I’ll begin with a few statements: I am no prude. I am not particularly sensitive, and little offends me. I consider myself to be able to find humour in most situations; indeed it’s how I often deal with the difficult ones. For this reason, I know that, when I am offended by comedy, it’s got to be pretty tasteless.
I recently saw The Dictator at my local cinema with friends. I had enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous films to some extent and it seemed like a decent way to spend a rainy Thursday afternoon. I, unfortunately, have to say that I have never been so offended by a film in my life. Baron-Cohen attempted to make light of genocide, child abuse and suicide, and instead accidentally succeeded in, not only removing himself from the comedic genre, but also in disgusting members of the audience.
I am aware that such ‘shock value’ comedies have a hit and miss audience, and that I was therefore just a miss. I have friends who loved the film, thinking it hilarious and fully deserving of its comedic stamp. However, some of the attempted jokes and said ‘funny moments’ in the film were not only lost on me, but affected and upset me. My question is, is this shocking style of comedy appropriate? If comedy hurts or offends anyone on a large scale, does it cease to be funny? Is it ever okay to ‘cross the line’?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for free speech. South Park, a famously controversial show, renowned for its ‘say anything’ attitude, commonly display their ethos that either everything is okay to joke about, or nothing is, which I believe demonstrates what freedom is all about. South Park is one of my favourite shows, but I suppose the difference between their often ‘over the line’ plots and character sketches and Baron-Cohen’s in The Dictator, is that South Park always seek to provide a political or cultural commentary with their comedy, whereas The Dictator seemed to be using shock tactics for laughs and laughs alone. One could argue that the intention was to parody Dictatorships and their corrupt nature, but some jokes seemed so far removed from this objective that its hard to justify them. If we are to take this ‘everything or nothing’ stance on comedy however, ‘the line’ doesn’t really exist, and therefore this type of comedy need not be justified.
The other way to look at it I suppose, is what removing this idea of ‘the line’ actually means. In all aspects of life taboos are slowly disappearing. More and more previously unacceptable things are becoming more commonplace in society. Is it not true that the same should happen in the world of comedy?
And so we arrive at the concept of Schadenfreude, a German word for which there is no equivalent in the English language. The word refers to a person’s enjoyment at the expense of another’s misfortune, and seems to be a concept leaking its way more and more into, what is considered ‘acceptable’ comedy. I am not saying that a person falling over, or dropping something isn’t funny, but this is misfortune that one can laugh off, an upsetting moment that isn’t deeply distressing and leaves no permanent scar. However, the level of Schadenfreude becoming more present in comedy, I find particularly worrying.
Uni Lad, a website known for its tongue-in-cheek stance on University life and generally being male, was shut down earlier this year for publishing and allowing jokes to be commented about rape. The ‘jokes’ trivialised the crime and were not only completely, what I would deem, unacceptable, but downright disgusting. This is what I see as most worrying about this style of comedy. Making light of a dark situation is sometimes the correct and most helpful way of dealing with it, but when a situation arises that is traumatic or psychologically damaging, making light of and therefore demeaning the issue can be extremely harmful. Indeed, upon trivialising the subject of rape, are we not therefore making it seem more acceptable?
Frankie Boyle’s famous boarder line comedy was also criticised after he publicly made fun of Katie Price’s severely disabled son Harvey. He remains true to his style of comedy however. A brief viewing of his Twitter profile confirms this.
I suppose the conclusion that I have come to is that you can’t sensor people’s sense of humour. As a writer, I believe that absolutely everything should be written about, and I therefore can’t come to any decision other than that you could not possibly prevent these ‘hurtful’ types of humour without infringing upon basic human rights. I would like to think however that a person’s sense of humour would also be accompanied by a sense of what is appropriate and when, which I hope it not too optimistic.