Is anything off-limits?

Dan Atkinson on comics' responsibilities

A couple of months ago, a comic was booed off stage for making jokes in Liverpool about Madeline Mcann and Rhys Jones. It quickly became a much-read national news story with good reason; it’s about a comedian getting it wrong in a profoundly ham-fisted manner as well as concerning an ongoing, emotive news story.

On the face of it, it’s ethically unequivocal. You would have to have a fairly skewed moral compass to think that telling those jokes in those circumstances was appropriate or right.

The issue of what is or isn’t appropriate for a stand-up comedian to say is raised with numbing regularity: sadly, large-scale tragedies occur on an almost monthly basis and wherever there is tragedy, there will be a queue of people writing jokes about it. Bad taste jokes do the rounds by email and text message, and some comics choose to talk about them on stage. The question that is always asked is ‘are there any subjects are inappropriate for comedy?’ But this is the wrong question to ask.

In private or among friends, you judge the jokes you make by the company you keep. If you’re down the pub and one of your friends is in tears about a family death, I think it’s easy to agree that to crack a joke about that subject would be morally wrong.

Having said that, it’s commonplace for groups of friends to make wildly offensive jokes to each other in the knowledge that everyone will understand your true views on the matter and that what you are saying is heavily laced with irony.

This is very different, however, from being a stand-up comedian. As a club comic you don’t know anybody in your audience, and in most cases they don’t know you either. All stand-up comedians before they go on stage will make certain judgements about an audience, but ultimately this speculation is spurious: on any given evening you have no idea who is in your audience and what their particular opinions and tastes might be.

When a comic sits down to prepare for a gig (sorry to spoil the illusion, but we don’t just make it all up on the spot), the starting point is a blank page, and the subjects on which you can write comedy are infinite: your only remit is that the output is, by and large, funny. The boundaries regarding taste and decency are arbitrary, subjective and self-imposed.

I am firmly of the belief that no topics should be off limits for comedy, but what is important is the way in which you deal with the subject matter. Just because a topic is tragic, either personally or globally, it should not be taboo. World War Two was among the greatest tragedies of the civilised world and there was an abundance of jokes belittling Hitler and the Nazis. Some people deal with personal tragedy with humour, and it actually helps them to process an emotionally difficult experience. Crucially though, that is their choice.

The death or abduction of children should not be off limits for comedy per se. To give an example, I can’t imagine any comedy audience feeling morally outraged at a piece of material regarding the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It all comes down to a question of judgement.

If you make a crass or offensive joke with the intention of actually causing offence, then you don’t deserve the valuable public platform that stand-up comedy provides: people have come out to a comedy club with the purpose of laughing, not to be offended. Besides, if you persist in deliberately trying to say things that people genuinely don’t want to hear your career in comedy will be short-lived.

I believe in the case of the much-publicised gig in Liverpool, it was genuinely a case of misjudgement rather than malice: a terrible idea, badly executed and punished by the audience.

Yet for all the offence caused, it actually displays one of the finest points of stand-up comedy: the right of the audience to interact with the performer and express immediate and forceful disapproval. It is emphatically and instantly democratic. It’s a chance for people who care to actively express their empathy for the people affected by the tragedies, and that can’t be all bad.

No topics should be off limits to a comedian; that live comedy isn’t censored is a sign of a healthy and civilised society. But as a comic should you choose to talk about real life tragedy, you have an obligation to display a degree of social responsibility. Ultimately it’s worth remembering that you’re in a comedy club. It’s meant to be fun.

Published: 10 Dec 2007

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