Ricky Gervais is smart – not a bully or a bigot, even though recent events might indicate otherwise. Now he's apologised for using the word "mong", let's get the affair in perspective. Sure, he was naïve, and posting oafish pictures on Twitter was dumb. They attracted a storm of protest – and Gervais was even accused of ramping up the controversy to promote his new television series. But after Nicola Clark, the mother of two teenage girls with severe autism, cried on the Jeremy Vine radio show as she described the insults she's had to deal with from the public, Ricky contacted her and they talked privately and he said sorry. He then offered her a "very public thank you" on Twitter. Unlike Frankie Boyle, with his revolting comments about Katie Price's disabled son Harvey, Ricky knows when to admit he got it wrong.
Leaving aside whether words change their meanings, freely abusing people is absolutely acceptable in modern comedy. Along with jokes about getting your girlfriend to enjoy anal sex, uses for amputees, and bestiality. Comedy remains overwhelmingly male – look at the Edinburgh Fringe and the performers on television and radio shows from Live at the Apollo to 9 out of 10 Cats to QI, Buzzcocks and Have I Got News for You. It's a very macho world. I'm not too bothered about that. What's more concerning is the general level of verbal coarseness, which tends to happen when one sex is over-represented.
When I get asked on telly with some male comics I decline, because I can't cope with the nastiness. I threatened to walk out of one show a while back when a well-known comic made a homophobic gag about a friend, saying "he takes it up the s*****r". During a recording, you expect comics to show off to keep the audience interested, but in this instance, they were appalled. I was made to feel as if I wasn't being a sport. After a grudging "apology" we continued the show.
On Facebook, in chatrooms and on Twitter, the level of repartee these days is routinely judgemental and savage ... and it's in this context Ricky used the M-word. Jimmy Carr's on-stage nastiness has been well documented – but funnily enough he's a very pleasant person in real life. Hugely intelligent, he has thoroughly researched what works with his audience – the filthier and more unpleasant he gets, the more they like it.
Years ago, I was the BBC executive in charge of a late-night comedy show in which Bill Hicks delivered a hilarious monologue about how throat cancer victims could have a tracheotomy and smoke two cigarettes at the same time. It brought the house down, but it emerged a few days later that a senior BBC executive was suffering from throat cancer, and I was ordered to make a grovelling apology after the programme. My boss told me I was supposed to be monitoring taste and decency issues and had failed in my task. I disagreed – but was overruled. Good comedy will always offend someone, but I'm more concerned that our society as a whole seems to have got more uncaring and insensitive and popular comedy reflects that in all its forms.
Ricky Gervais thought he was chatting away on Twitter, like a bloke in the pub, but he seems to have made a rare misjudgement. I saw his outrageous set at a teenage cancer charity event at the Royal Albert Hall a few years ago, when he referred to disability in a routine that could have caused offence. The kids in the wheelchairs were howling with laughter. That's a sign of true genius. I've interviewed Ricky: he's highly cautious and comes across as mildly insecure. Some say he's arrogant, but I disagree. He's only really happy performing and hopeless at small talk, which is why he messed up on Twitter.
Instead of picking on Ricky, consider the way kids talk to each other 24/7 via text and messaging. Think about why nurses are accused of insensitivity when dealing with the old. Look at the abuse and nastiness on the internet, the swearing in the street and in shops. We've all become more brutalised. We have less time for real feelings; we trade on instant reactions. Those who come up with the smart-alec insults are the prize fighters of our era. Don't blame Ricky – he was just trying to be contemporary, on-message. But why are we all so unspeakably insensitive?
Sally's big fat gypsy television stunt
The Bercow family faces another period of turmoil. Sally is swapping her spacious grace-and-favour flat in Westminster for a gypsy caravan in North Wales when she moves in with Irish traveller, former bare-knuckle boxer and Celebrity Big Brother winner Paddy Doherty for two weeks next month.
The odd couple are being filmed for a Channel 5 reality series: another step in Mrs B's plan for media domination. How will our much-mocked Speaker be handling the news? Will Mrs D be taking up residence in Whitehall? Who is going to look after Sally's three small children as she cooks, cleans and dusts the Doherty mobile home?
The week after next has been designated Parliament Week, a Bercow project that will "explore how people can get involved in democracy". Perhaps Mrs Doherty will get a chance to put the travellers' point of view, post-Dale Farm. Or she could ask Mr B why he refused to follow other MPs and ministers and cut his pension, in spite of David Cameron's request.
He will have about £40,000 a year for life, when he retires, and doesn't even have to contribute to the scheme. Democracy is a pretty elastic concept when it comes to Parliamentary perks.
Look, it's a gull. Not an 'experience'
Last week, Radio 4's Saving Species explored why herring gulls are flocking to cities where they scavenge for food, and declining in number in their traditional habitats.
Before long, an RSPB spokesmen used two of my least favourite bits of jargon in one pompous sentence, talking about consulting the many "stakeholders" involved and announcing the herring gull is a familiar seaside "experience".
I thought the gull was a loud squawking white bird, but what do I know? I'm probably not even a stakeholder. Can the Beeb police the unnecessary use of jargon?
Closing St Paul's is beyond belief
When protesters set up camp outside St Paul's Cathedral last week, Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor, welcomed his new visitors in an exemplary Christian way. As they've grown in number, he's changed his tune. Visitor numbers and takings at the gift shop and café have plummeted. Now the cathedral has closed – an unthinkable act.
It should open its doors to demonstrators who have the guts to stand up for what they believe in. They may be incoherent and irritating, but they have a right to protest about our society's blatant inequality. If Jesus were alive, he'd be one of the campers. The C of E, with its vast property portfolio, admission fees and souvenirs, has a warped sense of priorities.
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