Surely most of us have experienced a joke that pushed the boundaries of what we consider acceptable, possibly a joke that offended us, or went too far in the name of humour. Yet much of today’s most successful comedy pushes these boundaries and would be bland if it tried to be inoffensive. However, does today’s society go too far in finding humorous what is objectionable to many? Anyone who has heard a sordid joke about Michael Jackson, or Madeleine McCann will know that any major event seems to encourage some to tell controversial jokes designed to shock. Recently, I’ve heard jokes about Haiti casually exchanged as if the fact that it’s a taboo subject makes it funnier. An acquaintance of mine thinks it’s hilarious to load a map of Haiti onto his computer screen and do something with the keys to make the screen shake. I’ve seen funnier things. These are jokes that, even if initially amusing, leave a bitter after taste.
Certain taboo jokes can be the very funniest; the last thing I want to convey in this article is that its writer has no sense of humour. There is no denying that the taboo can be hilarious before a line between humour and outright insensitivity is crossed. But in focusing on a recent event that still affects millions of people, a line has been crossed no matter what the joke. Perhaps the joke is supposed to be made even funnier in an ‘ironic’ way by the fact that it is deplorable, but can people no longer see the difference between risqué jokes and a lack of compassion? I find it hard to understand how, when someone knows something is hurtful to others, they can blithely go and say it – not as a thoughtless laugh, but as a joke designed to hit us where it hurts.
My already stretched tolerance for this type of joke was pushed to its limit last Wednesday when, before Pop at the SU, I found that the lacrosse team had chosen a “bad taste” dressing up theme for their drinking circle. There were some costumes that were amusing. There were some however, that horrified me; the two most shocking being someone dressed as a victim of the Haiti earthquake, and a girl dressed as Baby P. To my mind there is something deeply wrong when supposedly intelligent students at a respected university find it acceptable to dress up as a victim of child abuse for a laugh. It smacks of the Victorian freak show, the concept that what is disgusting or shocking is somehow funny. I can appreciate a good laugh, and I adore stand-up comedy, but generally it’s nice if after a great line you feel warm and entertained rather than as if you’ve been punched in the stomach. Again it’s as if these people think the ‘irony’ of a poor taste costume is enough to negate the complete contempt and lack of compassion that poking fun at a serious issue suggests.
To an extent, there’s been a media backlash against edgier comedy – the reaction to ‘Sachsgate’ and treatment of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross showed a readiness to attack comedians that the media deems go too far in the name of humour. One might ask though whether this reaction was out of all proportion to the current state of apathy towards jokes made in poor taste every day, from those told ‘down the pub’ to the attitudes of comedians seeing how far they can push boundaries. Jimmy Carr faced a backlash in autumn of last year against the joke “Say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympics team in 2012.” A joke that without doubt was made in poor taste and poorly timed, but which illustrated that many Britons could indeed feel self righteous anger at an offensive joke, if rather than being sexist or racist or generally objectionable, it was perceived as a direct attack on us and the people we know. In my experience, those who use the defence that we should “have a sense of humour” soon find the smiles wiped off their faces when a joke directly hurts them.
It shouldn’t be necessary for our comedians to face a loss of freedom of speech, or for the authorities to monitor how politically correct we are. Instead this is an issue that’s directly affected by the actions taken by individuals. So next time a ‘joke’ offends you, instead of smiling along with the crowd, ask yourself whether it might be braver to let your discomfort be known, not necessarily for your own benefit, but to stop perpetuating the idea that it is acceptable to make comedy from human suffering.