What larks there will be when the Open University's travelling joke booth sets off across the country in search of the national sense of humour. The idea is to collect jokes from the different regions for a straight-faced sociological survey which will then set its hat at a comical angle and become a BBC documentary series, presented, somehow inevitably, by Lenny Henry.
"We will be analysing the component parts of what it is that makes a story funny and why some jokes are funny and some not," the university's Dr Marie Gillespie has revealed. Humour, apparently, acts as a social barometer. Discovering how we laugh reveals how we feel. Lenny Henry will be exploring nothing less than our sense of national identity.
There will, of course, be long queues outside Dr Gillespie's travelling joke booths. The English take their humour very seriously and have come to believe that they are the funniest nation on earth, having invented irony (which no one understands quite as well as they do) and satire.
Because national pride is at stake, the jokes will be zany, innocent and almost entirely unfunny. Both the survey and the series have about them an air of multicultural celebration. Dr Gillespie has written a scholarly paper on the Asian comedy Goodness Gracious Me - which is commendable enough but not much of a social barometer.
It is unlikely, for example, that the programme-makers will be looking for contributions from Jim Davidson, Britain's greatest living stand-up comedian who was on scorching form at the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth, last Saturday. Sociologists and broadcasters like to praise work that is edgy, but Jim has fallen over the edge too definitively to be acceptable.
It is not so much his subject matter (age, race, sex, disablement, politics, illness) that causes problems as his approach to them. The alternative comedians appearing at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, this month may tackle controversial material, but they will also make sure their audiences know that the person on stage is basically sound, and shares the values and views of all decent people.
Davidson refuses to play that game. He is sublimely unsound in his opinions. His views are clear enough - oafish and right-wing - but he has a habit of wrong-footing his audience just as it is relaxing into prejudice. Never having seen him live, I had been prepared for his brilliance, technical and verbal (Jim raises swearing to a high art). What I had not been expecting was a sort of unpredictable restlessness.
Jim Davidson's life is not in obviously good shape. He lives in Dubai and has just been declared bankrupt after an expensive divorce, his fourth. Last year's tours were full of walkouts, hotel bust-ups and rumours of boozing. His current tour takes in Grantham, Eastbourne and Dartford, but avoids larger cities or venues. He is way outside the comedy establishment, and these days not only gets a lot of stick from the media, but also has had to deal with concerted heckling.
All this has been very good for his comedy, which has the power to offend virtually everyone. In Great Yarmouth, he began by attacking the locals - he was in trouble a couple of years ago having suggested, not without some reason, that the town was "full of overweight people in flip-flops and fat children of all colours and no class" - then moved on to Englishwomen, homosexuals, scousers and the old. There were some unfunny racist jokes, but he seemed less sure of himself with these, as if he had included them only because they were expected. In a routine about an Iraqi doctor, it is the doctor who is given the punchline. When the audience applauded an abusive reference to Blair, he said sourly, "Yeah, now you're with me, aren't you, you fucking turncoats."
The show is unspeakably filthy and, by all civilised standards, goes too far. But going too far is what Davidson is good at and, if the best comedy is about taking an audience out of its comfort zone, then that is precisely what his does. He takes the rage and hang-ups of everyday life, not to mention his own insecurities, and uses them as material. The result, while often shocking, is curiously more engaged and life-enhancing than safe liberal chunterings from an allegedly alternative stand-up about Bush, Prescott and Noel Edmonds.
Jim Davidson is the true alternative comedian. His is not the English humour that will necessarily appear in Open University joke surveys or the next interminable compilation of the country's favourite comedians on Channel 4. Self-revealing, raw, angry, sentimental, it reflects the audience's prejudices back at them, sometimes unflatteringly, and yet avoids endorsing them. He may make us uncomfortable, but his brilliant comedy catches our national identity all too well.Reuse content