Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon

You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it

“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.” 

The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body. 

Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye

The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester. 

Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres. 

Continue reading “Talking Nonce Sense: In Praise of Paedogeddon”

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off – Masterpost

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off is a four-part series about Eminem. Links to all parts are below. You can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.

There’s Slim Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers, three persons in one rap god. 

Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?

Eminem’s early music feels like a vital window into this radically different free speech debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.

Nobody embodies the white rapper in popular imagination quite like Eminem.

Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.

Watched in the context of his discography, 8 Mile feels less like a film about Eminem, the person, than about the environment that birthed him, that permeates his music.

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 1

This is the first part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Eminem is an underground horrorcore rapper who, through some mix-up in the cosmic order, instead became the best-selling artist of the 2000s. To remember how incredibly big Eminem became in the late 1990s and early 2000s while rapping about killing himself, raping his mother, and murdering his wife seems like peering into some long-distant era: much further away than twenty years should be, more like a time memorialised only in photographs and letters. But that’s not quite right, either. It’s less like a far away past than a hole torn in the fabric of the universe, just wide enough to let a single impossible thing leak through. Eminem managed to feel dangerous even as he became ubiquitous, at once a fact of life and a radical notion that must be supressed at all costs. That tension is one of the defining features of Eminem’s discography: both boundary-pushing and mainstream, both snotty, scrappy underdog and superstar.

Listening to his early albums, it seems at times like he’s trying to Tom Green himself and see what he has to say to get kicked out of the music industry. (“I’m so sick and tired of being admired / That I wish that I would just die or get fired / And dropped from my label,” he raps on ‘The Way I Am’.) He pushes at the extremes in a way that is frequently grotesque, and right when you expect him to pull back, he doubles down.

We’re living in a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive. Quite apart from the politics of it, I think a big reason is that we are still coming off a bit of a saturation point for shock humour in the 2000s, which necessarily meant a lot of people doing it who were quite bad at it. I mean, we lived through a time when Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show were all on the air at the same time, we’re worn out on it, I get it. It’s the same fall from grace that has afflicted slapstick. But good slapstick is hilarious and delightful, and the same goes for good shock humour. Quality shock humour pokes and prods at the inherent arbitrariness of taboos and takes glee in smashing them. Eminem was, in his younger years, as skilled a shock humourist as you’ll find. Much of that is his wit, his self-awareness, his multisyllabic and internal rhymes, and his mesmerizingly slick flows, but a big part is that the guts of two decades has not diluted his early work’s effect. A lot of art that is primarily shocking loses its power with age – the original Frankenstein is a brilliant film, but it sure as shit isn’t scary – but I can’t imagine a time where people don’t gasp and giggle the first time they hear ‘I’m Shady’.

Eminem’s detractors at the time loved to use that against him: to argue that he was just saying stuff for shock value, a meaningless spray of diarrhoea for which he refused to be held to account. But what makes Eminem’s first three major releases – The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show, what you might dub his original trilogy – so special is that they go so far beyond that.

Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Continue reading “God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 1”