So, the above wordings floated across one of my social media streams recently, causing my eyes to roll so hard that they’re still spinning and I feel a bit dizzy. There’s so much wrong going on here that I don’t even know where to start. Well, I suppose I agree with finding Russell Howard a bit boring. Don’t mind the guy, but I’m not doubling over with laughter. But has the author of this post considered that maybe the reason no one makes a fuss over Howard’s particularly brand of cheeky chap whimsy is cos, y’know, he’s never actually joked about raping someone? How about that? I don’t need to explain why joking to a woman’s face about her asking to be raped is a bad thing, do I? And also a terribly unpopular thing? Like, some people hearing such “jokes” might have been victims of sexual violence themselves and might find it just a teensy weensy bit upsetting? I don’t need to explain all that, do I?
Although this clown’s furious witterings are fucking silly and easily dismissed, they also struck an uneasy chord. You see, I am very much one of these “humourless feminist” PC Brigade members that doesn’t really find jokes at the expense of marginalised and persecuted groups very funny. But at the same time I absolutely adore comedy – particularly humour of a darker hue – and I really resent being made to feel like some constantly outraged member of the Social Justice Gestapo or whatever the fuck right-wing morons are calling people who consider the feelings of others this week. No, I don’t want to replace all comedic output on TV with a running tap – I want more and better comedy. Mind you, 30 minutes of a dripping tap would probably be an improvement on Dapper Laughs. In fact, just replace all of ITV2’s schedule with leaky tap footage. I’m sure no one will notice or mind.
My own feelings over Dapper Laughs are pretty ambivalent. Sure, he’s sexist, but he doesn’t have me absolutely clutching my pearls in shocked horror. If it’s definitely a character that Daniel O’Reilly was trying to play, as he claimed in his Newsnight interview, it was one that played all the wrong notes. He’s basically Sid the Sexist, but where it falls down is that Sid becomes the hero, not the pure fud asking a lassie if she wants to see his elephant impression and getting kneed in the baws for his trouble.
The other thing to note is that Dapper Laughs isn’t actually being banned. His show is not getting a second series, that’s all. The world doesn’t owe him a living, he isn’t Alan Partridge. The petitions going around, screaming for him to be CANCELLED or BANNED or SHOT INTO THE SUN RIGHT NOW actually make me feel a bit uncomfortable, as I don’t agree with the indiscriminate banning of things. Mockery, criticism and and the cold disinfectant of sunlight work far better in destroying ideas that are bigoted or just plain stupid. It’s like those sexist Topman T-Shirts there was a big fuss about a couple of years ago. There were calls to withdraw them for sale, which was a terrible idea. One thing I really value about getting older is that my patience for tossers and arseholes wears ever thinner, and T-shirts that clearly indicate that the wearer is a colossal bellend are fantastic time-saving devices, as I can avoid any interaction with such people from the get go.
What it really boils down though is the fact that the worst crime you can commit in comedy is being fucking boring and shite. Dapper Laughs is fucking boring and shite and unoriginal. The sexism is just the boring and shite icing on a boring and shite cake. His comedy doesn’t offend me for its outdated sub-Benny Hill nonsense, it offends me for being utterly dreadful.
As previously mentioned, I am a huge comedy nerd and a lot of my comedy heroes – Peter Cook , Jerry Sadowitz , Sam Kinison , Frankie Boyle , Stewart Lee , Chris Morris – are all renowned for inhabiting the darker, more amoral shades of the comedic spectrum. Wow, a grim-faced man-hating feminazi who loves offensive comedy! OH MAH GAWD DID AH JUST BLOW YOUR GODDAMN MIND???
This apparent contradiction got me thinking. What exactly is it that makes a joke “offensive”? What is it that makes Sam Kinison’s anti-women rants so bloody amazing and the same stuff from Jim Davidson just leaves one cold? Is it just because one of them’s a trendy cult hero, or is there more to it than that? How do you tell apart the sort of humour that seeks to indulge in lazy shock for shock’s sake, with no thought or effort put into it, from dark humour which pushes the boundaries of comedic taste and decency in a genuinely innovative and thought-provoking way?
The first x-factor to an offensive joke or routine that makes it work would probably be its intent, whether it relies on irony or makes a serious point. Frankie Boyle in particular has become a master at using offensive humour to convey more pointed messages about world politics. This is particularly evident in a joke he told on Tramadol Nights, about a news report from a warzone in which the correspondent speaks of the loss of a lone soldier’s life “and a bunch of dead n****rs.” It’s pretty obvious to anyone with a modicum of intelligence that Boyle is commenting on the media’s habit of placing the value of the lives of ARE BRAVE BOYS above those of the foreign civilians caught up in conflict. The use of the N-word really drives this home. And so this is why, when The Daily Mirror deliberately took the punchline out of context to label Boyle a racist, he successfully sued them for libel.
Chris Morris is an incredibly skilful satirist, who’s talent is such that sometimes he doesn’t have to reach very far to make his point. The unforgettable Brasseye paedophile special remains a masterpiece, and I still laugh my tits off at the gag about Sydney Cook being blasted into space with a hapless 8-year-old child on board.
Morris’s Paedogeddon was intended to poke fun at mass media hysteria and hypocrisy over child abuse and the sexualisation of children, which was at its height at the time, and the tabloids completely missed the point in a spectacular way.
Of course, sometimes the irony of a routine or character is lost. It’s clear in the case of Daniel O’Reilly that there was absolutely no irony intended in the character of Dapper Laughs, despite his protestations, but there are other acts where irony is present but missed by some sections of the audience. Stewart Lee speaks of fans of Al Murray, who think the bigoted, racist, sexist pub landlord he portrays on stage is meant sincerely. They think he’s laughing with them, not at them. “Laughing through gritted teeth at jokes they don’t understand like the dogs that they are,” as Lee puts it.
Of course, the second factor is that offensive humour has to be funny. I’ll forgive a lot if it makes me laugh, even if I also feel shocked or slightly ashamed of myself for laughing in the first place. Unfortunately, there are a growing number of young comedians, influenced by the likes of Boyle et al, who do not realise this and think making a string of offensive comments constitutes a routine. A friend told me a story about a visit to a comedy night for up-and-coming stand-ups, where one young man was particularly awful. His “routine” relied on a string of comments about various people, animals and things he had fucked – his mum, his dad, his granddad, a small child, a cat, a car exhaust, etc. It was a tedious shopping list of sexual depravity and the audience were unimpressed.
Eventually, a girl in the audience heckled him. Weirdly, she wasn’t being hostile – her shout was one of encouragement. He swiftly turned on her, subjecting her to a furious diatribe in which he threatened to rape her with his microphone. A shocked silence fell on the room. He stormed off stage, not to return. A total car crash all round.
Of course, what’s ultimately not funny about certain kinds of offensive humour are that they “punch down” at their targets. If you’re a decent, compassionate person (which I hope you are) there’s nothing entertaining about making jokes at the expense of marginalised groups and people who are already under a fair bit of persecution. This is why jokes about Christians are mostly acceptable and jokes about Muslims are mostly not in this country, although don’t bother trying to explain that to the cloth-eared journalists at The Daily Mail. The Scottish Manchester-based comedian Will Setchell speaks power dynamics in comedy in an excellent article about rape jokes. He makes an important point about how “edgy” offensive humour can often come across as tedious:
There’s plenty of comics whose names I’ll never remember who have banged on with the rape and paedo (also unimaginative) material but the comics who stick in my head are the ones who don’t bother with that stuff, they stand out because their view on the world is fresh and unique, not just a tramp through the well-worn paths of shock and edginess. Steering clear of the darkness doesn’t mean dumbing down either, in fact once you remove rape, paedophilia and ironic sexism from your toolkit you find you have to work all the harder, the jokes are more delightful, your mind trips gaily down new lanes finding ideas and juxtapositions that, I believe, will make you a better writer and comedian.
This is absolutely true, and makes me think of another comedian I greatly admire, who doesn’t do offensive comedy at all, doesn’t even swear, and still manages to be blazingly original and innovative in his vision – Harry Hill.
So really, offensive comedy can only truly be effective when it makes an important point, hitting a target that deserves it or it can simply be so funny, it sweeps you up and leaves you howling before you even realise what you’re laughing at. Which brings me neatly back to Sam Kinison. An ex-Pentecostal minister of the proper fire and brimstone variety, Kinison’s delivery of his misogynist rants was so breath-taking, so angry and so over the top, that he parodies himself and it’s utterly brilliant.
When a joke fails the funny test or hits an unwarranted target, it sucks baws. To complicate matters, sometimes offensive jokes poke fun at “sacred cows” – groups and figures that are universally agreed to be off limits. This is why traditionally comedians can get away with vicious humour about the elderly or the disabled, although as government cuts and propaganda bite and attitude to disabled people harden, it will be interesting to see how this changes. Another good temperature gauge is how well offensive jokes about poor/working class people go down. In progressive times, such jokes are made without batting an eyelid, but when times are tougher, they take on a decidedly cruel colour.
So go on, comedians – be offensive! But be funny about it, that’s the most important thing! Don’t worry, I won’t be organising a petition to get you banned from life or anything like that. No hard feelings, eh? Here’s a hilarious sketch about violence against women.
LOL VIOLENCE AGANST WOMEN!