Big Fat Quiz going ‘too far’? It’s as old as the oldest joke

Are James Corden and Jack Whitehall being reviled for their jokes? Or for who they are?

Share

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.

Twitter: @JohnHenryWalsh

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup