Comedian’s Christchurch attack ‘joke’ condemned by Race Discrimination Commissioner

Source: Isaac Butterfield/YouTube - Chin Tan/Facebook

Chin Tan, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, criticised Australian comedian Isaac Butterfield’s a ‘joke’ about the Christchurch massacre. It has also been labelled insensitive and is accused of downplaying New Zealand’s largest-ever mass shooting.

This story was first published on August 3 and was last updated on August 7.

Australian comic Isaac Butterfield’s ‘joke’ about the Christchurch terror attack has been condemned by both the New South Wales’ Anti-Discrimination President Dr Annabelle Bennett and Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, with the pair releasing a joint statement today.

In the clip posted on Sunday to Twitter, Butterfield joked about what he viewed as the saddest part of the Christchurch terror attack after referring to an Australian extremist who stormed the mosques where people were saying their prayers.

He said, "And for me, the saddest thing about that it wasn't the 52 people who were killed. It wasn't the countless others who had their lives changed forever because their family members were taken from them. It was the hundreds of people that night who couldn't make it home from nightclubs in Christchurch because all the cabbies were dead."

'Humour should never come at the expense of other people's pain and trauma'

Dr Bennett said a statement, which was given to The Feed ahead of its public release, that Butterfield's comments on stage were "inappropriate and hurtful and deeply disrespectful" to the victims of the Christchurch massacre.

She urged comedians to consider the impact of mocking violent events in history, because she says, "humour should never come at the expense of other people's pain and trauma."

"There is a line to be drawn between hate speech and comedy. Hate speech should never be easily dismissed as 'just having a laugh' or justified because it was intended to shock," Dr Bennett, NSW South Wales' Anti-Discrimination President, told The Feed.

Australia's Race Discrimination Commission Chin Tan agreed with Dr Bennett's sentiments about the joke.

"This may have been 'just a joke' and I am absolutely supportive of comedy – but everyday racism like this gives permission for hatred and extremism to flourish," Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan told The Feed.

"While I don't want to build this comedian's platform, it is important to be clear: jokes like this are hurtful, and hateful, and there is no place for them," he said.

The excerpt is from Butterfield's new comedy special 'Anti-Hero' which was released on his website on July 14 and filmed at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney.

Tahir Nawaz, a Muslim community leader in New Zealand labelled Butterfield's joke as "insensitive" and "little-minded".

"The first thing that comes to mind is that this loss of the 52 lives and under any circumstances joking on this matter is not the right," Tahir Nawaz, President of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand, told The Feed on Monday.

The joke has also been shared and criticised on social media for lacking sensitivity for those who suffered after the attack, and some have accused Butterfield of making fun of the trauma survivors have faced.

On the day of the terror attack, Butterfield shared his feelings about the Christchurch massacre on his YouTube channel, saying it was an example of how much “hate and anger in the world.”

“People are out there who legitimately do not care for anyone else but themselves,” he said.

“My heart is with every single one who was affected by this horrible tragedy. And, and yeah, it's this should never happen to anyone in any part of the world. Just disgraceful.”

On Monday, Butterfield responded to the criticism adding a lengthy video on his YouTube channel in which he states that the joke isn’t what he actually believes. 

After detailing the volume of criticism he’s received, he said: “Key word is ‘joke’, it is not real, it is make-believe. I don’t really feel like that,” he said

“But that is what comedy is, it is people going on stage and telling people jokes.”

Butterfield says he doesn’t want to be a stand-up who makes jokes about trams and trains, instead, he aspires to be like Ricky Gervais, Jim Jeffries and Frankie Boyle, who skirt the boundaries of comedy.

“Was the joke rude, horrible, mean, offensive? Yes. And that is the point,” he said.

A history of offence

This isn’t the first time the comic has courted criticism with his jokes. Last year, it was reported  that Netflix dropped an upcoming comedy special ‘The Butterfield Effect’ after he was alleged to have made anti-semitic jokes about people being sent into gas chambers at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. 

The Herald Sun reported an audience member’s complaint that he said on stage during the festival:  “Imagine the joy of people when they heard the Jews were sent to the gas chambers.” 

She told the Herald Sun that she’d sent Butterfield an email explaining she felt this was not remotely funny, and says Butterfield replied to the email saying, “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the oven.”

Prior to the comedy festival, Butterfield told The Herald Sun what audiences should expect before coming to his show, he said, “An hour of no-holds-barred comedy, no topic off-limit. You are guaranteed to be offended, but happy and warm at the very same time.”

Despite losing what the Daily Mail reported as a lucrative deal with Netflix and claiming his show at the University of Canberra was cancelled due to “political correctness”, his large following on social media hasn’t been affected. 

Butterfield has over one million subscribers on YouTube and over 300,000 followers on Instagram. 

‘If you can make a joke about this matter, it means that you don’t really know about the incident itself’

Tahir Nawaz watched the short clip that was posted on Twitter, it left him sad and disappointed. 

“Isaac is more worried about if there was no cabbie after this incident, who can pick up people from wherever it could be. Instead of giving the importance of people's lives,” Nawaz told The Feed.

Tahir Nawaz
Tahir Nawaz with New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
Tahir Nawaz

Nawaz is a leader in the Muslim community in New Zealand. He's had meetings with prime minister Jacinda Ardern and played a large part in the community recovery effort after the terror attack on March 15, 2019.

"I personally met each individual victim," he said.

"I have knocked every single door that I could reach to the victims and injured people."

The aftermath is something Nawaz has close proximity to, it's changed the world he lives in. He says, "I have a direct feeling about it when it comes to this incident and the people. It makes me feel that life is very short."

The no-holds-barred approach to comedy Butterfield adopts, isn't something Nawaz agrees with. He says there is a clear line to be cognisant of when going up on stage to perform -- the loss of lives and violence on places of worship crosses that.

"[The Christchurch attack] is a historical thing like this has never happened in New Zealand. That's why we can't really take it as a joke," Nawaz said.

"So you start to take these things like in a joke, it's mean these become a norm.

"It was just one incident and it happened again and people start to make a laugh again. And it goes on now. No, this is not a joke. It can never be a joke."

If Nawaz was ever to meet Butterfield there are a few questions he'd like to ask him.

"Did you ever meet a victim directly who was involved in it? Do you know how people felt about the city where the incident happened? And then I'm pretty sure the answer would be no," he said.

"Then I would have said that means you haven't taken this incident seriously. If you can make a joke about this matter, it means that you don't really know about the incident itself, the depth of this, the effects of this incident."