Are we too offended by comedy?
Today, in 2018, it’s easy to parody what’s going on. I can fall to the floor wailing in a power-barbie wig or mock the Brexiteers without anyone attacking me as insensitive. But what happens in 2028, when everything I’ve done suddenly looks dated, or, even worse, cruel?
I was rewatching some of my favourite comedians from when I was growing up- the typical mid naughties schtick: funny accents, snide commentary and a teensy bit misogynist. The question of racism or sexism was still a million miles away. It was 2006, and everyone braided their hair, wore neon leggings with skirts and still texted ‘OKCUL8R’ without a hint of irony.
Hell, stand up was still cool. There was a weird coolness to being the woman in the room who wasn’t offended by a rape joke. If you got offended by Ricky Gervais mouthing off about a female vicar, why were you even watching? This was peak lad culture. Transgender jokes, gay people jokes, polish jokes, women jokes: nothing was really off the table.
But now, flicking through YouTube on my iPad, ten years later, suddenly a lot of it feels rather unpleasant. Awkward. Nasty. It wasn’t the clever commentary I had loved in my early teens, it was a quick shot at a stereotype. Punchline: She had a penis. That kind of thing. I’m not saying every 2000s comedian was a racist, sexist schmuck, just that a lot of their jokes have not aged well. At all. A lot of the material that was a keystone to the punchline is nearly as dreadful to watch as The Black And White Minstrel Show.
Now let’s not blame my generation entirely for this nouveau-offence. There has definitely been comedians who became dated long before 2010. Bernard Manning, for example. Benny Hill. Half of the others are now either convicted sex offenders or so synonymous with lewd racism that the BBC won’t even commission a guest appearance for them. As what is okay changes, so does what we are prepared to watch. I don’t remember thinking ‘WOW that is racist!’ while watching the crow scene in Dumbo, aged 5. Now I don’t even want to think about it.
Similarly, some of the stuff said in many of my childhood books suddenly reads back as deeply cruel and homophobic. The Famous Five reads like a jaunt through every single form of post-war prejudice. It’s good that things change. I would hate to think that society never reflected on how it represented and addressed issues of race, gender and culture.
That’s not to say that these things are off limits. When they are done well, they are bloody hilarious. The new and upcoming (Tez Ilyas, Pheobe Waller-Bridge) are so utterly sharp with current affairs and self-deprecating reflection that if anything, they’ve given a new life to what it means to a woman, a gay person or a muslim in the current age. Isn’t that what comedy is? Finding the joke in our lives? Instead of…hurting others?
So yeah, comedy has changed. And we do, admittedly sometimes respond a bit too aggressively to the comedians of yesteryear when they make the mistake of taking a pop at something in a rather clumsy fashion. But ultimately, I think comedy is better for it.