Assisted suicide is not inherently funny. Or is it? And an intellectual disability should not to be laughed at. Or (wait for it) should it? Ridiculous it may be, but the commotion surrounding two 'controversial' television comedies, currently airing in the UK, seems to have been reduced to something like these opening lines.
This week sees the return of Ricky Gervais's Derek to Channel 4 while BBC Three has caused a flurry of excitement with its latest comedic offering, Way to Go. Both programmes clearly have the potential to offend with Derek centred around a protagonist with a mental disability and Way to Go covering the exploits of three lads who decide to make some cash by starting their own assisted suicide company. And offend they have! Radio talk shows and more than a few column inches have been devoted to a slimy discharge of outrage and indignation over the programmes' perceived inappropriateness. When Derek first aired last year it received denunciations from the simple, "condescending" (The Independent on Sunday) to the more flamboyant, "the most vile, cynical, dishonest piece of television I've ever seen" (that one from the ever composed Daily Mail). But in amongst all the talk, the outrage and conflicting views I cannot help but think, comedy should be controversial.
Unfortunately stating this sort of opinion and critiquing 'controversial' comedies with any sort of rational is difficult in the face of our flourishing industry of outrage. From breakfast news to daily newspapers it is impossible to escape the lazy, empty and predictable default to outrage on almost any emerging story, from new comedies to government cuts and even people on bicycles calling other people 'plebs.' Outrageous! Of course, those defending 'controversial' comedies (usually the programme makers and actors themselves) have never actually suggested that, in the case of these latest programmes, assisted suicide is funny or that those with an intellectual disability should be laughed at. But this brand of vitriolic outrage has little to do with listening and a great deal more to do with sensationalism. I cannot decide whether the ignorance and misapprehension involved on the part of those who spout their indignation is wilful or genuine. Actually I can. It's definitely wilful.
Derek is evidently not making fun of the protagonist himself or anyone else who may be in his position. He is a sweet, simple man on the fringes of society and the drama and laughs come from empathising with Derek. Way to Go, an out-and-out comedy, uses a different approach whereby the laughs do indeed come from laughing at the protagonists. This is because the programme is painfully aware that making a quick buck from assisted suicide is an awful and ridiculous thing to do. The joke is not on those affected by assisted suicide, but on the protagonists themselves. This should come as no surprise as many of our greatest comedies have used controversial subject matter in the same manner. When Basil Fawlty goose stepped his way through Fawlty Towers the joke was not on the Germans but on Basil himself. And when Larry David accidently urinated on a painting of Jesus in Curb Your Enthusiasm, controversial as it was, the joke was again on the protagonist... not JC.
Some might quite reasonably argue that comedy is not above poor taste. If you have ever seen a Jim Davidson stand-up routine then you could testify to that. But comedy does thrive on controversy. At its best it is clever and insightful; skilfully prancing along the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. At its worst it is broad, bland, occasionally crude, desperate not to offend, and aired on BBC1 on a Saturday night at 9:40pm (I'll let you search the TV guide for that one).
It is difficult to know how much of this latest controversy should be attributed to genuine offence, and how much to the outrage industry. Either way, I hope comedy keeps on pushing the boundaries - it would be a very boring world without it.
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