Recently my colleague Sarah and I had an argument after seeing Canadian Stand Up Jason Rouse perform in Edinburgh. Rouse, it has to be said, is foul. Every aspect of his act is aggressive, he's scary looking, and you could argue that most of his jokes are brutally sexist. One woman in the crowd heckled with "do you have any jokes that don't hate women?", and I was glad someone had said it.
Thing is, despite all of that, I laughed a lot during his set. An awful lot, actually: shaky, uncontrollable, tears-in-my-eyes laughing. He has that polished earnestness that Canadian comics do so well (see also Glenn Wool, Craig Campbell, Phil Nichol, Stewart Francis, and Tony Law just for starters), and he's SO offensive, so ludicrously, filthily offensive, that for me the gags stop being wrong. You're not laughing at the expense of the subject of the joke, you're laughing at the sheer gall of the man for cracking gags that are so very very dark. Rouse recognises the taboos, knows where the line is, and leaps across it, and that's funny. Or at least it is to me. The laughter comes from someone daring to open their mouth and deliberately say something wrong. This is Carl Donnelly pulling the same trick at the Edinburgh Fringe, and illustrating it perfectly:
That's funny, isn't it?
Anyway, as I said way back in my opening sentence, Sarah and I had an argument… well, a disagreement really, after seeing one particular comic. Sarah, you see, was quite offended by his material about disabled people, feeling that some things are strictly off limits. I had no problem with jokes about the disabled, depending on the context. It's a thin line to cross, but if the purpose of the gag is to make us laugh out of shock at the sheer gall of the statement, rather than at the expense of the subject then it's sort of okay, isn't it? I had to stop myself though. Was that really how I felt? Or was I just justifying my own response? Maybe I just don't want to be a bad person who laughs at the disabled?
Where exactly is the line? Comedy is so massively, entirely subjective it's hard to pin point what is or isn't offensive. We all know homophobia, racism, sexism and… well, whatever the word is for being prejudice against the disabled is, are wrong. The fact is that the meaning behind a joke isn't necessarily clear. Is a stand up trying to provoke a reaction by being outrageous, or are they genuinely being ignorant or even abusive? And just because they don't "mean it", does that make the fact they said it any better? Take 'Borat' for example… is Sacha Baron Cohen holding a mirror that shows us the shortcomings of our own society and makes us question our values? Or is he just laughing at the expense of people not as clever as he is?
There are plenty of comedians who don't get the balance right. You can see blatantly misogynistic, racist, old fashioned comedians in any town in the world. It would be unfair to single any out (except Bernard Manning, but it's okay because he's already dead. The fat racist shit.) It's an attitude that was supposedly swept away in the early eighties with 'alternative comedy'. But Ben Elton alone couldn't save the world, and bad-tasting comedy is still very much alive and kicking.
Quite a few comics constantly parrot a Daily Mail friendly view that "Political Correctness has gone mad". For the most part they're wrong. Political Correctness is just a way of saying 'stop saying things that offend or upset people', and has been – by and large - a positive force in our culture. There's a strong argument that anything that is offensive to someone is probably a bad idea. But where's the fun in that? Where would we be without South Park or Brass Eye? Both shows made with not-inconsiderable genius that have relentlessly made light of serious issues. Take Timmy in South Park, or the infamous Brass Eye paedophile special that actually managed to make the outraged front page of the Daily Mail (a delicious irony considering the piece was an attack on media over-reaction in itself.) Both are hilarious, and have buried serious points in silly comedy by crossing the taste line and being deliberately provocative and offensive. Are these overly offensive?
Check out this clip from controversial (but wickedly funny) American stand up Scott Capurro:
Capurro is so offensive it verges on the ridiculous. He calls vanished child Madeline McCann a "little bitch", makes a blatant racist slur and milks someone elses horrible situation for a cheap laugh. Guilty as charged yer honour. However… after watching that clip, would you think that Scott Capurro is racist? Not really. Would you think he'd be delighted by the abduction of children? Of course not. On some level, as a viewer, you know that these aren't sincere statements. Of course sincere or not, should they have been said?
Unfortunately, offensive is funny. It's not an ideal thing to admit to, but there's no getting around it… a good chunk of what we laugh at is at someone else's expense, and it's for each viewer to decided what is and isn't over the line. When someone offends you, it's okay to be outraged. When someone offends others, it's okay to be outraged on their behalf. But don't confuse the intent to shock with the intent for malice.
It's a very sharp line in the sand, and a dangerous one to walk. But without 'offensive' comedians pushing back the boundaries, and defining for us what is and isn't right, comedy would be that much less rich an art form.