Earlier this year I was again asked to host the BBC London Comic Relief event for Red Nose Day.
This time, instead of having well known radio and TV presenters being mentored and performing, members of the public had been asked to volunteer. When the auditions were taking place, one of the questions that kept coming up was that of material. They wanted to know what was deemed appropriate and what wasn't.
This is something which has actually become more of a concern on the comedy circuit. Comedians, whether they admit it or not, are becoming much more sensitive about offending an audience. As there is generally less work around, comedians are worried about upsetting people, receiving complaints and thereby not being rebooked at clubs. So, as opposed to say 10 years ago, fewer comedians are taking risks.
Of course there are some comedians whose whole raison d'être is to offend. They intentionally set out to be controversial, even hateful. However as these comedians are well established and have substantial fans and funds, they no longer care. Some of these comedians are looked upon as 'daring' or willing to say the things others would never say. It's not daring, it's easy. When I see something awful in the news I generally think of a joke about it; I'm a comedian and writer, it's how my mind works, it's my way of dealing with tragic events - however I wouldn't say these things on stage. I see little point in upsetting anyone purely for a gag.
I'm often asked if it's okay for a black/Jewish/Muslim comedian to make jokes about their race/religion knowing that if someone else were to do it, it could be considered racist etc. Or whether it's okay for a woman to talk about how bad her boyfriend is in bed, bearing in mind that when men speak in a derogatory fashion about their wives or girlfriends it's considered sexist.
The question is, have we become too sensitive? Are we already looking for offence when it doesn't actually exist?
I was recently chastised on Twitter and Facebook for making a joke about Oscar Pistorious. My joke, which had no doubt been used by others, was quite simply; "I don't see a problem with Oscar Pistorious being out on bail, I mean it's not like he's going to do a runner..... Oh".
Now admittedly it's not the best joke in the world. Of course, the awful circumstances that led to his arrest weren't at all funny: an innocent young woman died. However I wasn't accused of being insensitive. I was accused of making fun of a disabled person. Now you might be thinking: "But that joke is making fun of a disabled person!" It's not. If Sebastian Coe or Mo Farrar were charged with some similarly awful crime, the joke would work just as well. The punchline has nothing to do with disability. It's actually the antithesis of that. It's simply about the fact that Oscar Pistorious is a runner. And if you think the joke has anything to do with his having prosthetic limbs then maybe you're the one being discriminatory.
As I have just become a patron of the wonderful Trust Charity I'm the last person who would ever make a joke about disability.
A similar thing happened with a joke I wrote about the Pope in which I wrote; "I would like Uri Geller to be the new pope. That way, if we had a Pope Uri, at least the Vatican would smell nice."
Again, not the greatest joke but surely it doesn't warrant the accusation of being offensive! I was told that, by implication, I was stating that the Vatican currently smelled badly. I have no idea what it smells like, I'm sure it's quite nice, but either way, this obviously wasn't the basis of the joke.
The problem with all this, and what I explained to the organisers of the Comic Relief evening, is the understanding that what one person finds offensive another won't.
There's the apocryphal tale of a woman who angrily approached a comedian after a gig. The woman was in floods of tears and the comedian, a very funny, non-offensive person had no idea what was going on. It transpired that the comedian had performed some material about having the flu, and this woman's mother had actually died from flu-like symptoms.
You see, sometimes, however hard you try, just like in any Quentin Tarantino film, you know that someone, somewhere is going to get hurt.
Anyway, just to let you know, the Red Nose evening went very well. No one was offended, everyone laughed and it raised over £6000. A relief for everyone concerned - comic or otherwise.
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