Terence Blacker: It's just not funny (whoever makes the joke)

Ricky Gervais knocks a dwarf unconscious with his knee! Cutting-edge comedy at its best
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The Independent Online

It has been a cracker of a week for the easily affronted. Those concerned about mental health will have been appalled by the shadow Chancellor's heartless reference to autism (when an interviewer jokily asked if he had been "faintly autistic" as a child, George Osborne said, with unforgivable bad taste: "We're not getting on to Gordon Brown yet.") Hardly had we recovered from that shock when a vicar - yes, a man of God! - was reported as having written in his parish magazine that at this time of the year there was a nip in the air, "which is what they said when they hanged the Japanese criminal".

The vicar will, one sincerely hopes, be sent on a compulsory equality training course, where he might meet another appalling offender against decency and morality, the Conservative councillor from Bournemouth who, in an e-mail, joked that a modern Noah would be forced to take gay couples on the ark because "it would be illegal to have animals of the opposite sex".

Those appalling instances of bad taste have caused outrage but, astonishingly, Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party's own motormouth, has been allowed to go from bad to worse. This week he scandalised those concerned about the ticking obesity bomb in Britain's children, and also insulted one of our best-loved TV cooks, Jamie Oliver, by supporting - in an allegedly jokey moment - those irresponsible parents who have pushed pies through the school railings to their waddling, dimple-cheeked kids. In a so-called apology, Johnson referred to the caring celebrity chef as "the messiah" - surely another grievous insult, this time to people of faith across the country for whom there is only one true messiah.

With all this offensiveness running like a sewer through our culture, it is frankly a miracle that any of us can sleep at night. Fortunately, the pressures of life are eased by some of the marvellous comedy for which Britain is now rightly famous. There was a wonderful episode the other day of the BBC sitcom Extras, in which the loveable central character, written and played by Ricky Gervais, gets into a serious of hilarious scrapes: first of all complaining in a restaurant about a noisy child who, in a priceless moment of high comedy, is revealed to mentally handicapped. Then Ricky has a row with a dwarf who, in a riotous final scene, he knocks unconscious with his knee! As cutting-edge comedy, this was right up there with the best Ricky's stand-up routines about the holocaust, Stephen Hawking ("He's lazy") and paedophiles.

Then, helping Ricky Gervais prove that, for all our new sensitivity, we Britons know how to enjoy a good laugh, Sasha Baron Cohen's irrepressible character Borat will soon be back with a film in which Kazakhstan is joshingly portrayed as a country where rape, cruelty, anti-Semitism and stupidity are part of everyday life and the army is armed with catapults. On its release in America, an official from the Kazakh embassy described the film as "utterly unacceptable, being a concoction of bad taste and ill manners which is completely incompatible with ethics and civilised behaviour" but, for true sophisticates of comedy, this simple-minded view has merely added to the joke.

Perhaps we should provide some assistance. There is, of course, the world of difference between a dwarf or a wheelchair routine when told by Ricky Gervais (funny and acceptable) and a passing reference to autism by a politician (unfunny and deeply upsetting). If a vicar includes a nip/Jap joke in a parish magazine, he is clearly a bigot. When Sasha Baron Cohen devotes an entire film to portraying a nation as rapists and morons, he is a comic genius. The difference is not, as some might imagine, in the quality of the joke but is entirely to do with who tells it.

Over to Ricky Gervais, explaining how his stand-up routine works: "It's where the comedy comes from that counts. I think people know that I'm obviously a liberal-minded guy, it's an act, it's a character, so hopefully they'll understand I do it with irony." Once you know the context of the joke, Ricky says, you can "laugh at what you think are quite harsh taboo subjects without guilt ... There's a lot of honesty in it."

This will be helpful to the man from Kazakhstan. Getting laughs out of the disabled, or foreigners, even cracking a few good old rape jokes, is entirely acceptable when the audience knows where the comedy is coming from and that the performer is obviously a liberal-minded guy. It is, if you like, a show-business version of Mrs Thatcher's code. If someone is "one of us", then the cruellest characterisation of a people, the easiest kicking-a-dwarf laugh, is essentially an expression of his own honesty. There is a shared belief - an illusion, if you like - that the humour is not an expression of bigotry at all but is an ironic, caring and sensitive critique of the bigotry of those who are not "one of us".

If our friend from Kazakhstan is particularly naive, he might argue that laughing at the vulnerable is offensive whatever its source. He might go further and suggest that a nation's approach to humour can reveal its own hypocrisy, that any sensitivity it claims for itself is essentially fraudulent when public figures are afraid of making the very type of joke which is just fine when told by a member of the new media establishment.

But then, clearly, a man from Kazakhstan is unlikely to understand the full subtlety of British humour.