Punch Lines: From Rape Jokes to Mocking the Disabled, the Popularity of "Shock Comedy" Provokes Questions about Comedians' Ethics and Sense of Responsibility. Karrie Fransman, a Graphic Journalist, Explores the Issue

By Fransman, Karrie | New Statesman (1996), August 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

Punch Lines: From Rape Jokes to Mocking the Disabled, the Popularity of "Shock Comedy" Provokes Questions about Comedians' Ethics and Sense of Responsibility. Karrie Fransman, a Graphic Journalist, Explores the Issue


Fransman, Karrie, New Statesman (1996)


Last month Oaniel Tosh was caught in a heated debate after suggesting at a stand-up gig that it would be funny if a female heckler was gang-raped.

Tosh's "joke" was only the latest in a long line of incidents where the aggressive intent of "jokes" and comedians' ethical responsibilities have been called into question. Bigname comedians have joked about ...

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Yet they still fill stadiums and their fans respond to criticism with:

IT WAS ONLY A JOKE! *

Erving Goffman (1974) said this was one of the most frequently used phrases in the English language.

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And in 1905 Sigmund Frevd emphasised the importance of tendentious jokes in expressing repressed sexual and aggressive desires.

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So is is it time that we started to take humour more seriously? The social psychologist Professor Michael Billig of Loughborough University thinks so. He argues that there is too big an emphasis on the positive side of humour in our society over the ridiculing, aggressive side.

Billig points out that ridicule can be rebellious, but it can also sustain dominant power structures.

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"A comedian who makes their living by mocking other races, mocking the powerless, I think has a lot ethically to answer for. A comedian who mocks powerful, in my view, has less to answer for."

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When I recount Professor Billig's theory to the comedian Josie Long she laughs and quotes a Sfewart Lee joke: The line pokes fun at the TV show "Mock the Week", where much of this misanthropic, mainstream humour was bred. Long is keen to stress that most comedians are "hard-working ... good eggs" but wishes there was more varied humour on TV:

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"It very much enforces the status quo to have people on TV who wouldn't mock the Conservative government because 'why would you talk politics?', but always mock women or disabled people ... the fact that those people have so much money, like these comedians, is weird for me as well because it is a big position of power and status.

And for them to pick on people who are lower status than them."

Sitting in the front row at one of Long's gigs will probably result in you getting involved with some arts and crafts, rather than any character assassination. …

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