More than three million people watched a Channel 4 programme called Big Fat Quiz of the Year this week, and within 24 hours of the show being broadcast, the television watchdog Ofcom had received 10 complaints. Hardly, you may think, cause for scandalised front-page headlines, demands from an MP for Channel 4 to explain why they broadcast the programme “so soon after the watershed” and threats to drop one of the participants from an awards show.
It's the first incidence of entirely confected outrage of 2013. The Daily Mail has led the charge on this issue, and by reprinting in detail what it regarded as “vile, lewd jokes”, it ensured that the number of complainants had been swelled by those among their readership who had not even heard of the programme. So horrified was the Mail by these sick antics in the name of light entertainment that it felt obliged to run clips of the offending show in question on its website, albeit with a warning: “contains graphic content some viewers might find offensive”.
By yesterday 160 members of the public had come forward to register their upset with either Channel 4 or Ofcom. Now, there are plenty of reasons to dislike the laddish, borderline misogynistic, tone of Big Fat Quiz and some of those who took part. The waves of self-love that emanate from Jack Whitehall are off-putting, and James Corden couldn't be more happy with who he is if he gave himself a non-stop standing ovation. And then there's Jimmy Carr and his 1 per cent tax rate. But really. A few dubious quips about the Queen, Usain Bolt and Susan Boyle (in their own way, regal figures all) is hardly worth picking up the phone to Ofcom about. My objection was that the gags weren't funny, but that's the thing about comedy: we don't all laugh at the same joke.
And when Billy Connolly weighs in with his own caustic criticism of these “Channel 4-type comedy people”, saying that they are only in it for celebrity status, I immediately know which side I'm on. Connolly, whose desire to nestle up to the Royal Family probably rules him out of consideration as a cutting-edge comic, once said of the hostage Ken Bigley, days before he was beheaded: “I see him every morning and I'm disappointed that he's not dead yet.” So a lesson from him on what's comedically acceptable is probably invalid.
The fact is that Whitehall and Corden are very talented, successful and rich. That is cause enough to hate them, but they are young, too. Their comedy is not necessarily meant to appeal to me, or to Daily Mail executives, or to septuagenarian comedians. Channel 4 has done well not to respond to this phoney cacophony. I'm sure Voltaire, if he were alive today, would be a BBC 2 man, but on the subject of Whitehall, he might disapprove of what he had said, but would have defended his right to say it. These days, we seem to have lost the distinction between disapproval and outrage.