The Dangerous Comedy of Bernard Manning

Though he played Las Vegas in the late 1970s and was interviewed by Joan Rivers in the 1980s, British comedian Bernard Manning (1930-2007) never achieved anything like the international fame of contemporary UK funnymen such as Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, and Marty Feldman. Manning’s renown, seemingly equal parts admiration and derision, was largely contained to his native England, where he was a prominent club owner and a fixture on chat and panel shows for decades. He was known in his home country for vulgar jokes about sex and race, but quite unlike American “shock” comics like Andrew “Dice” Clay and Sam Kinison, there was not a hint of genuine anger in Manning’s stage presence. Indeed, a typical Las Vegas insult comic like Don Rickles seems positively astringent alongside genial old Bernie, even though the latter included some truly ugly lines in his act, such as “What’s the difference between an Iraqi woman and a pilchard? One’s ugly, greasy, with bulging eyes. The other’s a fish.” At one low point in his career, Bernard Manning was covertly recorded making racist jokes for an audience of policemen, and even there he sounded like the life of the party, about as “dangerous” as a Nerf ball.

Indeed, Bernard Manning cut a jolly, Falstaffian figure in his heyday, with his generous frame squeezed into a sweaty tuxedo as he croaked out pungent one-liners about Jews, Pakistanis, and other minorities in that Northern England rasp of his. So old-fashioned was his act (think Vaudeville or the Borscht Belt) that he even incorporated a little unironic crooning into his stage show from time to time, something legitimate, relevant comics haven’t done in America for generations. There is a childlike innocence in Manning’s eyes, too, as if he were merely a naughty schoolboy clowning for his classmates while the headmaster was out of the room. That innate likability carried Bernard Manning along for decades, especially in his hometown of Manchester, where he was a local hero. When the veteran joke-slinger died eight years ago, though, the impact was barely felt or even noticed in the United States. And yet, at the heart of Manning’s career is a controversy that is eminently applicable to the American comedy scene in 2015.

For those who have somehow failed to notice, several notable comedians are under siege these days for perceived racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and general insensitivity to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised peoples of the world. The Twitter accounts of The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and Saturday Night Live’s Jon Rudnitsky were both scoured for errant tweets when those young men landed plum late-night TV gigs, and both comedians were caught red-handed, so to speak. Meanwhile, the ascendancy of a comedian like Amy Schumer is marked by tsk-tsk-ing editorials and think pieces about her prejudicial shortcomings. You’re nobody, it seems, until somebody scolds you. Some wear the scorn as a badge of honor. It’s difficult to imagine the ever-smirking Seth MacFarlane losing much sleep over charges that his programs, particularly Family Guy, are rife with potentially hurtful stereotypes. On the other hand, Patton Oswalt has pleaded for leniency from the PC police, arguing that comedians need the freedom to explore and experiment and test the boundaries without ruthlessly self-censoring every last 140-character utterance. This retaliation, in turn, has brought further accusations of insensitivity and tone-deafness on the part of comics.

Of course, the ongoing debate about cultural sensitivity extends to all sectors of popular culture, but comedy is a particular flashpoint. In a way, the added scrutiny is flattering, a testament to the medium’s increased sway over public opinion in the post-Jon Stewart era. A quote sometimes dubiously attributed to Steven’s one-time colleague, John Oliver, attests: “We used to laugh at comedians and listen to politicians. Now we listen to comedians and laugh at politicians.” Comedy, then, is a bully pulpit. And with great power… well, you know. It is no accident that comedy comes under the microscope during a time that immigration has become the dominant issue  in the country. And of course, we are still undergoing a massive, nationwide conversation about bigotry and bullying. Longstanding, deeply-held attitudes about African-Americans, women, homosexuals, and Muslims are being challenged every day in the media, especially social media. Why should comedy be immune?

Flash back to England in the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook days of 1977. A long-slumping economy and a series of ineffectual prime ministers had spawned working class unrest and given rise to the angry, roiling punk rock movement, typified by Malcolm McLaren’s prefabricated group, the Sex Pistols, who turned “No future!” into a grim generational mantra. During this uneasy period, some of the Queen’s dissatisfied subjects blamed immigration for the country’s ongoing unemployment woes. During the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistani immigration increased dramatically in the United Kingdom, until Pakistanis represented the UK’s second largest ethnic minority. There are now more Pakistanis in England than any place besides Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. By the late ‘70s, moreover, the country was just a few years away from race riots in places like Brixton, St Pauls, and Toxteth, all of which had substantial African-Caribbean populations. Bernard Manning, then 47 and enjoying a mid-career boost thanks to his numerous television appearances, was in his glory as he appeared on a panel show called Parkinson. One of his fellow guests was Esther Rantzen, a prim, Oxford-educated journalist and television presenter ten years Manning’s junior. At the time, she was hosting a 20/20-like newsmagazine show on BB1 called That’s Life!

The combination of working class Bernard Manning and posh Esther Rantzen was combustible, and it led to the kind of genuine, unrehearsed, on-air tension one rarely sees on celebrity talk shows in America these days. During the show, Rantzen repeatedly attempted to call Manning out on his bigotry and tried to make the case that racial humor can be extremely dangerous, while Manning did his best to negate the entire argument by saying, basically, it’s all in good fun, love, don’t worry about it so much. An excellent storyteller and a master of manipulating tough audiences (he bragged to friends that he could play for any type of crowd, even nuns), Manning delighted in winning over Parkinson’s studio audience with cheeky humor, including some well-timed cracks about Rantzen’s stiff, uptight demeanor. “Are you working her with your foot?” he asked another nearby panelist when Rantzen failed to respond to one of Manning’s questions. And among those who laughed heartily at Bernard Manning’s remarks was Esther Rantzen herself. She could not help it. She instinctively covered her face, but the laughter came anyway. This was the sort of power the comedian wielded.

When England’s Channel 4 ran a tribute to the comic entitled Heroes Of Comedy: Bernard Manning in 2000, a mere four years before Manning’s death, Esther Rantzen was one of the interviewees, and she served as a critical counterpoint to the chorus of admirers, friends, and well-wishes who otherwise dominated the program. Tellingly, Rantzen was the first person to speak during the proceedings besides Manning himself. Nearly a quarter of a century had passed since Parkinson, but Rantzen had hardly softened in her assessment of Manning’s race-based comedy. Her words were damning:

“I couldn’t believe that you’d include Bernard in program called Heroes. Because for me, he’s the villain of comedy. I can remember very well sitting next to Bernard Manning and knowing that he could control the audience. He’s very skilled, and I became the laughingstock. I became the nanny figure, the puritan. He was using the audience against me.”

Later in the Heroes program, Rantzen goes to a rhetorical extreme in making her case against the comedian:

“Honestly, if Bernard had been making these jokes in Nazi Germany, everybody would have been roaring with laughter. It would have been the stuff of comedy. Clearly it was. Forgive me saying so. I think Hitler would have thought Bernie is very funny man.”

This may be overreaching, as Manning claimed to be one-quarter Jewish on his father’s side,  and his friends and fellow comedians claim he was too mischievous and rambunctious to have ever kowtowed to someone like Hitler. But Rantzen’s outrage is genuine and based in sound reasoning. Jokes like Manning’s, Esther Rantzen argued, make people feel comfortable with their own prejudices. Why couldn’t Bernie have used his considerable talent to poke fun at the racists and hate-mongers of the world instead? It certainly would have been within his grasp to do so. And yet he didn’t. Friends described him as a workaholic, but Bernard Manning was all too content to take the easy path with his jokes. What might have angered Rantzen the most was the total nonchalance Manning displayed about his humor, the seeming lack of introspection. When she asked him why he told racist jokes, Manning’s answer was simply that “it gets laughs.” Probably not what she wanted to hear.

The degree to which Bernard Manning actually was racist himself is debatable, and the anecdotal evidence is inconclusive. In archival interviews, those close to him say that his supposedly prejudicial manner was simply part of “the act,” and again there seems to be no hint of actual hatred, racial or otherwise, in Manning’s onstage demeanor. But the man himself was cagey on the subject. “I like a few Jews,” he told Esther Rantzen on Parkinson when she accused him of antisemitism. “There’s some I don’t like.” More shocking yet was when he appeared in 1998 on the BBC’s Mrs. Merton Show, a gimmicky chat program hosted by actress Caroline Aherne in character as a white-haired old bitty. When the host asked him, point blank, “Are you racist?” Bernie blithely answered, “Yes.” Having dropped this bomb, he made a clarification similar to the one he’d made to Esther Rantzen two decades previously: Some people he liked, some he didn’t. Later, on Heroes Of Comedy, Manning maintained that he was trying to turn the tables on “Mrs. Merton” by giving her an answer she wouldn’t expect.

Ultimately, the race-based, extremely provincial nature of Bernard Manning’s humor likely limited his appeal in England and prevented him from being anything other than a novelty act in America. Though the comedian was well known at home, the mention of his name was as likely to elicit groans as cheers in England. For the punk rock-inspired UK “alternative” comics of the early 1980s, including Ben Elton and Rik Mayall of The Young Ones, Manning represented the regrettable past, something against which to rebel. An unkind Guardian editorial published in the wake of his death was called “Good Riddance To Comedy’s Old Guard,” essentially dancing on Manning’s freshly-dug grave. And, of course, Manning’s act grows more troubling each year, as its alarming stereotypes fall further out of fashion.

But, still in all, it is difficult not be at least a little impressed with Bernard Manning’s get-the-laugh-at-all-costs showmanship. Here, after all, is a man so unconcerned about his own vanity that he would gladly appear on presenter Jonathan Ross’ show and sing the Smiths’ dour “Girlfriend In A Coma,” just because he knows damned well it’s funny to contrast his own image with that of Morrissey. In a way, the bit captures Bernard Manning at his very best: irreverent, absurd, self-deprecating, and utterly free of the divisive ethnic comedy for which he is still best known.

The Dangerous Comedy of Bernard Manning