'Mean and hateful'

Britain's real sense of humour

Britain’ sense of humour is becoming mean, racist and hateful, Lenny Henry claims.

The comic collected more than 420 gags from members of the public for his new TV show Lenny’s Britain – and he said he was shocked by what he heard.

‘Most of the time, I might as well have been back in Seventies Britain,’ he said. ‘The humour was predominantly racist, homophobic, mother-in-law and cannibal-fixated.

‘The one characteristic most of the jokes shared was that they were mean. I have been left wondering if that is what we've all become as a nation: mean and hateful.

‘The most upsetting thing is that humour is the best way of spreading love and binding us all together. But instead I found that in some environments, such as offices, humour was used to isolate others as a form of bullying.’

He also said he thought Britain was Losing It own sense of humour as jokes spread by email rather than by word of mouth.

'It seems like everyone is telling the same joke, revealing the increasingly pervasive influence of TV, emails and texting,’ he told The Observer. ‘ Our humour has melded and bulged into that of the rest of the world. It's a tragic shame'

However, Henry contradicted himself in a story in the Sunday Telegraph published the same day in which he praised the quality of gags told in the ‘joke booth’ that toured the country with him.

‘It didn’t surprise me how funny many of them were,’ he said. ‘I’ve always known that real people can be just as funny as professional comedians. The only difference is that they don’t always have the courage to do it as a performer, up on stage in front of an audience.’

And in this piece he said that workplace gags could be valuable, rather than intimidating – at least in working-class jobs.

‘If you work on the docks, or in a mill, or in a factory then you quickly develop a thick skin and learn to get on with your colleagues by cracking lots of jokes – partly to prove that you’ve got a bit of spirit,’ he said. ‘In some ways it’s a self-defence mechanism: humour can be a shield, as well as an offensive weapon.’

The gags Henry collected were also analysed by academic Marie Gillespie, professor of sociology and anthropology at the Open University.

She said: ‘Jokes are not just a bit of fun, they are also a barometer of the social and political climate. They reveal a great deal about social conventions.

‘But we have to be careful not to speculate about the intentions, racist or otherwise, of joke tellers, and it's important to distinguish between a joke and the uses of that joke. A joke can easily be turned into an insult, but it needn't be meant that way, or taken that way.'

Lenny's Britain airs on BBC One at 9pm on Tuesday – or on Monday in Scotland.

Published: 11 Jun 2007

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