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If comedians can’t be offensive, who can?

Jimmy Carr is only the latest public figure to fall victim to the ‘offence hounds’ who love being scandalised.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics Free Speech

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Another week, another depressing case of vicarious offence-taking, this time involving comedian Jimmy Carr and a joke about British servicemen amputees. And Carr won’t be the last to brush the thin skins of the nation’s moral guardians.

Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Prince Harry, Chris Moyles, Frankie Boyle, Carol Thatcher, Anton du Beke, Jan Moir… Over the past year, all have fallen victim to this most tedious of social constituencies: the offence hounds, or what Brendan O’Neill refers to as the offencearati. All it takes is a whiff of something that someone else might find a bit rude, and they’re off, hunting down their victims with twittering mercilessness. Complaints are fired off to Ofcom, emails are sent to the Press Complaints Commission, outraged comment pieces are published in the press, and, if the offence-hound is feeling particularly offended that day, the police might be called upon for offence-hunting assistance.

What is particularly strange about the eagerly offended is that they are very rarely at the scene of the initial offence-giving. When during a radio broadcast Ross and Brand bumbled into the private life of Andrew Sachs’ granddaughter, barely anyone who actually listened to the show noticed anything beyond the usual Brand-style anarchy. It took nearly two weeks for the offence hounds to get a sniff and it was only then that the original broadcast became significant. The same goes for Carol Thatcher, whose ‘Golliwog’ comment was made off-camera. Tipped off by someone actually there, the press seized upon it and only then did it become the object of offence-taking glee. It’s a farcical situation: offensiveness not only lies in the non-witnessing eyes of the beholder, it is almost always created in retrospect.

On Friday at the Manchester Apollo, the 2,500-strong audience responded to Jimmy Carr’s jokes much as people who like Jimmy Carr’s jokes often do. They laughed. So when Carr said, ‘Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012’, guess how those present responded? Did their jaws drop, aghast at a comedian’s insensitivity towards the British Army? Did others simply wheel themselves out in disgust? No. They laughed. And they laughed because they were at a comedy gig listening to jokes.

All it took though was for one person to decide that it was offensive, and from then on the gusts of proxy outrage keep the thing moving. The press report it, then seek out others who might be offended – parents of soldiers injured or killed in Afghanistan for instance – and get them to say it was a bit rude. Editorials are scandalised. And most important of all, not to say depressing, politicians decide that they too must take a stance. And so, right on cue, defence secretary Bob Ainsworth proclaimed he was ‘furious’ with Carr: ‘Our armed services put their lives on the line and deserve the utmost respect.’

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox, fearful of being out-offended by a rival, said Carr had ‘gone beyond the pale’. Conservative MP Patrick Mercer went further still. Carr should retire, he demanded. ‘This man’s career should end right now’, he shook. ‘There are certain subjects you just can’t make fun of and one of those is the sacrifice of our troops – especially this close to Remembrance Sunday.’

And there’s the problem with offence-taking. It draws a line in the social sand, demarcating those things that people simply can’t say because someone somewhere else might be upset by it. That this person is almost entirely fictional does not matter, it provides the source of the offence-hounds’ self-righteousness. The effect is stifling. So stifling, in fact, that Carr apologised and then withdrew the joke from his performance.

That Carr felt fearful enough to apologise does not make Mercer right. Nothing ought to be beyond the bounds of speech, comedic or otherwise, not least because we are talking about speech here, not action. The idea that certain words and statements are too much for adults to bear restricts public life to pre-watershed discussion. ‘Not in front of the children’, runs the paternalist thinking of the elite.

As for comedy, maimed soldiers, cancer sufferers, rape and AIDS are all fair game. Even Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington ought not to be beyond the purview of comedians, despite the BBC Trust recently criticising news satire programme Mock the Week for precisely that: making fun of Adlington. Frankie Boyle described her as resembling ‘someone who’s looking at themselves in the back of a spoon’. Cruel, yes, given her long, droopy nose and small, recessive forehead, but funny too, given her long, droopy nose and small, recessive forehead.

This is a problem for those eager to inhibit speech. Jokes are invariably derisory, and sometimes cruel. They break taboos, challenge accepted manners. And they always have done. As Cicero put it in the first century BC, ‘an indecency decently put is the thing we laugh at hardest’. Offensiveness inheres within jokes. You take it out, and the joke loses something.

The right to be offensive ought to be defended at all times, but especially in the sphere of comedy. In other spheres, different judgements are informally at work. As a doctor, for instance, you probably wouldn’t choose to mock a maimed soldier in the course of treating him. That’s because, in a clinical context, it might not be deemed that helpful. But in the context of stand-up comedy, where the negotiation between the stand-up and the audience about what is appropriate and what is not is constantly under review, a different set of judgements is at work. That’s what gives it its fizz, its excitement. The best stand-up challenges you, it combats manners, upsets expectations, both in logic and in politeness. It is the mark of bad comedy if the audience is left, not challenged, but indifferent, with nothing more than their preconceptions massaged.

Yet for those viewing and monitoring our interactions from afar, whether in comedy clubs or off-camera at the BBC, it is the valuable part of comedy, and the challenging parts of speech more generally, that is being inhibited. All in the name of avoiding offence.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume examined today’s You Can’t Say That culture. Tim Black watched Peep Show, a ‘comedy of embarrassment’. Patrick West laughed out loud at Mark Steel’s radio show but thought funny women need to develop some balls. Ian Woolley noticed the rot of British comedy. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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