David Lister: So why the rape joke, Ricky?

Share
Related Topics

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival ends this weekend and with it three weeks of the best that British comedy has to offer. I'm inclined never to make remarks about the German sense of humour again. With a few exceptions, the best that British comedy had to offer didn't split the sides nearly often enough.

Having said that, it also has to be said that comedy, probably more than any other art form, is a matter of personal taste. One can say as pretty much objective fact "that tenor isn't singing well" or "that film was poorly directed", but "that just wasn't funny" is personal opinion. There is no objective criterion for humour.

And yet I'm going to say "that just wasn't funny". And I'm going to say it about the usually great Ricky Gervais. Take this joke from his stand-up show in Edinburgh this week.

"I nearly knocked this old woman over," he said, in a patter about drink-driving, "but I didn't. I raped her." It's become a convention that nothing in comedy should be out of bounds, and I can think of jokes about everything from death to racism to concentration camps that have made me laugh. I have also frequently laughed at Gervais, one of the cleverest comics of the age, and have spent plenty of good money on DVDs of The Office and Extras, the latter series containing a very funny script about mental disability.

So why should a one-liner about raping an old woman be different? I think it is because those jokes about concentration camps, that Extras episode about mental disability, all had affection underlying the comedy, a humorous twist about human beings in adversity. "I nearly knocked her over but I didn't. I raped her" has no affection, no comment on adversity; it is simply an amoral sneer about an act of violence.

There can be boundaries even in comedy and even with Ricky Gervais. And he has overstepped them. He also did something which should make every comedy lover cringe. Something that is astonishing from such an experienced talent. He attempted to explain the joke. Or at least explain the boundary crossing. At the end of the show he said to the audience: "The thing about off-colour jokes is that we tell them to people who know we're not really like that."

Well, that's groundbreaking all right. Do your act, make it pretty uncomfortable, then say, "Only joking. I'm a nice guy really." Groundbreaking and a little feeble. As the two-star reviews in the press indicated, Gervais convinced no one, and puzzled everyone. Even in 2009, it emerges, there are boundaries and there are conventions. And the most cutting-edge comedy is not exempt. Rape just might be the last taboo in comedy. That's not to say it doesn't feature in comedy acts. A number of comedians are throwing in a rape joke here and there.

Comedian Jim Jeffries was quoted recently saying: "You can't do a joke these days about black or Asian people – and rightly so – [but] you can do rape jokes on stage and that's not a problem." Fellow comic Scott Capurro added, disapprovingly, "For a lot of comics, it's OK to talk about raping women now. That's the new black on the comedy circuit."

One doesn't have to be po-faced to think it's an unwelcome development, certainly as told by Gervais. So maybe the Fringe this year was interesting and significant after all. It might just provoke a rethink about the boundaries of comedy. And it might just have marked a turning point in the career of Ricky Gervais.

Dylan does Christmas

One should always applaud a rock star donating profits from an album to charity. And this week it was announced that Bob Dylan, no less, would be releasing a Christmas album this autumn and donating all proceeds to Feeding America. More than four million meals will be provided to more than 1.4 million people in need in America, with further tie-ups with the UK and the developing world.

As Dylan says, "It's a tragedy that more than 35 million people in the USA alone – 12 million of those children – often go to bed hungry and wake up each morning unsure of where their next meal is coming from."

One should applaud. So why am I not applauding? It's a great cause, but a Christmas album? By the creator of "Like a Rolling Stone", "Mr Tambourine Man" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues"? I have horrible memories of David Bowie singing "Little Drummer Boy" with Bing Crosby. And sure enough, on the Dylan album track listing there is "Little Drummer Boy", along with "Here Comes Santa Claus", "Must Be Santa", and "Winter Wonderland". It's a great cause, but there must be another way of raising the money. Not a Christmas album. Not from Dylan. Don't do it, Bob.

And now a play from our sponsors

Chichester Festival Theatre is to stage Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables, starring Gina McKee and Iain Glen. Rattigan's play is set in the dining room of a hotel on the south coast. I was interested to see that the play is being sponsored by a company called Conquest Furniture, also located on the south coast. The separate tables will presumably be very fine tables indeed.

It can be a dangerous game, allying a sponsor too closely to the title or theme of a play. The National Theatre famously lost the sponsor for a production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore when the company's chairman's wife decided that she wanted nothing to do with it. The jokes at the after-show drinks might have become a bit wearing.

I wonder if Chichester will want sponsors for all of its productions to be closely aligned to the titles of the plays. Noël Coward's Hay Fever can be sponsored by the high-street chemist, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath by the greengrocers. In these hard times, who could argue?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice