David Lister: So why the rape joke, Ricky?

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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?

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