On Offensive Humour

by thethreepennyguignol

You can’t work in the media these days without being tripped up by people making, protesting against, or apologising for offensive jokes. Whether it’s Frankie Boyle joking about how lucky the late Jade Goody’s husband was now that she had passed, to Jimmy Carr saying that he blamed Reeva Steenkamp for her own shooting, to Rickey Gervais suggesting that an overweight woman walking down the street eating chips should be sterilised. It’s comedy’s business to make the unthinkable thinkable and to tackle subjects that we might feel uncomfortable about tackling in our day-to-day lives. And I get that. I don’t think comedians and other entertainers should be forced to stop making jokes that offend people, because then all we’re left with is the kind of half-hearted comedic mush that doesn’t offend anyone, but doesn’t entertain anyone either.

But what really irks me about offensive humour is how protective people are about it. Let’s take, for example, the big shitstorm that surrounded comedian Daniel Tosh a couple of years back. After a woman in the audience protested his take on rape jokes always being hilarious, he replied with ” “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like, right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”. He apologised, but the incident turned out to be the comedy’s Helen of Troy, the comment that launched a thousand thinkpieces. There were people defending his right to make rape jokes, there were people arguing that the gang-rape of a random woman was not fair game to joke about, but there were also a lot of people screaming into the void on social media and other platforms: “Get over yourself. Get a sense of humour. Loosen up. Stop being so uptight/feminist/sensitive.” These comments were coming from comedy fans and comedians alike, and those are the people I want to address.

Look, I love comedy. Who doesn’t? I watch a lot of it on television, and I watch a lot of stand-up .I think a big part of the problem that comes with making offensive jokes is that people forget the point of near-the-knuckle humour. And therein lies the rub: often, when I don’t find an offensive joke funny, it’s because I just don’t think it’s funny. It’s not because I’m too busy rushing for the smelling salts to eke out a grin, it’s because simply having someone yell an inane statement about a touchy topic in my face doesn’t make me laugh. People who defend these kind of comments seem to forget that it’s the comedian’s job to make me laugh, not my job to find them funny.

Take the best rape joke in the world, told by Louis CK: “I’m not condoning rape, obviously. You should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” This is a joke that actually has some thought behind it; by presenting the unbelievably stupid and simplistic reasoning behind the act of rape, he’s making the rapist look like an idiot. He’s doing more than pointing at someone and shouting “HAHA YOU SHOULD BE RAPED!” (interestingly, CK tweeted his support to Daniel Tosh during the furore, so make of that what you will). That’s what makes it funny. I’m not saying that everyone in the world should fall in line with my sense of humour, just that writing off our ability to laugh because we don’t think the very concept of gang-rape (or whatever “edgy” topic the comedian has taken on in this  week’s controversy) is hilarious.

Because a lot of people seem to think that the offensive topic itself is what makes the humour intelligent. I’ve written before about Family Guy and it’s complete failure to say anything new about controversial topics, even as it visibly pats itself on the back for addressing them. Identifying a touchy topic and immediately adopting the stance that is least socially acceptable for it’s target audience is pretty shallow humour, as it rarely says anything about the topic at hand.

Really, what I’m saying is this: if you’re keen to go down the offensive humour route, try and actually say something. Because when comedians blurt out something akin to the comment Daniel Tosh made, they’re often not being half as edgy as they think they are. You can find them all over your screens: Family Guy having a character throw up for thirty seconds straight after he realizes that he’s been in contact with a transgender woman, or Trevor Noah tweeting about how fat women are grateful for the weekend because then people will get drunk enough to find them attractive, or Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner laughing about how Black Widow is a slut. These kinds of jokes, and hundreds like them, the kind that skewer people who society has done a really good job of skewering already, aren’t so much pushing boundaries as they are falling in with the party line. Now, I’m not saying that means they shouldn’t be allowed to exist, or that no-one should find them funny, but rather the people who crack these kind of jokes shouldn’t be held up as pantheons of forward-thinking, ground-breaking comedy, when they’re doing nothing that dares undermine the status quo.

And that’s where the problem with offensive comedy lies, at least for me. It provides a safety blanket for comedians and entertainers who are too belleigerent or arrogant or whatever else to accept that maybe, just maybe, their audience does get the joke, but it’s just not that funny.