Anthony Grayling: Little Britain is cruel. But look who's laughing

Truly cruel jokes humiliate the few to amuse the many

Share

A generation ago, most popular humour turned on sexual innuendo of the kind common to seaside postcards and Benny Hill, at least, outside the comedy circuit of Northern clubs, where holds were never barred: think of Bernard Manning. Today, some commentators say, humour increasingly turns on cruelty, inside the clubs and out, and even on television.

The popularity of Little Britain, with its incontinent old lady and mentally deficient man in a wheelchair, and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! (in last week's episode, Carol Thatcher had to eat live cockroaches, giant maggots, and a kangaroo penis), in part turns on the in-your-face disregard of restraint on the subject of who or what is a legitimate topic for humour. As a corollary, cruelty is a frequent ingredient; and the more outrageous, disgusting and un-PC the joke, the funnier it seems to be.

But is what gets described as cruelty really so? No one has ever produced a satisfactory theory of humour, but the reasons why people find something funny - different reasons for different people - must at least include the fact that it variously seems incongruous, absurd, sick, grotesque, unexpected, odd, surprising, or cruel in ways that prompt laughter by sheer reflex.

Much of what is called cruel in humour is not. Dorothy Parker's celebrated "cruel humour" was really black humour and Muriel Spark's honorary DLitt. citation at Oxford praised the "cruel humour" of one of her characters, when it was actually mordantly sarcasm.

Really cruel humour is a different thing. It is the kind that humiliates or degrades one or a few people for the amusement of many others. It is a third-person sport; only the observers find it funny, not the victims. It has to be heartless to work. A tentative or half-hearted jab at someone else's misfortune or disability, embarrassment or suffering, is just bad taste; the joke works only if the jab is a vicious one without apology or shame. As a television genre, really cruel humour was invented by the Japanese, who regard it as immensely funny to see people being put through torments and humiliations.

I'm a Celebrity imitates it, but not to the same extent. By this definition, Little Britain does not contain much, if any, cruel humour. It stands in the long and honourable tradition of absurdist and surreal comedy that began on the radio with the Goon Show and Round the Horn in the 1950s, and came of television age with Monty Python. If it differs from them in seeming to be more puerile and revolting (vomit and urine figuring so largely), that is probably because those who think so are getting older.

For genuinely cruel humour one may turn to Julia Davis's Nighty Night on BBC 3. This programme has not caused the outcry of Little Britain because it is on a less accessible channel. But there is no comparison between the two, not least because of the intelligence of Julia Davis's writing. She has a rationale for her uncompromising content, which is that if serious drama can address disability and cancer, why not comedy too.

Cruel humour shares, with cruelty to animals and children, the gratuitous, harm-and-hurt-causing callousness. Yet apart from the misery such jokes cause, the most significant thing about their presence in the media is what they say about those who laugh at them. For no joke is funny without an audience; it is funny only if its audience thinks so. For a genuinely cruel joke to be funny, its audience must have in them streak of something suitable to make it so. If British humour is indeed becoming more cruel, that last point might be the cruellest joke of all.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
 

I’ll support England’s women, but it’s not like men’s football – and that’s a good thing

Matthew Norman
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue