When even William Hague is right-on, it's time for comedy to cock a snook. Tobias Jones reports
EVERY JOKE needs a butt. The best comedy is combative and close to the bone, usually of a dead relative. In 1978, 18 million enjoyed the racial parody of The Black and White Minstrel Show; in 1981, 20 million people tuned in to watch Benny Hill chase pretty women to a silly, fast- forward tune. Both were then axed in that "no offence meant" moment, when stand-up comedy became a Lefty sit-in with Ben Elton and co preaching the PC virtues of tolerance and liberal relativism through humour.

Now we've come a full circle, and over Easter BBC2 viewers will be able to watch an entire evening dedicated to political incorrectness. This month, Boxtree publish new gags from Alf Garnett ("We've got millions of Eyeties, and Krauts and Froggies and Spagnols and Brussels Sprouts") and Bernard Manning has already mouthed off about "Pakis" absent from Dunkirk on national television.

The same end to PC humour is happening in the States. Although the minorities are firmly in the mainstream, thanks to celluloid sanctifications like Amistad, Philadelphia and The Piano, there have been noticeable twitches of mysogyny in Hollywood (In The Company of Men, and Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets). But in America, the land that irony forgot, the naughty sniggers are mostly smuggled in through animation. South Park, the inheritor of The Simpsons and King of the Hill-style humour, reaches our screens tomorrow: in it, there's Kyle, a neurotic Jewish-princess, and a dog whose bark - courtesy of George Clooney - is so camp that it sends its owner, Stan, into homophobic confusion.

Our appetite for such stuff has been whetted by the bland do-goodery of Blairism, but more by the knowledge that certain battles have been won. Racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, all are acknowledged as ugly scars on our national psyche.

The term PC was coined as a right-wing smear on good causes; it suggested Stalinist conformity in the whingeing of the Left. But now even the provocateurs of the looney right share the raft of ideas: A.N. Wilson sees feminism as "One of the great steps forward in the history of civilisation, comparable to the ending of the slave-trade"; Peregrine Worsthorne now admits that "Of course it should be incumbent on every decent person to take special care to protect black sensibilities"; the Daily Mail calls Bernard Manning a "rancid rascist"; Blair and Hague want women in the Middlesex Cricket and Carlton Clubs respectively. There's a new generation of openly gay men and women in Parliament; and Kyran Jesson, the Butlin's Director of Entertainment, has outlawed the trusty mother-in-law line ("I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for years. I don't like to interrupt").

Political correctness has sunk deep into our culture and become orthodoxy, so much so that in some schools, to the shock of liberal parents, bowdlerization has returned. (A recent production of Sheridan's School for Scandal at Surbiton High School for Girls, of all places, lost four lines of the play thought to be offensive to the Jewish community).

So comedy has returned to the taboos. The BBC bonanza includes In Reverse Order, a tribute to Eric Morley, the man who started the first dastardly Miss World contests at the Festival of Britain in 1951 (he's offering pounds 25,000 to charity should any broadcaster who takes on his parade of female flesh not top the ratings). Footage includes an interview with Helen Morgan, the Miss UK who reigned for only 4 days in 1974 because it was discovered she was a single mother. Another programme, One Million Years of PC, traces the effects of the right-on agenda on, among other things, Robertson's gollywog, Baa Baa Black Sheep and the rewriting of Enid Blyton. Between these, there are short, hagiographical appreciations ("Incorrect Respect") of such risque figures as Alf Garnett and Larry Grayson.

Graham Norton, the comic who profiled Grayson, admits that he is "seen by the gay community as a bad thing. He was full of all the stereotypes, feeding into what straight people expect a gay person to be. I'm not pretending he was one of the greats, but physically, him, his being, he was very funny."

Jerry Sadowitz, one of the brazen new comics, is appearing on TGI Friday and Channel Five, and starting a run at the Criterion in April. "I'm childish," he says. "If it was the norm to be politically incorrect, I'd probably be PC. But offensive comedy should be a psychological tax to pay for the jokes you don't find offensive. I just do the humour I do."

Ian Cognito, currently appearing at the Union Chapel, boasts on his website: "A comedian must constantly ask questions in the knowledge that there is no answer. If anyone out there is offended by some of the questions I raise, fucking grow up." ("Do female priests wear bitch collars?" is typical Cognito humour).

The bottom line is the laugh, and in a post-sexist, post-racist world, there's no longer any incitement in sexist jokes (Jo Brand's "Never trust a man with testicles") or in Woody Allen's Judaic wisdom. Spike Lee comes across as overly-earnest when, unlike the actor, Samuel L. Jackson, who delivered the lines, he objects to the use of "nigger" in Jackie Brown.

There's a tradition of pejorative terms being taken up by their referents; the objects of such hatred in sinuate themselves into the insults, and remove the sting. "Gay" and "dyke" were originally finger-pointing phrases, but are now (mostly) neutral. The derogatory has become simply descriptive, even a badge of honour.

Goodness Gracious Me, the comedy series from an all-of-Asian-extraction troupe, had viewing figures this spring on BBC 2 of 3 million. Their success came from dispensing with the walking-on-eggshells approach to ethnicity, lampooning all our precious ang st about skin-colour and cultural difference.

Father Ted was almost axed by RTE because of its satires on Catholicism; now - especially since Dermot Morgan's death - it has become a politically incorrect cult.

Hettie Judah, a comedy reviewer and Edinburgh Fringe veteran, says of PC self-righteousness, "It got boring. Everybody got fed up with it, and went on to observation comedy and surrealism. Any belief system, like the sniffy branches of feminism, which can't withstand attacks has obvious weaknesse s."

Lad-Mags, with their soft-porn pictures and nudge, nudge carry-ons, are a perfect example of men behaving badly again. The current issue of Arena Homme Plus has a sequence of Sean Ellis photographs of women in their underwear, if that, draped across cars . Ellis says "as a fashion photographer, I'm interested in things I'm not supposed to do. I've gone back to how we used to photograph sexy images: wearing suberb underwear and photographed with a sexy bit of metal. But there's a futuristic, Nineties feel that's more sophisticated: girls love sports cars as much as guys, and now they look confident and powerful."

So images and jokes come with inverted commas, a nod of acknowledgement to the stone-age world from which they've emerged. "It's rife," says Norton, "we've all caught on to the irony idea and run with it. But you can sense when the irony is genuine,and when it's just an excuse for someone to tell a joke they were going to use anyway. It depends on the delivery. When you laugh, it's like you're buying the comic's personality."

Natasha Walter, author of The New Feminism, agrees that "context is all". Political correctness has "too narrow a remit. We can't get het up about old-fashioned and trashy photographs and not about wage differentials."

Doubtless under the sophisticated and ironic tag a little bigoted bile will come back to comedy. Manning would love to cast himself as a martyr, hung on the cross of political correctness. "He was on the point of being rehabilitated," says Norton. "It wa s great to see him on TV being patently unfunny, to see him and say 'no, that is actually vile'." But Manning apart, we are far enough from the world that created a need for political correctness that people can jetisson the chip-on-the-shoulder scowling.

The new, irreverent comedy is poking fun not at blacks or Jews or gays, but at our own serious sensitivities. That old, self-referential gag (how does every ethnic joke start? By looking over your shoulder to see who's listening) is now, like racism and the rest, redundant.