In recent years comedy has explored the boundaries of what subjects are suitable for humour and when it's okay to make a joke about something. In the process of pushing the boundaries and becoming edgier comics have given us jokes about disability, rape and paedophiles. All the while many respected and experienced stand-ups have argued that it's fine to do this. For once I feel that I may offering the converted a rather unpopular sermon by saying that I think they're wrong.
The issue came in to sharp focus for me recently when I took my wife to a gig and the act made a paedophile joke. These gags do make me feel uncomfortable, but I am mindful of the argument that disapproving of jokes that don't hurt you personally are sanctimoniously being touchy on behalf of other people. My wife, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, is very directly affected by the subject in question. She found the joke, and the notion of making such jokes, deeply offensive. To her the idea of finding any humour in a life experience that continues to cause her enormous distress and unhappiness is disrespectful and wrong.
I've heard several arguments against this idea and I have to take issue with all of them. Some argue that comedians need to tackle sensitive subjects, in order to enable people to hear about them and think about them in an environment that renders them more gently than a full blown lecture or in depth documentary. Others argue that just because you are joking about a subject that does not mean you don't take it seriously. Both of these points are theoretically correct, but neither is a given. If you're trying to tackle an issue you don't do that just by making one joke about it, and if you're going to argue that you take the issue seriously, you sort of need to let the audience know that. If you talk about child abuse fine, but the responsibility of letting the audience know that you're treating it with respect and you want to make them think is yours. You can't just do bad taste jokes and expect the audience to do the work for you. This falls into the same trap as another argument 'offence isn't given, it's taken'. If someone is upset by your jokes, that's down to them, not you. But if you're going on stage with your rape jokes you have to understand that it's a subject many people find distasteful and some people find touches some very raw nerves. You have an audience of people expecting you -trusting you- to give them an entertaining performance. If you trigger someone's deepest anxieties because you were being edgy or pushing the comedy boundaries , you have broken that trust. If you're not going to claim responsibility for the hurt you cause, how can you own the laughs? I'm not saying comics should skirt around anything remotely contentious, but I do expect them to do better than blame the audience for not getting it.
Comedian Bridget Christie has a brilliant routine which she used on her BBC radio 4 Show Bridget Christie Minds the Gap. The piece is about FGM, but is handled with great skill and care. The piece begins with Briget wearing her Say no to FGM T-Shirt on Have I got News for You. Crucially this establishes right at the outset that Bridget takes the issue seriously and is willing to say so publicly. She then moves on to talk about complaints she received, and lampoon the people complaining about the t-shirt. In this way she raises the issue and makes the audiences aware of it and think about it, but the jokes are at the expense of people complaining, not about FGM itself and certainly not about the victims. The issue is addressed, but not diminished in any way by the jokes. My point is that if you want to raise a difficult topic, it is possible. It's just really hard.
I'm not saying I want comedians to blunt their sharp edges and stick to jokes about airports and weddings. But I also don't subscribe to the increasingly automatic notion that anything is a suitable subject for comedy. So write your joke about a subject that is the cause of enormous human misery. Then ask yourself if you could defend it to someone who suffered the misery. If you can, then go ahead, try it out. But if you can't, maybe you should write a different joke.