What's offensive? Cheap gags

Stand-ups discuss comic boundaries

The most offensive thing a comedian can do is go for the cheap laugh, a panel of stand-ups concluded today.

Discussing the boundaries of comedy, performers agreed that using supposedly shock tactics – such as mentioning rape or paedophilia – without being able to justify the material was the worst offence a comic could commit.

‘I hate shock jokes for no reason,’ Ava Vidal said at the Leicester Comedy Festival event.

And Brendon Burns – himself no stranger to controversy – said: ‘I get offended by lazy lies: people making rape and paedophilia jokes because they saw Chris Morris do it so brilliantly, but they do it with no understanding of what they are trying to say.’

He also said that the fact that stand-ups felt free to joke about sexual assaults, while talking about race on any level was a taboo, exposed a subtle racism in the middle-class liberal attitude that pervades the circuit.

‘By not even recognising non-white people yet allowing jokes about rape sends out the ridiculous message that you’re less of a victim if you are raped than if you are black,’ he said. ‘it’s insidious, patronising and pompous.’

He added that he would like to see more honest material about race, as long as it was thoughtful and free of stereotypes, and said that American stand-ups were more likely to play with racially-based material without fear of being branded racist.

Vidal also said stand-ups perpetuated stereotypes, saying she got particularly annoyed with ‘white comics pretending not to understand hip-hop, when 90 per cent of that market is middle-class white boys, or comics saying that kids with their trousers halfway down their legs are “acting black”. No black people act like that.

‘And I’ve been appalled at the level of sexist attitudes you hear on the circuit. There have been several gigs I would have walked out on, had I not been on the bill.’

Jim Smallman said that despite comedians’ best intentions, audiences can still sometimes get the wrong impression. He said many audience members had told him he shouldn’t talk about suicide – even though it was his own dark thoughts he was joking about.

And Elliot Tiney, of sketch group Idiots Of Ants, assured the audience of Regent College students that good comedians ‘take the freedom to say what they like quite seriously’ and would mostly only attempt material they could justify.

But Vidal added that comedians who constantly complained about being misunderstood only had themselves to blame. ‘If it happens once or twice, that might be bad luck,’ she said. ‘But if people keep getting offended at material you think is making a valid point, then it’s your fault.’

Published: 9 Feb 2010

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