Ricky Gervais of The Office fame dominated headlines this week after a performance at the Golden Globes that divided opinion. He was either a brilliant comedian who expertly skewered the rich and famous with his biting satire or he was mean-spirited, overstepping the boundaries of good taste and too ready to enjoy the discomfort caused by cruel jokes. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Maybe his jokes were designed to cause offense but they provoked laughter too.
Gervais is clever with words. Most good comedians are. Words that on their own convey nothing more than benign sentiment can in the hands of a top comedian be worked into something with far more bilious intent.
But it’s impossible to consider Gervais and his Golden Globes performance without also considering the controversy stirred up by Frankie Boyle and his use of racial epithets in his Channel 4 comedy show, Tramodol Nights. Was he being racist or at the very least was he shoring up insulting stereotypes? Quite possibly both but he was being funny and many people enjoy his humour. In the minds of Channel 4 and Boyle’s many supporters, that makes it ok. It was satire, we are not told, and not racism.
But this distinction may be lost on those people for whom such epithets can be a regular form of abuse. Surely any discussion weighing up the extent to which jokes that use stereotypes based on race, culture or religion are offensive, should include them? More often than not the debate happens without their voices being heard. The comedy arena where such things are discussed, seems to exist solely for comedians and their loyal supporters. Which may explain why Mark Watson entered the fray with this:
“In my time in comedy clubs I’ve seen scores and scores of gags at the expense of fat people, gay people, disabled people, women, pretty much every minority group other than 45-year-old, slightly paunchy stand-ups in suit jackets.”
Boyle’s response was to call Watson a c**t.
The debate about what is and what isn’t allowed in the hands of comedians isn’t something that will ever go away. Not so long as comedians like Gervais and Boyle are willing to be combative and to risk crossing certain lines. What should change is who gets to be heard in the ensuing debate.
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