Comedy needs its limits

Jack Cooper wants a break from offensive gags

It’s almost becoming old hat hearing comedians defending what is considered ‘offensive comedy’ in the aftermath of Sachsgate and Adlingtongate.

By now, everything that needs to be said has been: If you’re offended, switch off. Comedy needs to challenge taboos etc etc etc... All valid opinions I might add, but opinions that now almost feel stale due to how tiresome the debate has become. The Daily Mail and their brigade will never change, and neither will the rest of us.

Recently I’ve been re-watching Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s 1998 series This Morning With Richard Not Judy, and it’s fascinated me that two of the most ‘offensive’ and challenging stand-ups in the country had a LIVE show on Sunday morning TV.

Nowadays the idea of any comedian, let alone an ‘edgy’ one, having a live comedy show in the Country Tracks slot seems like something from a mad parallel universe, yet it did actually happen and not that long ago at all. Even though I was only a kid at the time, I knew the show was funny, but this time around I’m finding it fascinating for a different reason.

You only have to listen to Herring’s As It Occurs To Me podcast, or watch Lee’s latest live show, to see that the two of them love playing with taboo subjects and tackling difficult material my mother would be disgusted by.

Yet here, on a Sunday morning, the reins are tied in. They can only flirt with the edgier material and, in a way, the restrictions make it funnier, especially since there is the added element of danger due to its live broadcast. There are sketches, such as The Organ Gang, that are hard to imagine Lee and Herring writing nowadays, while even The Ironic Review and Jesus scenes, perfect examples of their humour, must have had to been softened due to the time the show was aired.

Despite this restriction, all of these skits are hilarious and memorable. It is testament to the writing that Lee and Herring don’t ‘sell-out’ at all; the material still manages to be thoughtful and challenging in places, but without the element of ‘offensiveness’. One could argue that Lee and Herring wouldn’t get away with such a show in the current climate, but that’s to forget that they DID get away with it without anybody taking offence.

I don’t think the Consider The Lily routine would have gotten Daily Mail readers as quite as riled compared to what happened to poor old Manuel. Yet that childish routine still manages to be a scathing and funny attack on Christianity.

It’s hard to imagine, impossible even, the likes of Frankie Boyle or Russell Brand doing a similar show. Obviously softer humour isn’t their forte, but neither is it Lee or Herring’s You could argue that the restrictions that Lee and Herring faced due to their shows’ timeslot forced them to create material and jokes they never would have if they had a completely free rein – and the comedy world would be a worse place without TMWRNJ for sure. 

In comparison Brand and Boyle’s controversial jokes seem crude and unfunny, but I’m pretty sure these talented individuals could produce something far more subtle if working under such restrictions. Maybe the next taboo comedy should break is for ‘clean’ humour by comedians we don’t expect it from. It would be fascinating to see the what likes of Boyle et al out of their comfort zone if forced to be more creative. If Lee and Herring have proved they can still be funny while heavily editing themselves, then maybe it’s time for other comedians to do the same too.

 After all, if comedy keeps going down the offensive route it will be in danger of becoming predictable. Comedy shouldn’t have to bow down to unfair boundaries and be scared of the consequences of offending people – but that’s not to say there can’t be great benefits from a little restriction too. 

Published: 10 Jan 2010

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