Humour and the art of the taboo
I think we need a reality check from the mind police. From Ned Kelly’s famous “such is life” one liner to the drunken skunk at the bar making blonde jokes because he can’t get laid, humour will always vary from the pointed to the pathetic. To guard against what should or should not be laughed at doesn’t make society a more moral or just place, it denies what we find difficult to accept. Regardless of whether you laugh or cringe it is the community that imbues the joke with its meaning.
Is there anything we can’t laugh at? Sure. Please excuse me as I burn my Charlie Chaplin collection. Chaplin may be quaint and inoffensive in all his jittery black and white glory to me, but if you look at his work through the market segmented lense of the 21st century b/s he could also be considered racist, sexist, heightist and inconsiderate to men with erectile dysfunction. There will always be those who can find something distressing in humour if not for themselves then at least on the educated behalf of someone who hasn’t had the chance to form their own opinion. Let me get my flame thrower out and the pyre building commence.
British humorist and game changer Spike Milligan lamented that in the 1990’s they were making comedy with no jokes at all. Milligan was never afraid to highlight in his work that “this is a joke”, fully aware of the intellect patrol. Humour is the double edged sword. It is meant to offend, but in balance not purely for the sake of offence. In an era of political correctness we tend to forget that comedy is a lot more than a procedure to induce laughter. It allows us to explore our position on a range of issues that we would otherwise consider taboo. I am not saying we should always laugh at sensitive issues, but I’d also like to be able to make the choice. Some will see this as the gateway to more sinister leanings. Making a joke immediately demeans the seriousness of real issues leading directly towards racism, sexism and the downfall of moderate society. This is a valid point and would be true if you were a mindless idiot. For those of us in possession of opposable thumbs a good joke makes us question ourselves and a bad joke the other person.
There used to be an intellectual skill in dissecting comedy. Study one of Shakespeare’s plays and you will usually devote half a university semester to how the jokes were constructed. True this does tend to ruin the comedic effect of Macbeth and makes it a bad date night event. The sharp wit of Peter Cook in any of his guises would be lost on many today. We no longer have the courage to unpack serious comedy and instead rely on a plethora of unambiguous fart jokes because they offend fewer people. Bill Hicks must be relieved at times to be dead, the comic that once questioned a waffle waitress’s negative opinion of reading probably wouldn’t be too surprised that since his death even fewer people want to look at the world as complex and problematic.
The 21st Century is preoccupied with being flawless. Apparently everyone is special in their own way and we live in a boundless utopia of folk songs, hand holding, and vegan cookbooks. There is no longer the notion of the next door neighbour, but rather our Facebook friends. Sorry dreamers, real life exists outside your door not on a streaming internet channel. Check out the early Billy Connolly during his 1970’s “Glasgow Messiah” phase. Far removed from his fetish with prostate exams Billy candidly joked about the brutality of growing up in 50’s Glasgow. Back then he was met with roars of laughter from audiences that shared a similarly harsh background. It is arguable if Connolly could do the same set list today without offending a wealth of academic’s using it for their post graduate thesis. Today we can pick and choose our pet peeves and irritants. We don’t like humour that appears to be from a foreign world, disturbing and offensive. Probably because it reminds us of reality too much, and that’s our problem.