This is not a good time to be a comedian.
The whole comic-entertainment species, homo japiens, is under attack. From the gag-spraying vaudevillians of my youth to the droll young stand-ups of today, they’re all feeling the lash of public disapproval. Back in 2008, it was Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross being wicked on the phone to Andrew Sachs. Some months ago, it was Frankie Boyle who’d Gone Too Far in saying outrageous things about Katie’s Price’s disabled son. Two comedians whose heyday was the 1970s and 1980s are currently being questioned by police about sexual abuse. And this week there’s been an unholy row about the comedians invited on to Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year to be funny about famous people in 2012.
Jack Whitehall mused about whether the Queen remained standing throughout her Jubilee Thames trip because she’d caught a urinary infection from the Duke. Richard Ayoade made the others laugh by miming double-fellatio. One speculated how much Usain Bolt’s sperm might cost if he was put to stud. Others seized on the unfortunate Twitter hashtag employed by Susan Boyle’s PR – #susanalbumparty – to make, er, anal bum jokes.
The Daily Mail spat fury about the quiz. It called their post-watershed jokes “vile”, “obscene” and “puerile”, and threw up its hands in horror to think that the victims had included Her Majesty, Bolt, Boyle and Obama. It called in fellow comedians (Rory Bremner, Billy Connolly) to tut-tut about the competitive nature of modern humorists. It even found an MP, Conor Burns, to say he found it “quite distasteful”. For the readers’ benefit, the paper reprinted several of the jokes and provided an online video link to remind viewers how dreadful it had been.
Had British humour really gone too far at last? Or is that we’ve fallen out of love with comedians? Since it was revealed that some stand-ups can parlay their disrespectful monologues into millions through stadium appearances and DVD sales, and are no longer dependent on TV shows to make a living, the public’s attitude to them has changed. Though only 240 people complained about The Big Fat Quiz (out of an audience of 2.5 million, or one in 10,000), there’s a groundswell of opinion online that too many stand-ups are smug, overpaid, potty-mouthed enemies of common decency and moral health (and some are probably perverts, too). It’s a long way from Morecambe and Wise.
But are the likes of Carr, Corden, Whitehall and Ross being reviled because of their jokes or because of who they are? I fear it may be the latter. The Big Fat Quiz was a display of men (and a lone woman, Gabby Logan) reverting to naughty schoolboys in a pretend exam presided over by a benign teacher asking simple questions to which they made cheeky answers, while eating pizza and drinking wine. What did the makers, and the viewers, expect? Oscar Wilde?
As for the content, should we now reconsider the ethics of joke fodder? Is it time to launch a Levity-son inquiry about humour, convene a jokes watchdog (Ofgag?) with a statutory underpinning and legislate about what’s funny and what’s not? Would it work?
You can make fun of most things. Some things aren’t funny, and some are only if you tweak them a bit. Burning orphanages are not funny. The Rwandan genocide wasn’t funny, though the names of the warring tribes, Hutu and Tutsi, offered an open goal to the flippant. A hole in a parachute isn’t funny, unless the wearer is a universally disliked figure like Chris Brown or Piers Morgan. Cancer is not funny, though my friend John Diamond found some bitter humour in confronting his excised tumour (which he named “Rupert”).
Nothing involving death, massacre, illness or personal misfortune is a barrel of laughs, except that perspective makes it so. We welcome, for instance, the new post-Paralympics phenomenon of the disabled comedians, who share their social embarrassment, and encourage us to laugh about disability. Ditto Woody Allen and Jackie Mason on being Jewish, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock on being black, and the remarkable Tourette’s sufferer, Jess Thom, on the bizarre linguistics of her condition.
There is, however, no need to find exculpatory perspectives for the humour of sex and bodily functions. We’re stuck with them. To criticise knob and poo jokes, straight and gay sex jokes, jokes about royals and heroes, as being in poor taste is a mature, fastidious attitude, but it ignores millennia of gleeful rudeness.
Catullus (84-54BC) joked about fellatio. Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (c.1532) is a compendium of physical comedy, featuring a dissertation on the 51 objects with which a giant enjoys wiping his bottom. Royalty? When the cartoonist Gillray pictured George III having sex with his new queen, the public response was delight, not condemnation. Queen Victoria’s wedding night was the subject of a popular joke about Prince Albert in the Home Counties: “Albert entered by Bushey, advanced through Maidenhead, penetrated Virginia Water and left Staines behind.” The Queen may not find STD jokes uproarious, but she can probably distinguish jokes about herself from piss-takes about the Majestic Presence.
Her mother’s favourite comedian was reportedly Max Miller who, every night, would offer his audience either his book of Nice Jokes or his other one, the Blue Book. Guess which they unerringly chose? We may disapprove of the puerile behaviour of today’s comedians, when no holds are barred on television. But to disapprove of the depths to which adult humour occasionally sinks is to disapprove of humanity itself.