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Into town for a couple of interviews today, the second one with the wonderful Mary Beard who was chatting to me about the thorny and dangerous topic of offensiveness in comedy. As a man whose been at the centre of twitter strong winds and occasional storms from both supposedly being too offensive and also questioning if others have been too offensive, it’s a subject I am familiar with. But all comedians spend a lot of time thinking about where the line is and whether to step over it. It’s a tough subject to debate as it’s easy for the subject to get away from you, and most of the controversial subjects are too complex for sound bites (or tweets). And the best jokes (the unplanned ones at least) are the ones where you take a risk, a leap in the dark, to find out if your audience feels you’ve gone too far or just far enough. There are bound to be times when it falls flat, or more often where it works for most people but one or two people are affronted.
A lot of it is down to the context and the audience. Something that works in a comedy club might seem too harsh out of context and written down. But mainly, as Barry Cryer once said to me, much of it is down to whether you like the person who is telling the joke. Some people can get away with much more than others because of their status or how they are telling the joke. It’s enormously complex and pretty difficult to have a strong and consistent through line. Because sometimes a joke is OK and sometimes it isn’t. And it can be the same joke.
Maybe social media amplifies the danger of a bad joke (or a misquoted, misunderstood one, or one stripped of its context) becoming a career ending moment, but as tastes and styles change there have always been casualties. Benny Hill never tweeted anything in his life, but his hugely popular style of comedy began to feel old-fashioned and politically incorrect and his career ended with a pretty unpleasant judder - now some of the people who helped make that (necessary) change are about his age and finding themselves confused and out of favour with a new world of ideas.
Ten or fifteen years ago, it felt like perhaps certain battles had been won and so we could do jokes with a degree of irony or the knowledge that they were pushing the envelope, only to find out that things weren’t quite as rosy as we thought and for a lot of stuff to become unfashionable very quickly.
And also you would be fairly certain then that a joke would be kept in the context you delivered it. It’s not a bad thing that people should think before they tweet and I don’t think we’ve arrived at a time where political correctness means you can’t say anything. But as we’ve seen many times over, a bad joke or even a misinterpreted one can have pretty severe consequences.
When Brian Logan took some statements out of context from Hitler Moustache and Collings and Herrin ten years ago, people leapt to my defence on Twitter, either because they’d seen the show or knew I wasn’t actually a support of Hitler or racism. But I don’t know whether that would happen now. Once a mob has gathered people don’t want to get caught up in the retribution.
This inability to forgive or even countenance an alternate explanation seems self-defeating. We will all slip up at some point in our lives and say something we don’t mean or that someone has taken the wrong way or just so something dickish or that was OK at the time, but is questionable in hindsight. Your mistake probably won’t get picked up upon, it’s true, but if it does then you could be the next person who can never be forgiven for the terrible transgression they have made.
Comedians have to carry on doing their job though and taking chances. And it’s not a bad thing that bad jokes get consigned to the dustbin of history or that comedy moves on and people realise that sometimes the joke was on the wrong person.
Like I say, it’s complicated.
Which is why it’s nearly always a stupid idea to even attempt to talk about it. But I will do anything for Mary Beard. ANYTHING.
And more RHLSTP guest news. Joining Kay Mellor at the Long Division Festival in Wakefield will be comedian and actor Rob Rouse (from off of Upstart Crow). This will be a lot of fun. Still a few tickets.
More dates coming - I will be at the Great Yorkshire Fringe in July and am coming to Oxford in October. And that Liverpool date will be on sale as soon as the theatre announces their new season.