Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Jokes: Where is the Line?

by Oli Price

Frankie Boyle
(source: Wiki Commons)
When I realised my blog article was due I was frantically searching for a topic or issue to write upon, then on my internet homepage I saw the breaking news that former Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher had died. Within minutes the web was ablaze with debates about her prowess during her time in Government, also due to the advanced technology of the times in which we live and due to the divisive nature of Baroness Thatcher, there were immediately internet jokes or “memes” popping up about her demise. Usually when there are reports of these jokers saying outlandish comments on a sensitive issue the culprits are usually attention-seeking teenagers who don’t realise the gravity of their words. However, in this instance I saw adults poking fun and criticising Thatcher; even celebrities wanted to voice their opinions, no doubt against the advice of their publicists and managers. Unsurprisingly one man’s name was prominent amongst those “internet trolls”, that man is Frankie Boyle. Don’t get me wrong this article isn’t an attack on the man, I actually find him quite funny; however, I think it will be interesting to look at the question of when the line is crossed and something goes from being funny and tongue-in-cheek to being offensive and crass.
There are a couple of examples of comedians who sail fairly close to the wind, a poignant one being Ricky Gervais’s series Extras. This series was seen as controversial due to famous celebrities playing a distorted parody of themselves for comic effect, for example Keith Chegwin portraying himself as a dim-witted homophobe or Sir Patrick Stewart playing a creepy, lecherous version of himself. During one scene in the third episode of the first series, Gervais’s character jokingly questions whether a character with cerebral palsy is drunk in order to impress a female cast member, only for her to tell Gervais’s character that the girl is her sister. Despite this possibly being seen as offensive, the gag works because the butt of the joke is the ignorance of Gervais’s character, and the excruciatingly awkward pause that comes out of his comments.
In contrast, Boyle’s jokes sometimes go too far and, instead of making the audience laugh through shock factor, Boyle can be too blunt and seem as though he’s just trying to say the most outrageous thing he can think of. An example of this could be his comments towards Katie Price’s disabled son, Harvey; Boyle’s joke was seen as crass and offensive because the subject of his joke was a helpless child, whereas in Gervais’s instance he uses a controversial topic to direct the joke on his own character, thus highlighting his idiocies for comic effect; this I believe is the difference between making a successful joke on a controversial subject or making an offensive comment on a sensitive issue. The emphasis has to be not making the sensitive issue the butt of the joke but instead to steer it in a more self-deprecating form of humour, an example of this could be Reginald D. Hunter’s routine on the topic of Josef Fritzl’s crimes.
Despite comics such as Boyle sometimes attracting negative attention for their comedic material, it must be noted that it is the job of these comedians to point out what normally we would be too inhibited to say. That is the nature of observational comedy and there are different levels to it.

Comedians such as Michael McIntyre have achieved great success in pointing out the subversive quirks in everyday life, however comics like Boyle or Louis CK take observational comedy a step further and move into the risky territory of pointing out to an audience not only what they don’t notice, but what they are too polite to notice. However, Boyle can go too far in the way of making controversial jokes that only serve to shock audiences. Nevertheless people shouldn’t read too much into what a comedian says, especially one that has built their act around being controversial.

 So, ultimately, if you see a joke centred upon a sensitive issue, which I imagine will be common-place this week, if it is tasteful and genuinely humorous, don’t feel guilty to laugh. On the other hand if you do see an offensive and spiteful quip, don’t take too much heed, as statements from such blithe figures are unlikely to be meant to be taken seriously.

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