For those of us interested in the tacit and shifting rules that govern popular culture, it's been a funny week, in both senses of the phrase. Satire, which the Victorian poet Swinburne once called a "wandering and bastard Muse" has been renamed. Now it's a fat white bastard. But not a shirt-lifter.
Sir Trevor McDonald was officially cleared by Ofcom of racism in calling Bernard Manning a "fat white bastard". Ofcom's reasoning was that the comment was "satirical", adding that it was clear that McDonald's joke was meant to parody Manning's own reliance upon racist stereotypes in his humour, and was not itself a racist joke. It's good to know that the art of the fine distinction is not entirely lost.
The next night, Jim Davidson, another obsolescent comedian with a reputation for finding stereotypes amusing, was ejected from Hell's Kitchen, starring the celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, for calling someone a " shirt-lifter," causing 100 viewers to complain to ITV. (McDonald's jibe was empirically more offensive, having clocked up 112 complaints.) ITV kicked Davidson off the programme, telling reporters: "ITV does not condone comments which could cause offence."
This might seem a worryingly sweeping and ungrammatical definition: anything that could cause offence? That's a fairly broad category, but never fear. It turns out that what ITV was trying to say was that it does not condone comments made by people who could cause offence, unless one of those people is Marco Pierre White. He had made a sneering reference to "pikeys" a few days earlier on the same show, and ITV acknowledged that they had received complaints.
A spokeswoman said: "We accept that one meaning [of pikey] is a derogatory racial term and that it has the potential to offend viewers." And yet White was not ejected. The rationale? An ITV spokesman said that viewers had been warned before the programme began that they would be hearing "controversial" language-and, moreover, the word had been "robustly challenged" by another contestant during the programme.
Just out of curiosity, if ITV does not condone comments that could cause offence, is it axing The X-Factor? Or has Simon Cowell had a lobotomy? Because the entire premise of that show is that Simon Cowell will give offence. But there is also an implicit contract: although Cowell will do his utmost to give offence, the audience promises not to take it. Contestants certainly will, as anyone knows who watched last weekend's typical encounter with an aspirant named Kelly and her father: when Cowell told her she sang like a dog barking, she took offence and began swearing like a long-shoreman.
When her father barged in to tell Cowell he was rude, Cowell informed him that he was partly to blame for his daughter's delusions, by encouraging her to believe she had talent. (In my house, so far from taking offence, there was much rejoicing at hearing this profound social verity finally spoken.)
But why didn't Ofcom receive another 100 phone calls? The key here, I think, lies not in what Cowell said, but in what he didn't say: he didn't call her fat. And he was probably tempted.
We do not really live in a newly permissive society, as Jim Davidson can attest. It's just that the rules have changed. It used to be acceptable for the socially powerful to ridicule the socially disempowered. Most people have stopped tolerating name-calling. The people who enjoy name-calling, and resent it when other people tell them to stop, retaliate with more name-calling, using taunts such as politically correct, thought police, and so forth, to heroically resist an evidently repressive regime attacking the free exchange of ideas.
Anyone who has ever been verbally abused, harassed, or bullied knowst ideas are not being freely exchanged in such instances, and that humour is an excuse often used by the vicious to justify cruelty, the I-was-just-kidding defence.
Most of us feel that humiliating and demeaning people in general should be discouraged unless, of course, those people are fat and/or Americans, in which case all bets are off. (Before the complaints come flooding in, let me clarify. I am an American – although, I trust, not a fat one – and yes, I am being ironical. I know that's hard to believe, even, to some, an oxymoron, but there it is. We gave the world The Simpsons. We do understand what irony is.)
The truth is that although I am intensely irritated by the prevalence of reflexive anti-Americanism all around me, I also accept that it is not without cause. This is not the same thing as saying it is justified, which it's not. Sneering at entire groups is never justified, unless they're supporters of the present US administration, in which case be my guest.
But anti-Americanism does have causes, most of which relate to America's power. People resent power, especially when it is misused, and they fight back. My own feeling is that we have to take it on the chin. Suck it up, as we say at home. We Americans have many privileges. If with those privileges comes some chastening, well, it's probably character-building. Also, sticks and stones.
So when Jim Davidson wails: "What about white, straight, Anglo-Saxon males like me? Who cares about us?" my answer, after I finish laughing, is something on the lines of, "Grow up, and start accepting that you, too, will be dealt some crap in life, just like the rest of us."
The problem faced by Davidson and his ilk is their patent bewilderment at learning that they are not immune: raised to believe implicitly in their own superiority, it comes as a shock when the people they mock start fighting back and tell them to stop. The tables are turned, the foundation of their power seems to be eroding, and they don't know where they stand any more. This is uncomfortable for them, but it is not bad for society (unless they get violent, which sometimes they do).
We have always had rules about what you were allowed to say and what you weren't. These rules are entirely necessary, and obeying them is not censorship. It's called socialisation. Surely few among us would welcome a no-holds-barred society in which everyone expressed every impulse they had? Welcome to The Lord of the Flies.
People are confused because the borders have shifted: what you are allowed to say has changed. When Lenny Bruce first performed his stand-up comedy routine in Australia in 1962, he opened by saying, "What a fucking wonderful audience." He was promptly arrested. The entire history of bawdy humour, from Chaucer through Shakespeare and the Restoration and right up to – well, virtually every comic at work today – rests upon the strategic use of potentially "obscene" or "offensive" material.
The trick is in making people laugh, instead of taking offence. Finding something funny and being wounded by it are, in general, mutually exclusive, although as we all know, pleasure and pain can certainly coincide; take gallows humour, for example. Mordancy is not unpainful, and some of us take great pleasure in it.
But Ofcom wasn't wrong in emphasising context: rule-breaking is only funny in a safe context. Otherwise it is threatening. What the Davidson and McDonald examples teach, I suspect, is not that political correctness is running amok, although it may be. Nor does it demonstrate, as some have contended, inverse racism.
Surely it demonstrates that context is determined not only by environment, but by speaker. And, yes, the speaker's attitudes inform the context, as do the audience's. Hostility – what the Renaissance called "spleen"– is fine, as Cowell and McDonald both prove. But it has to be directed at those who are perceived to deserve it. Enmity directed at the innocent or weak is not, to nice people, acceptable, and that's where Davidson went wrong. Also, he wasn't funny.
Of course, as a woman, an academic, and a literary critic, I am at least three removes from any possibility of having a sense of humour myself. I did have one, once, but the feminists got a hold of me, forced me to listen to earnest folk music, and now I sit around scowling. (But since I'm also a blonde, maybe I just don't understand jokes.)
For the past 2,500 years, the greatest philosophers in history, from Ar istotle and Plato on down, have been trying and failing to define humour, but a few ideas have gained some currency. One theory is that humour derives from making the audience feel superior; this was Plato's view, that amusement derives essentially from malice. Clearly, Simon Cowell embraces the Platonic view.
There is also the theory, upheld primarily by that great comedian Sigmund Freud, that humour is all about release, hence the phrase "comic relief. " Laughter releases tension. But this describes only its effects, not its causes; and as Davidson and McDonald have demonstrated, if humour fails, it ends up creating tension, rather than abating it.
Most theorists of comedy concur with the Aristotelian contention that humour resides in incongruity, and correlates to surprise. As a genre, comedy has always been about rule-breaking and dismantling order, but also about restoring it in the end. The jokes indulge anarchic impulses, but the story, ultimately, does not.
Judging by the most successful comedies right now, rule-breaking of a very basic order is considered by many very funny indeed. Most seem to begin with the anti-social premise of man-boys who are obsessed with their own erections and amused by all bodily functions, and, basically, socialise them, by teaching them how to get along with women. That is the plot of The 40- Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up, and Superbad, and, evidently, Run Fatboy Run, the number one film at the UK box office last week.
In other words, these "gross-out" comedies have their own conflicted relationship to offence. Knocked Up, for example, is a film in which the word "abortion" is literally unmentionable, and can only be rendered euphemistically as "shmashmortion", but a 30ft-high close-up of a baby's head crowning, and accompanying genitalia, can provide the money shot for a mainstream comedy.
So abortion becomes the decision that dare not speak its name, but nothing says comedy like a giant vagina with a baby coming out of it? As even the men who accompanied me to the film admitted afterwards, they laughed more from shock at watching an adamantine taboo be broken than because they thought the image was funny per se. In this, they may well differ from women, most of whom, in my experience, find male genitalia very funny indeed.
Although these comedies are supposedly transgressive, positively Rabelaisian in their enjoyment of the grotesque, the scatological, the shocking, they actually prove to be quite conservative. It's not just that they end with marriage; most comedy ends with marriage, all the way back through Shakespeare to the ancient Greeks. It's that they're not truly satirical in spirit.
Satire is fundamentally subversive and corrective in its view: it sees the human comedy for what it is, but hopes, basically, to shame people into shaping up and flying right; to stop making such asses of themselves. Gross-out comedies have no such desire: their definition of comedy is intensely limited, and ultimately in the service of moral precepts and sentimental bromides.
What controversy Knocked Up has kicked up has surrounded its reflexively pro-life, family-values stance: when a drunken one-night stand between two adult strangers results in an unplanned pregnancy, not only does no one utter the word "abortion", no sympathetic character argues for it, either. Instead, both protagonists accept the "inevitable" with resignation, and the rest of the film concerns their attempts to become a couple. For many female reviewers, this has seemed uncomfortably prescriptive, regressive misogyny dressed up in a clown suit.
I didn't find the film misogynistic: if anything, the story seems much more punitive toward the man. While the audience is clearly meant to sympathise with his protracted adolescence, ultimately he must clean up his act, get a "proper" job in an office, rent an apartment and furnish a nursery, and generally turn into a Jewish-Canadian Ward Cleaver.
The woman only has to have the baby; she gets to keep her job, her lifestyle, her family and friends. He has to grow up and say goodbye to all that. Nietzsche once wrote: "Beneath the conformist, there lies the satyr." Knocked Up sees things the other way around: beneath the satyr lies a conformist.
The most comic aspect of the scene, to my mind, happened off-screen: apparently director Judd Apatow had lined up an expectant mother and was going to shoot a real baby crowning for his money shot. But the state of California intervened. Officials informed Apatow that he would require a work permit for the baby, and couldn't apply for one until the baby was born.
Now, that's funny.
Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia
Further reading: Henri Bergson, 'Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic', Kessinger Publishing (£11.95)