Letter from Simon Kelner: The fine one-liner between comedy and offence


Click to follow
The Independent Online

How far is too far? This is the dilemma for any comedian whose performance relies on a bit of edginess. Jimmy Carr has a routine where he assesses for each audience where their tolerance level lies, starting with some merely bad-taste gags and reaching a climax with truly horrendous one-liners about, for instance, paedophilia or the Holocaust.

His point is that it's impossible to say what makes an offensive joke, because offence is taken rather than given, and everyone's threshold is different. It is a hugely impressive, funny and thought-provoking routine from Carr, whose slightly bloodless persona may not be everyone's cup of tea but he is as skilled a practitioner in the dark arts of stand-up comedy as it's possible to get these days.

He finds that jokes about Diana, Princess of Wales and the Twin Towers hardly move the audience's dial, and he concludes that a one-liner about the Holocaust should be the pinnacle of offensiveness, because it makes light of such a terrible event.

But if this is a contest that can be judged only by offence caused, then the cartoon depiction of Mohamed in a Danish newspaper, which resulted in bloody riots throughout the Muslim world, had to be number one. Carr makes the point that his Holocaust joke – too much, I'm afraid, for a family newspaper – is not, in fact, anti-Semitic, but it was enough to make a lot of his audience uncomfortable. And that's the point, I suppose, for a comic such as Carr: to go as close to the edge as you can without actually falling over the precipice.

I saw this at close quarters the other night. The gifted Northern Irish comedian Patrick Kielty was doing a routine at a private birthday party, and I could only marvel, open-mouthed, at the sheer skill, audacity and steel-plated nerve required to turn what could have been a gentle, humorous meander through the host's life and times into a rollercoaster ride of breathtaking and terrifying proportions.

He told jokes about the host that made you wince. He did the same to the audience. He adapted old gags – for example, the one about someone being in a hotel, and ringing an escort service and making some adventurous demands, only for a voice on the other end to say, "I'm sure that's possible, but you need to dial 9 for an outside line" – and had some bespoke ones – he said that the host's swimming pool, which is under a retractable patio (I know. The company I keep!) was "half Goldfinger, half Fred West".

He then berated his agent, and said he'd "done as much work this year as Andy Coulson". It was brilliant. Everyone, and no one, took offence. And while I agree with Jimmy Carr that offence is in the eye of the beholder, it doesn't half help if the material is funny.