The path of true comedy never did run smooth. Especially the laddish kind, where a bunch of British blokes egg each other on to be ruder and ruder, which is how Channel 4's Big Fat Quiz of the Year has got into hot water, with Jack Whitehall and others blamed for gags containing oral sex, the Queen and Prince Philip, and some imaginary filth involving Susan Boyle and Usain Bolt. Yet the thing that bothers many of us there is not the dirty jokes, but all these programmes where competitive males boorishly shout and sneer at each other. Rory Bremner now refuses to go on Mock the Week, sharing similar feelings about these boys' clubs. Billy Connolly says he can't handle the "Channel 4" types.
Still, I'm torn. On the one hand, there's little I like less than the thought police, picking holes in the comment boxes on the bottom half of the internet, or coming after you on Twitter, or complaining to Ofcom about nothing. (Strangers have accused me of on Twitter of: being sexist because I was looking for a childminder and I made it sound like that person would probably be female; being Northernist for reminiscing about dreary childhood entertainment with another friend who grew up in Yorkshire; being racist for... it's not worth typing.)
But then, following my Not Minding logic to its natural conclusion, Bernard Manning types might still be making jokes about black kids burning, and Jim Davidson wouldn't have to try for Celebrity Big Brother to get back on telly, and A A Gill could carry on writing off the brilliant Clare Balding as a "dyke on a bike", as he did in The Sunday Times not so long ago. (Hang on Ω nothing happened to him, did it? Soon, Adrian, soon.)
If no one had ever stood up and said they were offended, it would probably still be okay for a male boss to ask to cop a feel of his employee's tits if she wanted a pay rise, and have a laugh about the Asian one smelling of chicken tikka. So a line has to be drawn somewhere. It's just hard to know how quickly the beach is moving any more, and whether you should draw it with a stick or indelible paint.
I once went to an event called Jewdas, a night of Jewish-interest talks, where the comedian David Schneider discussed offensiveness. He concluded that, with his grandmother and her friends, some of whom had direct experience of concentration camps, he would never dare joke about such things, because it was horrific and wrong. Yet with his own peers he would, because it was funny. He had searched his heart and found there was no limit, beyond context. It just depends who you're talking to.
The problem now is that everything is very public and the notion of context itself is losing its context. If you missed the Big Fat Quiz you can maybe still find it on iPlayer and watch a few minutes of it, or find the offending clips on YouTube, removed from the larger set-up, or you can ask around on Facebook until you find someone to give you a two-sentence version of what went on. The instinct to make citizen's arrests is growing in all of us.
Sometimes, jokes just need to be allowed to slither away into the dunes.Reuse content