“Comedy”: the new nasty

The Guardian has dedicated its G2 supplement today to comedy, and the lead feature is about the new tendency towards offensiveness in comedy. This includes jokes about Muslims (we’re all queer), Chinese people, Gypsies, Hitler and rape among other things. The article notes that after a couple of decades when “politically correct” comedy by people like Ben Elton was dominant, these kinds of jokes are now acceptable because what made them unacceptable in the 1970s is no longer true:

“In the 1970s, black and Asian people were getting shit put through their letterboxes,” says [Richard] Herring. “But the world has moved on. Now we accept the [anti-racist, anti-sexist] tenets of alternative comedy as true, and don’t need to patronise audiences any more.” Burns goes further: “Cultures are blending now. People are getting used to one another more. And nowadays, more sections of society are being represented in comedy clubs.”

However, in the 21st century, newspapers can still sell copy by scaremongering about immigrants and rape is no less violent or traumatic for its victims than it was in the 1970s. So how are these topics more acceptable now than then, particularly when they come from the groups which aren’t on the sharp end of these problems? Why should we assume that we are above prejudice just because, in most places, it is not as in-your-face as it was then?

This tendency towards nastiness in comedy is not new. Back in the 1990s, I tried to stop the Rag group at my college from selling a magazine which contained jokes about child abuse and how to cure lesbianism and feminism. The chair of the Rag group first tricked me by pretending that there were jokes in the magazine that weren’t there and that the content wasn’t his doing, and then used the “it’s comedy” line at the general meeting. The problem is that some jokes aren’t funny but just offensive. If you make these jokes at a party, you would be dismissed as an ignorant, unpleasant bully, so how can they get away with it on TV or at Edinburgh? Perhaps the observation that the old “alternative comedy” had got “po-faced and not very funny” has some validity, but surely there’s a gap between being po-faced and being an offensive boor?

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