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He's spoiling it for everyone...

Frankie Boyle's bullying could quosh the genuinely provocative, argues Deborah Frances-White

This weekend’s Observer ran a debate that has been raging since Tramadol Nights went to air: Is Frankie Boyle funny? The answer is clearly, yes. He’s funny to some people. He appeals to a large enough demographic that he can sell a national tour. He’s not my cup of tea but saying I don’t find him funny is like saying that I don’t fancy your boyfriend. I don’t have to. It doesn’t mean he isn’t sexy to you. Ultimately, funny is subjective. ‘Is he funny?’ is the wrong question to be asking. ‘Is funny alone a reason to give a platform to his ideas?’ is the right one.

It’s possible that Channel 4 will be heavily fined if they are found to have broken the broadcasting code on harmful or offensive material for his joke about Katie Price’s disabled son. Channel 4 have said: ‘People know what to expect with Frankie. We make it very clear about what type of content his show contains.’

This response implies that the ideas Frankie Boyle disseminates in his show don’t have power if you’re not tuning in. But they do. Ideas are forceful. A common defence of Frankie Boyle’s style of comedy is that it is ‘only a joke’. Never is ‘only’ such a misnomer. A joke is often the most persuasive and palatable way of presenting an idea. From Horace to Jonathan Swift to Bill Hicks to The Simpsons, comic writers and performers have known that. Oscar Wilde smuggled proto-feminist and socialist ideas past the censors by hiding them in his drawing room comedies. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show was recently voted the most influential man in America – his only power to influence being a comic platform on a cable network.

Most comedians wouldn’t bother persisting in a difficult and competitive industry if they didn’t think their ideas had the ability to make others think, feel or question. But we can’t acknowledge comedy’s power to promote the positive and ignore its power to harm.

As a stand-up myself, I like edgy comedy and think controversial language and imagery can be used to pack a punch to a comedian’s point. I use it myself. I also love Chris Morris’s Brass Eye, Jerry Springer: The Opera, Tim Minchin’s Pope Song, Michael Legge’s often obscene blog which is usually about common courtesy, Brendon Burns’s stand-up show So I Suppose This is Offensive Now and South Park…

I don’t find the words ‘fuck’, ‘motherfucker’ or ‘cunt’ offensive in the abstract and certainly not if they’re intensifying interesting, subversive or positive ideas. I don’t believe that there are any subjects that are off limits to comedy, if they serve new or exciting concepts – even ones I don’t agree with. But these ideas are usually served when the point and the punchline are distinct.

An example is when Dr. Fox, in the Brass Eye paedophile special, naively says to camera: ‘Genetically, paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me. Now that is scientific fact. There’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.’ The myriad of points Morris is making with this joke include: you cannot trust celebrity endorsement for causes; you cannot trust tabloid ‘science’; and the vilification of paedophiles by the press has become medieval and far beyond reason. The punchline couldn’t be further from the point.

A Tim Minchin song from his new stadium tour, written as a lullaby to a baby who won’t sleep, builds to the lyric: ‘All I have left is to hope that a dingo will sneak in and rip off your fat bitching head.’ The point of the song is that all parents sometimes so despair of long sleepless nights that they momentarily feel anger or hate towards their own offspring. This is a wonderful cathartic message which allows parents to feel reassured that they are not alone. The song is about deeply loving someone who is so dependent and frustrating. The punch line ‘When is rocking rocking, and when is it “shaking”?’ is very far from the point Minchin is making.

Try as I might, I can’t find a point beyond Boyle’s punchline ‘I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cage fighter – she needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from fucking her’. The message is not about celebrity or a dig at Jordan who has courted fame. The point seems to be that disabled children who discover their sexuality can’t control it. They’re a bit dangerous. Harvey might try and rape his own mother some day.

That idea has power. It permeates the playground and, because jokes travel fast, it becomes a taunt to Harvey in particular and disabled children in general. That joke has as much power to provoke hurt as other jokes have to provoke thought, positivity, playfulness or catharsis. And it’s out there in the ether and it’s not coming home.

Channel 4’s response that ‘People know what to expect with Frankie’ is the equivalent of BP spilling oil in the gulf and saying ‘People know what to expect from oil giants. We’re very clearly oil spillers. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.’

Is the joke funny? The studio audience laughed so it must be funny to some people. But you can push a disabled child over in the street and someone will laugh. Can you then, like Frankie, simply be ‘unavailable for comment’?

My fear is that Channel 4 will be fined a significant sum, and consequently networks will get skittish about airing jokes about certain subjects. This would be a great shame. I don’t want any subject, word, turn of phrase or image to be off limits to a powerful, meaningful comedian.

Surely it’s only a matter of time before Tim Minchin is given his own series, should he want one. A full palette in the hands of a subversive and intelligent comic and songwriter is a wonderful thing. I want to watch that show, full of meaning, feeling and wit and don’t want one motherfucking baby-shaking image censored. I don’t want Stewart Lee, Sarah Millican, Charlie Brooker, Richard Herring or any number of other great and meaningfully edgy comics to be hamstrung. I would like Tramadol Nights to be cancelled to give controversial comedy a fighting chance of survival in a commercially-driven world.

But instead I fear Frankie Boyle, like the school bully, will soon be spoiling it for everyone. Jon Stewart understands the influence of lowering the status of the powerful. Frankie Boyle understands the weight of lowering the status of the disabled, ill and even those who have recently died a painful death.

He often intimidates those who have no voice to reply. When he is not targeting the vulnerable, his sketches riff on rape, child abuse, paedophilia and public masturbation. Here are some of the points his sketches and stand up make: Women are stupid; the most important thing about women is their appearance; being violent to women is funny; wanking is very, very funny indeed; sometimes if you rape a woman she won’t enjoy it at first but she’ll come round to it – even if others are watching; disabled people aren’t as bright as able-bodied people; black men are sexually charged; and finally – you’re gay (delivered straight to camera).

Channel 4 maintains that it must reserve a space for controversial comedy. If these ideas are controversial, then my primary school was full of comic visionaries that were tuned right into the cutting edge of the 21st century zeitgeist. The language is controversial. The imagery and ideas are certainly what many people would deem offensive. But the ideas are hackneyed and sigh-inducing. I’d love to see Channel 4 dare to bring some truly controversial ideas to the screen.

Robin Ince’s school of comic scepticism promotes a myriad of eyebrow- raising comedians who demand we think harder and question our assumptions about science, religion, food and medicine. Each show plays havoc with the status quo and is bound to get some viewers up in arms. Josie Long’s show Trying Is Good provokes a generation of cool consumers to renounce passive hipness and do something, even if it makes them vulnerable to ridicule. Nina Conti’s invitation into her psyche and yours through uncomfortable levels of ventriloquism, asks more questions than any of us may be willing to answer.

These comics are asking controversial, edgy questions and making some pretty contentious statements. Sometimes their imagery and language would have Mary Whitehouse blogging from her grave. Sometimes their point is better served by a variety of articulate and playful language and so that’s what they use. They are pushing comic boundaries, where Frankie Boyle is pushing an empty envelope.

His more toxic ideas are no less powerful than those of intelligent, thought-provoking comics. It’s just that he’s peddling poison rather than oxygen. Inevitably the two will be confused and the punchlines will be banned – regardless of the point.

Posted: 21 Dec 2010

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