What is offensive?

It depends on who's listening, says Dave Rymer

Offensive humour, or at least the public perception of offensive humour, appears to have changed remarkably over the last year from being in the vicinity of dead babies or still-fresh acts of terrorism to something much more muddy and indefinable. But are we looking at the wrong things? Is it not missing the point if we don’t see that there are more to jokes than the words used to tell them?

Obviously context in offensive comedy is all, making it very difficult to seriously and fairly analyse or view any one joke or routine, because then context is lost and it can often take on a very different meaning.

This applies to inappropriate subject matter, insults and of course, the very worst swearwords. I witnessed Daniel Kitson call a middle-aged woman one of these words at The Stand in Edinburgh in August, but far from being offensive or even inappropriate, it was one of the funniest moments of the festival for us. However, whenever I retell the story and describe our joy and laughter at the words used, the looks on the faces of my friends and family is similar to those I would get if I was boasting about being present at the rape of an infant.

In a play I went to see recently, the main character did what I suppose you would call a mini-stand-up set about half way through. This consisted of about seven or eight jokes that got progressively more morbid. The first one was about a man walking into a bar (a pub or a piece of metal? Who knows.) and hurting himself, one in the middle was about the Asian tsunami and the final one was about the Holocaust.

On paper, I accept that these do not seem like the traditional ingredients of a fun Saturday night out, but the main character was Death himself, which gave it the required context and therefore humour. I suppose the tired, overused attempt at an observational put-down ‘you had to be there’ would be the shortened version of the story. Overused though it may be, there is still some truth in it.

More so than context, surely it is the listening audience that makes an offensive joke, offensive. Most of us would probably find the experience of watching Roy Chubby Brown tell a joke about Muslims or people of other ethnicities far more uncomfortable than watching the likes of Stewart Lee tell a joke or do a routine on a similar subject matter. A large part of how the joke comes across must have to do with the people sitting near you and the way they’re laughing.

It’s a fair assumption - albeit something of an all-consuming generalisation - that the audience at an arts centre gig or a small backwater comedy club, appreciate these types of jokes with the sense of irony with which they are written and told, more than the people present at a standard Chubby Brown or Jim Davidson gig do. Many of whom, you get the impression are laughing at the joke at face value and because someone different to them is undergoing some kind of hardship, or a culture that is different to their own is being mocked. And rather than laughing because of the wider statement that such a joke could makes – the best of them pointing a finger back at the bigoted, small minded thinkers – they laugh a Pavlovian laugh as a Muslim or Arab is mentioned in a negative way, without stopping to view the joke as anything more than a thinly veiled insult. Obviously for the purposes of this, it has to be assumed that most of these jokes are written with that sense of irony, which I would like to think they are.

You can retell the most politically correct race joke in the world, to the wrong audience it can have an entirely different subtext, or you can call someone a cunt in front of your Nan and it takes it to a whole new level of offence. There is always more to it than just words.

Published: 26 Jan 2009

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