society go on, then something’s going to give. We’re going to see more of these guys, like the bloke who got out and shot those two people.

I’m scared of the strong man coming along to sort all this stuff out because we might find ourselves in an even worse position than we’re in now.

Helen Dale:

On that somewhat sombre note, our time has come to an end. Tough Crowd is available in all the usual places except WHSmith—which Americans don’t have to worry about—in all the places you normally buy books. I have put a link to the US Amazon page in the show notes to this so Americans can purchase it without having to spend more money than they wish to by having to change it all into pounds. It’s also—there’s an audible version as well. Graham, did you read the Audible version?

Graham Linehan:

I did, yes.

Helen Dale:

You get Graham’s dulcet tones reading his book if you buy it on Audible. Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been listening to Liberty Law Talk. Thank you very much for coming on the show, Graham.

Graham Linehan:

Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

Brian Smith:

Thank you for listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk. Be sure to follow us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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