"It's all done in the best possible taste," somebody once said. Actually, it was Kenny Everett, and he was dressed as a large-breasted actress whose name happened to be Cupid Stunt, so perhaps he was being slightly ironic. And these days - with the possible exception of Last of the Summer Wine - no comedy is done in the best possible taste.
In a week when the great American comedian and worst-possible taste genius Richard Pryor died - a man who went from a childhood spent in a brothel to being almost certainly the most influential stand-up comedian of the past 25 years - taste has not had a good time. The third series of Little Britain, once confined to the digital ghetto of BBC3 but now beamed at proper BBC1 licence-payers, has expanded its character base to include a Thai prostitute with a penis, an old lady who urinates in public, and two naked obese women. (Oddly, they seem to have found no room for any comically gross male characters.) In Kazakhstan, home of laughter, Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character has been banned - surely the most publicity this un-Ali G-like figure has ever received. And in the UK, professional anything-baiter Jeremy Clarkson has been criticised for a series of anti-German jokes that included a car indicators/Hitler-salute gag that wouldn't have made it on to Mind Your Language.
Taste and comedy have never got on well. Ever since Chaucer discovered you could write about farting in someone's face, and 600 years later people would be made to study it for A-level, humour has never been shy of life's indelicacies. Sometimes it works - contrary to popular opinion, there are at least two decent knob gags in Shakespeare - and sometimes it doesn't. (Five minutes reading any random bit of Rabelais would put anybody off bodily function humour for life.) But it's a big part of comedy's rich tapestry.
And, of course, like comedy itself, taste and boundaries change all the time. The Victorians would have been revolted by even the mildest Carry On double entendre, yet found death hilarious. I recall one long, terrifying Victorian comic poem about the effects of decay on a corpse which would make a modern horror fan throw up, but was apparently considered a hoot by our more robust forefathers. More recently, it's bizarre to think that the first British politician of modern times to be impersonated on stage was Harold Macmillan, by Peter Cook at the Establishment Club. Cook's impression was mild and almost affectionate - especially compared with his Jayne Mansfield routine - but seen as shocking by a generation of people for whom Gillray's vicious cartoons were even less than a distant memory.
More recently, Spitting Image famously balked at making a puppet of the late Queen Mother, and got up the nerve to do so only by giving her a lovable Beryl Reid-style northern accent. These days you could show Tony Blair and Camilla Parker Bowles naked, riding a pig down Whitehall, and nobody would be particularly upset. Except, that is, for members of animal rights groups, who might find the pig abuse so unacceptable that they would bomb your TV studio.
The times they are always a-changing. The casual racism of Mind Your Language and Spike Milligan's Curry and Chips is knee-jerkingly cited by critics who weren't there for the 1970s, but race-related humour was everywhere at the time. (There is even a moment in the otherwise pristine Fawlty Towers when the Major gets a big laugh by shouting "Wogs". A point was being made, but not very well.) Race was not alone; there was sexism, misogyny, homophobia and a thousand other things that would scupper any TV show nowadays. (Although the world is still not as PC as it could be; a couple of years ago, I worked on a sketch show whose premise was that readers of a popular tabloid would invent all the characters. After six "Lazy Pakistani" routines arrived, the plan was quietly dropped.)
One of the more interesting developments in the world of American teen comedy (and, if we're honest, there haven't been many) is the way the boundaries of humour about sex and drugs continue to get looser, while race humour has become immaculately PC. The excellent, and under-rated, comedy Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies features Asian- and Chinese-American lead actors, whose racist enemies receive well-deserved comeuppance, but who are also surrounded by over-the-top gags about sex and marijuana. It's a good film, but it seems to come from some alternative universe where breasts and dope are acceptable subjects for ribaldry, but race is a no-no, like a stoned Ken Livingstone's idea of a porn film.
Almost certainly, the real new battleground for taste is religion. Attacks on shows such asJerry Springer: The Opera and the banned cartoon Popetown not only suggest that there are powerful, bigoted, religious pressure groups out there for whom turning the other cheek is some hippie liberal crap from an old book, but also that broadcasters are keen to treat this intolerance as something perfectly reasonable. Blasphemy is obviously offensive to strongly religious people, but they are a minority in this godless land. (Such people are always keen to play the minority card, comparing themselves to racial and sexual minorities, but the difference between them and these minorities is that most societies have spent hundreds of years trying to rid themselves of religious oppression, while there has been little oppression caused by homosexuals or Hindus in the West.)
Religious or sexual, the problem for enemies of bad taste is that it's not easy to police it any more. We no longer have a Lord Chamberlain in the theatre to blue pencil out dubious material. The watershed, as some newspapers like to remind us, is a flexible thing. Radio DJs play records with the word "fuck" in the title. Arguably, this is not entirely bad. There ought to be some censorship to protect children, and not all TV should be aimed at students, but generally we're all supposed to be adults now, and, besides, we can vote with our remotes. (This would appear to be the case with the new series of Little Britain, whose new characters are arguably responsible for the loss of nearly 25 per cent of its viewers in three weeks.) Surely, we prefer the odd bit of swearing or genital-related humour to some kind of Comedy Hatred Act, designed to protect us from offensive comedians.
The whole notion of political correctness is a dubious one. On the one hand, it's clearly a bad thing to call people niggers or cripples or dykes and so forth. These attitudes demean the speaker and the audience as well as the intended victims. On the other hand, the people who decide what's acceptable and what's not are ... well, basically, they're not funny. They have no sense of humour. And, as you wouldn't let somebody who didn't particularly like dogs judge Crufts, so you'd be reluctant to let a humourless apparatchik make decisions about what's acceptable in comedy.
Some of the best comedy, in fact, comes from very bad places. During the summer, a mild fuss was caused by an American documentary film called The Aristocrats, in which a lot of comics told one joke, one completely obscene joke, and deliberately vied with each other to tell the most disgusting version. But what the film was actually about was the whole nature of stand-up comedy; how one comedian can change a simple joke, layer it, and bring new levels of imagination. You could argue that they could have done the same thing with a nicer joke, one about kittens, but to do so would, one suspects, not really unleash the full force of a comedian's imagination.
Bad taste lubricates the wheels of comedy and enables us to say things we can't say anywhere else. The Brass Eye paedophilia special, portrayed by some as just a platform for child molester gags, was designed to highlight the whole pornography of child abuse documentaries. Simply saying "Look at these bad documentaries" would not be enough. They have to be mocked to pieces. Anger tends not to be tasteful. Jeremy Clarkson's tired inanities upset German diplomats, who ask why we keep going on about the war; in part they are right to ask this, but deep down some people are still thinking, "Well, it wasn't just the war thing, there were those camps and..." It's not tasteful and it's not fair, but there is a core of a reason in this humour that taste and debate can't deal with as effectively.
Which could be seen as an argument in favour of the old school racist humour of Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown. But Brown is a fool in a flying helmet whose canonisation by The League of Gentlemen lacks charm, while Manning is a different kettle of trouble. He runs and hosts a successful comedy club, which implies quite strongly that there is a still a market for his kind of material, but also that, hate him as so many of us do, Manning is a great comedian. Sadly, he is also an appalling man, and it is perhaps for this reason that his race humour is so unpleasant. Manning is like the legendary Japanese soldier in the jungle, still fighting the 1970s comedy wars on his own, refusing to believe that jokes about the inferiority of other racial groups are no longer the thing.
The late Richard Pryor differed from Manning in many ways. For a start, Manning never tried to end his own life by dousing himself in alcohol and setting himself on fire. But Pryor, for all his sexual humour, pussy gags and powerful gross-outs, always seemed to be a comedian with a mission, a man trying to expose what he saw as the truth about life. In their own ways, so-called bad taste comics from Lenny Bruce to Bill Hicks have done the same thing. The best bad taste is always something more than a joke about genitalia. It says things that, frankly, the Chuckle Brothers and Cannon and Ball will never articulate. Life isn't a tasteful business - nasty things will be said to, and about, you. And the least tasteful thing about it all is that - unlike the things that are done in the best possible taste - frequently, bad taste is very, very funny.