Damned, funny and deadly serious

March 31, 2006

In the second part of our series on challenges to the liberal state, Jerry Springer The Opera 's co-creator Stewart Lee ponders 'blasphemy'

Richard Thomas's Jerry Springer The Opera , which I directed, is finally on tour. Last spring, it was closed down indefinitely by the Religious Right. Threats from the gay-hate group Christian Voice convinced Sainsbury's to withdraw the show's DVD from sale in its shops and prompted a cancer charity to reject proceeds from a benefit performance.

When the opera was broadcast in January 2005, a concerted campaign led to the BBC receiving 60,000 complaints in advance of the screening, while television executives got police protection after their addresses were put on a Christian website.

And then a proposed tour for late 2005 collapsed after one third of theatres withdrew in the face of Christian Voice's pledge to demonstrate and prosecute them for blasphemy.

It's hard to believe that we are not living in the 1950s. These battles have been fought and won once already within my lifetime. The multi-award winning opera, which Richard and I worked on for four years, was conceived as an infernal version of Jerry Springer's television talk show as imagined by the dying titular host. It is set in Hell, with guests drawn from Judaeo-Christian myth to amplify the opera's themes of sin and guilt. Using religion in such an allegorical way isn't unusual, a fact noted in positive reviews in both the Church Times and The Catholic Herald . In fact, many of the aspects of the opera described as blasphemous by the Christian Right were drawn directly from Milton, Blake and medieval mystery plays, although not, admittedly, the bit where Jesus says he might be "a bit gay".

I've met very few people who have seen the opera and still think it should be banned. Those who do tend to be the sort who argue that Hurricane Katrina was God punishing New Orleans, who believe that all Muslims are going to Hell or who work for the Daily Mail . So it is difficult to care what they think.

Now, thanks to a rescue package, a reduction in cast and set, and the creative team agreeing to work for no royalties, the show is finally back on the road. Jerry Springer The Opera is already enjoying the predictable cycle of negative local paper editorials before each opening, followed by positive local paper reviews that wonder what people's problem is. Things are looking up. Who knows? One day we may even make some money out of it.

In the light of the Danish cartoon controversy, the usual covert racists have been saying that the writers of Jerry Springer The Opera would not have done the same thing with the Koran as we have with the Bible. This is, of course, true. But it is not a case of "political correctness gone mad".

In the opera, we were looking for commonly understood themes to examine universal feelings. American talk shows are commonly understood as is, in the West, the Christian myth. Most people here can't even spell Koran, so it isn't a serviceable story for a project such as ours.

Second, we don't know anything about Muslim culture. But if someone does want to write the first funny opera about Islam, we would be happy to help out, though I doubt you'd be able to raise the necessary investment with the Government trying to criminalise writers who deal with religious themes.

Third, at a time when ordinary Muslims understandably feel somewhat put upon, one has no desire to add to their woes without good reason. In contrast, Christianity is our cultural background, it has a rich history of artistic reappropriation, and we feel entitled to use its symbols as we see fit. That said, a few weeks ago I did begin reading the Koran, as it's obviously going to be hard to write comedy for the foreseeable future without understanding it. The first sentence ends with a warning of the day of judgment. To be honest, it doesn't start well.

The Danish cartoonists stepped on the landmine of depicting Muhammad without realising the seriousness of the taboo, obscuring their indoor firework of weak jokes about suicide bombers. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I look forward to living in a genuinely multicultural society and a genuinely global world where non-sectarian education means we all know enough about each other's cultures to be able to use them in the service of art, music, theatre and, yes, comedy from an informed position of strength.

Sadly, with Tony Blair passing the educational buck to faith schools and attempting to compromise freedom of speech with measures such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, this vision seems ever further away.

Never mind. I understand that We Will Rock You is soon to embark on a national tour. You lucky people!

Stewart Lee is a writer, comedian and co-creator of Jerry Springer The Opera, which is currently touring the UK. www.jerryspringertheopera.com

Copyright ) Stewart Lee 2006.

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