Viv Groskop: Offensive jokes? Don't get mad, get silly

Comedy should be able to talk about whatever it wants to talk about, however inappropriate


Have you heard the one about the rape joke? No, I don't want to tell it either. And I suspect you don't really want to hear it anyway. What does and doesn't make "acceptable" comedy has been the talk of the Edinburgh Fringe this week. If politicians are not allowed to talk about their understanding of what constitutes "legitimate" rape, then is it OK for comedians? Are there subjects that are so offensive you'd do better to steer clear of them?

These are not questions comics should have to think about. It's a comedian's job to make you laugh. And often people do laugh at the "wrong" thing. Whether it's acceptable or not depends on the skill of the comedian and how good their material is. To paraphrase the highly inoffensive Jimmy Cricket, who was back performing at the Pleasance Ace Dome this year with 1970s New Faces winner Mick Miller ("combined age 128"), it's the way you tell them. Offence to the late Frank Carson intentional.

We're in a weird place with political correctness. Channel 4 has just scrapped its Big Fat Gypsy documentaries. Ever since the furore over the deeply unsubtle "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier" adverts, the brand has become too controversial. It's hard to ignore the fact, though, that they've been one of the channel's biggest ever ratings hits. Audiences of more than seven million found them highly entertaining. People like things that are politically incorrect. They particularly like laughing at things they are not supposed to laugh at.

Similarly, barely a week goes by that a comedian is not berated for mocking the appearance of a spoon-faced Olympian. Or for cracking some gag which reveals how we're still secretly much more prejudiced than we'd like to believe about all sorts of things. You can't tell the millions of Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle fans that they shouldn't be finding the jokes funny. They are too busy laughing.

Comedy, unlike documentary, allows you to get away with a lot – and rightly so. It's non-fiction and in a world of its own. It's not real life. There's a huge gap between how we want things to be in society (inclusive, non-judgemental, equal) and how they really are (unfair, prejudiced, sneery). Comedy's job is to point that out, not ignore it, tiptoe around it or pretend it doesn't exist. Comedy should be able to talk about whatever it wants to talk about, however inappropriate.

Of course, there is plenty of stuff around that gives comedy a bad name. There are references galore to porn, rape, gypsies, "chavs" and "pikeys", not to mention the endless mentions of Josef Fritzl and Madeleine McCann you get on the circuit. One day, someone will combine all these topics and spontaneously combust. Personally, I may commit an act of violence if I hear another reference coming from a geeky young man about locking his girlfriends in the shed. But that's mostly because it often feels autobiographical and I get all maternal about it and worried for him. And them.

It's always the supposedly "offensive" stuff that makes headlines. Meanwhile, loads of new comics are quietly getting on with what comics do best: being exceedingly silly. All 10 of the top 10 jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival are supremely silly and completely inoffensive. "You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks" – Stewart Francis. "Last night me and my girlfriend watched three DVDs back to back. Luckily I was the one facing the telly" – Tim Vine. Silly, silly, silly. Everyone's happy. (And if you don't think those jokes are funny, I refer you once more to Jimmy Cricket. You're reading it to yourself wrong.)

Even more refreshingly, this year's Fringe has seen the return of good, old-fashioned banana-skin comedy. Today, the winners of the Foster's comedy awards, Best Show and Best Newcomer, will be announced. Clowning and physical comedy feature heavily. And with a record total of two women on the Best Comedy Show shortlist – Josie Long and Claudia O'Doherty – for the first time ever, there is not a bad rape joke in sight.

Not that the first-class performers on the shortlists would avoid any subject if they could make it clever and funny. It's just that these are all comedians who celebrate the art of silliness and the value of connecting with an audience. They don't need to go for cheap shock tactics or dodgy "edgy" stuff. Instead, they've spent years working on being geniuses at stagecraft. The nominees for Best Comedy Show include gloriously lunatic sketch trio Pappy's, the "deliberately eccentric" James Acaster and self-confessed "total idiot" Dr Brown, who doesn't have to speak to command an audience. I cannot even look at his beard without giggling.

As for banning certain topics? Tell a comedian not to tell a joke and they will want to tell it all the more. Much better to steer comedic talent towards idiocy. Silliness is the ultimate cure for the tedious, unwinnable offensiveness debate. What's best about silliness? It never hurt anyone. Except to make your face ache. And no gypsies harmed in the process. Bonus.

Twitter: @VivGroskop

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor