What are we allowed to laugh at? This may seem like an odd question—we’re ‘allowed’ to laugh at anything we want to, surely? In this country nobody’s going to arrest us for laughing at something. We’re free to indulge our own personal tastes.
But … there is a but. Nobody’s going to arrest you, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for laughing at the wrong thing. Laugh at a major car crash and you’re going to attract, at the very least, some disapproving looks. Laugh at the wrong joke at the wrong time, or in the wrong company, and ostracism awaits. In truth, we all find ourselves on guard against our own sense of humour lest we inadvertently laugh at something that’s racist, sexist, homophobic, or seen on Two and a Half Men. What we are allowed to laugh at is always relative to the situation—the rules are different at a suburban barbecue than at a Green Party fundraiser, or at a late-night stand-up show than your grandmother’s birthday party. But no matter where you are, there are going to be some unwritten rules about what you should or should not be finding funny if you want to fit in.
For those of us who are attempting to make a living by making others laugh, the stakes are higher. If laughing at the wrong thing can result in a social faux pas, trying to convince people to laugh at the wrong thing might mean risking your job and seeing your family starve. Having received, in the second week of my stint as a radio presenter, a phone call from a listener that began with the rather blunt question, ‘Are you the guys who think rape is funny?’ I became acutely aware of this. Fortunately it was only community radio, and the only real consequence of the affair was to give me a bit more spare time in the evenings, but it did demonstrate just how dangerous a business it can be to take the thoughts in your head that you think are funny and transmit them to a wider world that may not only find them unfunny, but sickeningly offensive.
The answer to the listener’s question was, no, I don’t find rape funny. But yes, our show had just broadcast a joke that featured the word ‘rape’ in it. Some people would find that reason enough to ban someone from the airwaves, and indeed some people did. But there are two issues here: whether jokes about a certain subject ought not be made, and whether jokes about a certain subject indicate that the joker thinks the subject itself is funny.
Let’s start with that most dangerous of comedic grounds—the rape joke, or perhaps more accurately, the joke about rape. Jokes about rape, incidentally, are neither new nor all that uncommon in popular culture—in many cases they pass by with barely a raised eyebrow. Prison rape, for example, is practically a time-tested family comedy staple. So too is the old convention so beloved of British comedies of a certain era: that of the man ‘chasing’ the object of his desire—often in a very literal sense—with the aim of claiming his unwilling quarry, should he manage to be quick enough on his feet. In those scenarios, rape was not so much a crime as a sort of sport: if the woman wants to reject a fellow’s advances, let her get her skates on, and good luck to her if she can get away. The supposed inherent unwillingness of women to have sex, and the dogged determination of men to overcome their resistance, is one of the oldest comedic concepts in the book.
Beyond such ancient tropes as these—which probably are not even recognised as ‘rape jokes’ by many—references to rape in comedy are abundant. From Monty Python, Family Guy and Arrested Development to The Office and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, comedy has been wrought out of this horrific crime. And undoubtedly there are many who think that it shouldn’t have been. But do those people believe that the writers and performers of these jokes ‘think rape is funny’? That they would witness a rape, and laugh? Or chuckle their way through a rape trial?
The question is important, because it goes to the very heart of why comedy exists. Whenever a controversy flares up about comedy that is seen to have gone ‘too far’, there is a cry that is taken up by the morally outraged: ‘So you think X is funny, do you?’ (for ‘X’, substitute rape, paedophilia, domestic violence, genocide, sick kids or train timetables). And the implication behind this cry is clear: that when we make jokes, we are making them about things that are inherently funny. That is, that to create comedy, what you do is look around you, see what’s funny, and then point that fact out to the world.
And on the face of it, that seems perfectly reasonable: isn’t that what comedians do? Find the ‘lighter side’? Obvious, isn’t it? If you make a joke about something, it’s because that something is funny.
Except … it’s not true. Comedy’s not about showing us what’s funny: it’s about making things funny. And that’s what should be obvious. Look through the history of comedy and it’s littered with jokes, comic scenes, and entire films and TV shows based on the most deadly serious of topics: comedies about murder, about war, about Nazis, about organised crime. Should we assume that the creators of Dad’s Army thought the Second World War was hilarious? Or the creators of MASH, about Korea? What about the classic Ealing film The Ladykillers? Was it made by men who thought criminal gangs murdering old ladies was giggleworthy?
I suspect the answer to all of these questions is no. The reason these topics were chosen for comedy was not because they are, or were, funny in real life, but rather because the art of comedy is finding a way to create humour out of situations, not depicting life as it is.
This is not just about the grim and potentially offensive subjects. Barely any comedic situations are funny in and of themselves. There is nothing particularly funny about running a hotel, for example. Or an office. Or being a psychiatrist. There’s not even anything particularly funny about the life of a stand-up comedian. Practically any comedy you care to name could have been a drama, or even a tragedy, with the same plot, played differently.
If we were only to make jokes about things that were funny in real life, what would be the point of comedy in the first place? If comedians were to be restricted to that which makes us laugh already, why have comedians? The popular phrase is ‘it’s funny because it’s true’, but the more accurate cliché is ‘it’s the way that you tell ’em’. Anyone can tell a story about something funny that happened to them today: we watch comedies because they tell us stories that are funnier than what happened to us today.
But even so, one might say, why be offensive? There’s plenty of serious, real-life subjects to make light of, without delving into the sort of grim, dangerous territory that sparks angry talkback and furious editorials. Is there really a need to offend, to make comedy out of the very darkest corners of life?
It’s a vexed question. In a literal sense, of course there isn’t. In the world of comedy—in the world of entertainment and art in general—there isn’t a need for anything in particular. The world won’t end if offensive comedy disappears from it; comedy itself will carry on without offensiveness; we could stick with nice, polite, kindhearted comedy designed not to upset anyone, and everything would, it seems likely, be fine. Nobody would be upset, people would still have a few chuckles, life would go on. So why be offensive?
There are a few reasons. First of all, it can be said, upfront: some people just think the subjects are funny, in and of themselves. Yes, there are people who think rape is funny. Yes, there are genuinely racist and misogynist and homophobic jokes. To argue that so-called offensive comedy can be a good thing isn’t the same as claiming there is no ‘bad’ offensive comedy. There surely is, and it should rightfully be censured. But apart from what one might call the imperative to err on the side of free speech, it’s very important—if sometimes difficult—to distinguish between those who make racist, misogynist, homophobic or otherwise offensive jokes, and those who make jokes about these subjects for reasons other than promoting racism, misogyny, homophobia and so on.
One of these other reasons—and to some this may not sound like much of a defence, but here we go—is shock. The simple fact is that shock is a fundamental part of what makes comedy work—not ‘shock’ in the sense of moral outrage or hysteria, but shock simply in the sense of surprise, of the unexpected. While not wanting to lay down any blanket rules as to what comedy is, at the very least a big slab of it works via that jolt to the brain that comes from an unexpected punchline, an abrupt sight gag, a conversation suddenly taking a surprise twist. Humour works, in large part, through shock—not to our delicate sensibilities, but to our neurons. And the bigger the shock, the bigger the laugh. The sharper the left-turn, the more surprising the punchline, the more out-of-the-blue the pratfall, the funnier we’ll find it. Therefore, in searching for a bigger laugh, the comedian will frequently go for the most ‘shocking’ conclusion to the gag. So extreme references will find their way into jokes, not out of a desire to offend, and often not even because the sensitive subject is what the joke is about, but simply in an attempt to provoke the greatest spontaneous explosion of laughter. In seeking to make a joke about, say, the Prime Minister, one searches for the most extreme juxtaposition possible, out of nothing more than a wish to be funny. And this was how we arrived at the aforementioned ‘do you think rape is funny’ call to the radio station.
To many, this reason for being offensive is unlikely to represent a convincing defence. ‘I only said it because I wanted to shock people’ may not absolve the comedian from blame in the court of public opinion—it could inflame matters. But with a little insight into the construction and function of comedy, more thoughtful observers will concede that an attempt to shock is not necessarily an attempt to offend, and that even something that offends someone grievously may not have been intended to. Many comedians are happy to be accused of being offensive: few are happy to be seen as being deliberately hurtful, although both of these are likely occupational hazards. Is it worth facing any such accusations for the sake of a bigger laugh? Each can decide for him or herself, but surely if we’re going to have comedians, we can hardly expect them not to look for every opportunity to be as funny as they possibly can. Isn’t every artist expected to use all tools at their disposal to be the best artist they can be?
But there is another reason why ‘offensive’ jokes may find their way into the public domain, which might be called the more ‘noble’ reason. This involves the use of comedy as release, challenge, and catharsis. It can be useful for us to deal with difficult issues by finding ways to laugh at them. It can demystify them, break down taboos and challenge us to think in different ways. Often, once we laugh at a subject, we are better able to talk about it. Frightening things like disease and death become less frightening because they have been laughed at. And just as importantly, frightening people become less frightening too. It’s why dictators hate so much to be ridiculed: when you’re made ridiculous, it’s a lot harder to scare anyone. The perpetrators of violence in our own society loom less large if they’re figures of fun. Furthermore, jokes can challenge our own preconceptions and force us to reconsider just what we think about an issue.
In this sense, comedy can be used as a weapon against oppression, but this implies that it will deal with sensitive issues. If you want to ridicule a dictator, you have to make jokes about dictators. If you want to ridicule racism, you have to make jokes about racists. And if you want to ridicule rapists, you have to make jokes—deep breath—about rape. Are these jokes ‘necessary’? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose. And it doesn’t mean the comedians making these jokes are taking an immoral position, or in some way making a statement that the real-life consequences of these issues are themselves ‘funny’.
However, no matter the intention or the purpose, there will be plenty whose protest against a joke is on the grounds that there are things that just should not be joked about, full stop. So, given that the comedian’s job is to perform the base-metal-to-gold trick of making the serious business of life funny, are there any aspects of life that we just shouldn’t even try to make funny? Are there subjects that are simply too serious, too sensitive, too likely to upset and offend, to even mention in a comedic context? Certainly there are few, if any, subjects that haven’t, at some point, been the subject of comedy, but does that make it right? Is it possible to determine the morality of comedy simply by what it’s about, rather than what it contains?
I’ve been asked before, ‘Is there any subject you would never make a joke about?’ and it’s a difficult one to answer. What constitutes a ‘subject’ in this context? If you ask me whether I’d be willing to make a joke about paedophilia, I’d be forced to say yes, I would, and I have. If you ask me whether I’d be willing to make a joke about a little girl who was abducted by a paedophile yesterday, I’d say no. People are going to be offended by both of these jokes, but only one of them will involve the factors of specificity and timeliness that can turn an ‘offensive’ joke into a ‘cruel’ one. And significantly, only one of them has even the slightest chance of being funny. Even allowing for the extreme subjectivity of humour and the impossibility of determining in an absolute sense what is or isn’t funny, there are some jokes that, made at the wrong time, have no chance of succeeding with any but the most bizarre sense of humour.
But leaving out the specific tragedies that defy humour entirely, I can’t say there is a subject that I would leave completely off-limits. Why should there be? It’s broadly accepted that other art forms should be able to tackle the most difficult of topics—the depraved side of human nature is a constant theme of ‘serious drama’, and though the squeamish might avoid such depictions, few argue that a dramatist commits a sin just by addressing it. Why should comedy be any different? It’s just as valid an art form as drama, and can be just as powerful when done well. Comedy, like the other arts, is a means of exploring the universe we find ourselves in, and there’s no reason it should either hold itself to different standards than the other arts or deny itself the possibility of exploring the full scope of human activity.
It’s also important to recognise that avoiding all possibility of offence is near-impossible. How can anyone be sure that a joke they make won’t upset someone in the audience? The potential for offence in jokes about racism and sexism is obvious, but you could make a joke about crashing your car, not knowing that a member of the audience had lost a family member in a car crash last month. You could make a joke about church not knowing that an audience member had been molested by a priest. You could make a joke about dogs and cats not knowing someone’s beloved pet had died that morning. If we rule out any subject that could conceivably upset someone, we rule out pretty much everything. To say ‘that offended me’ is not the same thing as saying ‘that is offensive’. The former is a subjective statement that cannot be argued with. The second is an objective judgement that will it always be damnably difficult to get consensus on.
That doesn’t mean comedians shouldn’t be careful in how they frame their material. You’ve always got to consider the purpose of your joke, the audience, and who your target is; although sometimes, it’s wise to remember, a joke may not have a target at all. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, sometimes a joke is just a joke.
That’s the crux of the matter: comedians may have many aims: to provoke thought, to stir up anger, to raise important issues or even to infuriate people. But the vast majority of them want, above all else, to make people laugh as hard and as long as possible. It may be an unfortunate part of the job that once you’ve made a joke, it’s out there and you can’t control how people are going to take it. But the great comedy figures will risk that, will not be put off mentioning something just because someone might be offended.
Everyone has a perfect right to take offence at anything, and I’ll defend that right, but nobody has a God-given right to go through life without being offended. So if you want to stop me making the jokes I want to make, you better have a more substantial reason than ‘that’s offensive’. Otherwise, with the greatest respect, my answer will simply be, ‘So what?’