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I straightened my Union Jack tie and looked straight down the lens. Was I really going to do this? Today? Well, there was only one way to find out…

Did you hear the one about the Woolwich murder? Probably not, comedy’s been a little quiet on the subject for the last week. Even Twitter, where paedophilia, death, and genocide can provide punchlines mere moments after they’ve happened* seemed muted.

Usually, a tragedy is the time at which Twitter divides (roughly equally in my timeline) between those making puns about it, and those saying “Hey! A man / woman / Thatcher just died here people! Show a little respect!” Last week, half of those people suddenly seemed to discover that discretion was the something part of whatsit, and decided to stay quiet.

When a Dutch show included a cheap reference to the murder in a sketch about Eurovision, the hyperventilation of the British press (who, lest we forget, are staunch defenders of freedom of speech) became a constant, high-pitched whine capable of shattering snail shells. All of the coverage mis-characterised the sketch as ‘mocking the murder of Lee Rigby’. All of the headlines named Lee Rigby, who wasn’t referred to in the sketch at all, as the butt of the sketch. It’s pretty clear from watching it that they weren’t mocking Rigby at all, they were using his murderers as a stereotype for all of Britain, the same way they were using German stereotypes for the Germans.

But any joke which contains reference to the Woolwich murder is – in the eyes of the British press – a joke that mocks Lee Rigby.

In character as Sir Ian Bowler, a corrupt MP, on the Thursday morning I tweeted a not-hugely-amusing joke about MPs resenting being recalled to Parliament every time they went away on holiday. I was surprised by the fact that someone was hurt by it. I’d actually made someone cry with a joke. And not in a speaking-truth-to-power way, in a you’re-probably-an-inconsiderate-dick way.

So I decided to ask social media whether or not I should do an Ian Bowler video that day. There was a lot I wanted to say about the responses of politicians to the incident, and the ways in which they were spinning it to suit their own agenda. I was cross that the half-truths (which are equally half-untruths) of a whole swathe of people from Theresa May to the EDL weren’t being challenged in the media’s narrative. I was angry. And when I’m angry I tend to put on a blue suit and bellow into a camera.

Like during the riots.

But I’d been brought down to earth by that tweet. Should I say something that I knew would upset a lot of people? Should I say it that day?

The responses were interesting. The advice from most comedians was to leave it well alone. Most people who like watching the videos wanted one. Family members (mine) politely suggested that holding off might not be a bad idea, at least until they had had time to board up the windows.

One comment, however, completely took the wind out of my sails.

 I think Sir Ian should be thinking about the victim’s family, not his own career.

I’ll deal with the issue of respect in a minute, but the accusation of careerism was particularly painful. I don’t know what sort of career the commenter assumes talking into a video camera in a shed comprises (My wife could tell him. “Not much of one.”) but it was a point I couldn’t answer.

As someone whose career is his jokes, and often his jokes in response to the news, I can’t help but be something of a vulture, picking at the carrion of current affairs. It’s what I do, it’s the way I communicate. Some people write columns in newspapers, some people write plays, some people go and nod at each other on news programmes. I write jokes. They are the way I work out what I’m thinking.

When it comes to respect, of course, I don’t think it’s the satirist’s job to offer respect. Quite the reverse, when the whole country is united in feeling something, it’s the satirist’s job to point out the ways in which we are blinding ourselves to the truth. Or to what they see as the truth.

Even if it’s wrong, especially if it’s uncomfortable, there should be someone taking an unpopular position.

Someone should always challenge the prevailing media narrative, especially when a consensus is reached as quickly and completely as it was last week.

If a satirist has a duty it is not to show respect, not to defer to the social norms which are being used to silence and ensure conformity of word and thought.

There was a survey recently, which scientifically proved (did not scientifically prove) that there was such a thing as ‘too soon‘. Distance in time allows us to see the violation of social norms as ‘benign’. However, in a country where we are all more than happy to work ourselves into a group-think lather at the drop of a people’s princess, one must wonder whether our humour should be ‘benign’.

Gawker recently lamented the fact that ‘too soon’ had apparently disappeared from the world with social media. The response to the Boston bombing showed, they thought, that Twitter had killed the concept of ‘too soon’. What they might have seen in the Woolwich case is the way in which Twitter is used to police ‘too soon’.

There have, of course, been jokes. Sickipedia has 5 pages of jokes about the Woolwich murder. Most of them gleefully taking the opportunity to be openly racist.

The left has also found its outlet: the EDL. From the EDF gags to the ‘Never Submit to Aslan’ photoshops, the EDL are the one thing the country is letting itself laugh at. The anarchist blogger who pleads with his audience not to laugh at the EDL may well be right that the problem they pose is serious and imminent. However, in a culture where the central tenets of the narrative are not open for mockery, we latch onto the next closest thing. Sorry, EDL.

In their responses to the Aurora shootings both Dane Cook and Chris Rock had different experiences. Cook used the tragedy to make a tired joke about how bad the film was; Rock used it to raise issues of gun control and joke about them.

One used the moment to joke about the issues, his anger, and what he felt was important, and was rightly praised for so doing. The other used it to trot out some hack material, and caught the rage of the Internet.

There is no such thing as too soon. There is, however, such a thing as too stupid.

I’m a great believer in the fact that not all self-censorship is wrong. Taking the impact of what we say into account when we say something is not a betrayal of free speech. Taking responsibility for our words and the effect they have on others isn’t always a bad idea.

However, we shouldn’t frame all of our discussions as if they are likely to be beamed directly into the faces of grieving relatives, even though, with the Internet, they can. And we really shouldn’t let concerns about what people will think our motives are govern whether or not we speak out.

Ian Bowler will be back tomorrow. Some of the things I wanted to say still need saying. Other seem tired now, or trite, or just like I couldn’t pull them off as my rage has matured. Look forward to that. Some slightly stale material that feels like it would have been more relevant last week.

Because I didn’t do it. I switched the camera off, took off the tie, turned on the News, and felt awful. Awful that I was conspiring in silence, awful that I hadn’t had the courage of my convictions, awful that I hadn’t said something deeply offensive to right-thinking individuals. Just awful.

* For those unaware of Twitter, it’s a system used to ensure that Frankie Boyle gets pretty much blanket coverage by The Daily Mail.

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English: Quentin Letts, British journalist.

English: Quentin Letts, British journalist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During 2009 and 2010 I did a bit of blogging for The Spectator Arts Blog. As it seems to have disappeared, and its content to have been dispersed amongst the aether like so much unwanted bum-fluff. I’m going to republish a couple of the bits I did here, so at least they will be archived somewhere online.

This piece was from October 2010. My views have changed slightly since then, but I thought it was worth putting up here in the wake of the Daniel Tosh thing… 

A couple of Thursdays ago, TheDaily Mail told us, on Prince Charles’ behalf, that modern comedy was offensive, ‘cruel and witless’. However, its front page the very next day was a dire warning that the EU was coming, and the thing it was coming to take away? Our good, honest, cruel British comedy, by which only pansies, Guardian readers, and the deaf could possibly be offended. Confused readers were possibly not helped by the following Wednesday’s article which was back to bemoaning how offensive British comedy now is.

The Daily Mail is of two minds about how offensive comedy should be. Or would be, if that didn’t imply that it had one fully-functioning mind to begin with.

The columnists in question, of course, may accidentally not have been describing comedy, but themselves. Who, for example, is more “impossibly ugly”: comedy or Jan Moir? Is it possible that there was a mirror somewhere in the periphery of Quentin Letts’ vision when he described comedy as “smug, scornful and obsessed with sex and flatulence”? What, Prince Charles, is more cruel: knob gags, or, when sitting with your wife-to-be, suggesting that someone who wants to know whether you love your fiancee should define their terms?

The paper’s split personality over comedy doesn’t mean its readers are going slowly, bitterly mad, however. Neither do the front page headlines calling for the abortion of gay foetuses (July 1993). Or the editorials suggesting Hitler should be given large chunks of Africa (March 1934). Or the support for the British Union of Fascists (“Hurrah For The Blackshirts!” January 1934). Individually, none of those things reveal you to be squalid and hateful beings, hypocritical, nasty, and prurient, but put them all together…

Of course, I’m being facetious in suggesting that the paper was being in any way inconsistent. The offensive humour that was to be celebrated and cherished and the EU were coming to grab was jokes about women, blacks, and disableds. The sort we should despise is the kind that makes fun of middle-class white men.

That’s not to say that modern comedy isn’t cruel and witless. Just that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The cruel and the scatological are not new elements in British comedy. On the contrary, they are two of the great pillars of British humour. From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Swift and Sterne, from Gillray through Marie Lloyd to the Inbetweeners, great swathes of what the British find funny has been bums and humiliation. Often humiliation because of bums and the things that come out of them.

When Quentin Letts rails against the ‘sex-obsessed’ I can only assume he’s talking about the smutty undergraduates of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue:

Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.”

Or:

“The archivist says he always loves to watch his little dog as he scampers up to Samantha with her couple of crackers held out and pants around her ankles.”

Those who claim bleakness and cynicism in comedy are new and deplorable traits are, quite frankly, jabbering idiots who would be best served by being put the sort of establishment where they restrict access to pointy objects and have special non-swallowable Scrabble tiles. British comedy has never been darker than during its ‘golden age’: Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe And Son, Rising Damp are all utterly pitiless, as is Fawlty Towers.

To sanitise and strip British comedy of its rich (and thoroughly offensive) heritage is to do it a disservice. I don’t blame the columnists of The Daily Mail for preferring to live in a Baden-Powell fantasy world, but we should really stop listening to them as if they were talking about, you know, reality.

Two other pillars of British comedy are silliness and satire, at both of which we excel, and which are often combined. From the Big-End and Little-Enders to On The Hour’s train drivers, on strike because they can see the track narrowing as it reaches the horizon and “with fixed-guage rolling stock, this could derail our trains” satire often tends towards the surreal, making the point that the world is often surreal.

However, as satire ages, and its targets become more distant its silliness is what endures. Now, MontyPython’s Flying Circus is usually described as ‘surreal’, but what made the programme unique wasn’t its nonsense, but it’s gimlet-eyed view of the world.

All jokes have a point. No matter how surreal or slapstick, every joke tells a story, it represents a take on the world. Richard Curtis appears to have forgotten that.

In this spectacularly misjudged video for the 10:10 campaign, he appears to be labouring under the impression that people blowing up is funny in and of itself. Even when the people around react with screams of horror. Even when it’s grownups blowing up children.

Franny Armstrong, a founder of the 10:10 campaign said it was:

a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python orSouth Park”

Except no one in the known universe has been able to divine what it was intended to satirise.

Is this meant to warn us about the potentially fatal consequences of inactivity on climate change? If so, surely after a couple of people had refused the teacher should have sighed and blown everyone up. If you don’t act we all die. Probably still a rubbish film, but at least one with a point.

The film’s called No Pressure (and I’m guessing that the people blow up because they are de-pressurised?) so it would seem that it is suggesting that there really is pressure, even when people say there isn’t. Except that there’s actually much less pressure around them so they explode. Unless they’re highly-pressurised from the inside. Or something.

No one seems clear what it was trying to say, and if you’re unclear about what a joke is trying to say then it doesn’t work. That’s the thing about public communications. It helps if you have something you want to communicate. Instead, and I say that as someone who generally supports the aims of the 10:10 campaign, of just producing a bullying piece of proto-psychotic wish fulfilment.

Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually. If you don’t believe me, pause for one second to consider a film that begins with a mawkish voice-over about 9-11 and ends with an 11-year old child breaking through three levels of airport security, essentially unhindered. Next to that, No Pressure begins to look like a conceptual masterpiece.

The campaign organisers seem to be labouring under the delusion that what people found offensive was the gratuitous gore. Here’s a hint: when adults execute children to the screams of their horrified classmates, those adults are not the good guys. The problem is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s utterly incoherent.

For those who are unshocked by massive child-violence, however, there’s always rape. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran this piece which bemoaned that making jokes about rape is becoming more acceptable.

I’m so politically correct it hurts. Literally. At the first whiff of a historical imbalance in power relations I come out in hives. I get gastric cramps when I read the word ‘niggardly’. However, not only should comedians have the right to make rape jokes, but they should be encouraged to.

[In retrospect, this is the part where my views of 18 months ago diverge most from the views I hold today. Although I still believe that the problem with the subject is that those we most need to hear saying things about rape are those who choose not to go near the subject now, I’ll quite happily have stern words with my younger self about a culture of sexual violence, triggering, and a world where child-size “When I Grow Up I Want 2 B A Kardashian” T-shirts are a thing. I wouldn’t write these paragraphs like this now.]

Sexual violence is, unfortunately, part of the world we live in, and, as such, is one of the things we have to deal with as humans. One of the ways humans deal with things is by making jokes about them.

The implication of the article’s sub-heading “What makes comedians think rape is something to laugh about?” is that there are subjects which are off-limits to comedy. You could as easily ask; what makes comedians think mass murder / genocide / paedophilia is something to laugh about. Maybe we shouldn’t touch these issues, but without them we wouldn’t have Gillray’s cartoons about the Terror in France, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, or the Brasseye Special. If we decide that some topics are taboo, the question then becomes who gets to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable subject for comedy.

Not all rape jokes are equal. Every joke takes a position, and not all positions are equally pleasant or unpleasant. There is an obvious difference between a joke or routine that honestly explores a comic’s personal reaction to a difficult subject, and one that trivialises sexual violence.

It’s certainly not unfair to judge a comic by their jokes. If their jokes revel in misogyny and use rape as a means of getting cheap laughs, then that tells you a lot about them. The greater a variety of comedians who feel able to give their personal take on rape and its part in our society, the better. As long as the only people who feel comfortable doing material about rape are those who couldn’t care less about it, the worse for everyone.

The problem is not that too many comics are telling jokes about rape, but that too few are, and many of those who do are doing it simply to shock. We need to have a culture in which comedians of all stripes feel free to discuss any subject that is important to them. More rape gags, please, and from more people.

As a comedian you are responsible for what you say. Like it or not, your jokes are yours. Until Keith Chegwin hears them…

But then I would say that. As a character comic, none of my jokes are mine. I get to espouse the most horrific opinions, tell the foulest, most shocking jokes, and blame them on the character I’m playing. And I do.

One of my characters is a racist, sexist, bigoted freak, and the act consists of watching him slowly have a nervous breakdown, and revealing the reasons for his being such a miserable human being. However, some of the laughs during that act do come simply from the shock value of hearing someone say terrible, terrible things. I did the act once at a rural club, where one of the patrons nodded throughout the whole thing, nodded and pointed and muttered: “Yes. Yes. He knows. That’s right.” I later discovered that the pub the night was being held in was where the local chapter of the BNP hold their meetings.

Even a routine in which a horrible person is shown for the hollow, diseased shell they are will be taken by some people as a positive affirmation of their awful views on minorities, women, and the current underuse of the word ‘poppycock’. Standing on a stage wielding a microphone is a powerful thing.

In the end I decided that, as it had only happened once, and that, for anyone with even a sliver of functioning brain, the point of the act was to discredit those opinions rather than give voice to them, I should continue doing that bit. Although I have to accept that in so doing I am also giving voice to them, and a tiny, stupid minority will take comfort from the very thing I designed to discomfit them.

If one really wishes to find comedy that was ‘cruel and witless’ one doesn’t have to look far beyond Quetin Letts’ ‘golden age’ of comedy. (Incidentally, in his staggeringly ill-informed article, Mr Letts bemoans the fact that we have no Pixar, no animation company capable of making touching films which garner international success. We’ll assume he’s never heard of Aardman.)

The casual, grinning racism of a lot of the acts on ‘The Comedians’ in the 1970s reminds us that not all comedy of the ‘golden age’ was gentle silliness with a good heart. It appears, instead, that any joke of any viciousness was acceptable as long as it was aimed at the Irish, blacks, mothers-in-law, Pakis, immigrants, married women, unmarried women, and gays. Those who seem so horrified by today’s comedy seem to have chortled happily through the ethnic mugging of The Two Ronnies.

Comedy has always been cruel and witless. It’s just that we only really notice when it stops being cruel and witless about the people we don’t care if it’s cruel and witless about. We only feel the need to write opinion columns about how cruel and witless it is when it’s cruel and witless about people like us. Or, in Prince Charles’ case, people very specifically like us. You know, us.

This article was first published on the The Spectator Arts Blog, on 14th October.

A couple of Thursdays ago, The Daily Mail told us, on Prince Charles’s behalf, that modern comedy was offensive, ‘cruel and witless’. However, its front page the very next day was a dire warning that the EU was coming, and the thing it was coming to take away? Our good, honest, cruel British comedy, by which only pansies, Guardian readers, and the deaf could possibly be offended. Confused readers were possibly not helped by the following Wednesday’s article, which was back to bemoaning how offensive British comedy now is.

The Daily Mail is of two minds about how offensive comedy should be. Or would be, if that didn’t imply that it had one fully-functioning mind to begin with.

The columnists in question, of course, may accidentally not have been describing comedy, but themselves. Who, for example, is more ‘impossibly ugly’: comedy or Jan Moir? Is it possible that there was a mirror somewhere in the periphery of Quentin Letts’s vision when he described comedy as ‘smug, scornful and obsessed with sex and flatulence’? What, Prince Charles, is more cruel: knob gags, or, when sitting with your wife-to-be, suggesting that someone who wants to know whether you love your fiancée should define their terms?

The paper’s split personality over comedy doesn’t mean its readers are going slowly, bitterly mad, however. Neither do the front page headlines calling for the abortion of gay foetuses (July 1993). Or the editorials suggesting Hitler should be given large chunks of Africa (March 1934). Or the support for the British Union of Fascists (‘Hurrah For The Blackshirts!’, January 1934). Individually, none of those things reveal you to be squalid and hateful beings, hypocritical, nasty, and prurient – but put them all together…

Of course, I’m being facetious in suggesting that the paper was being in any way inconsistent. The offensive humour that was to be celebrated and cherished and the EU were coming to grab was jokes about women, blacks, and disableds. The sort we should despise is the kind that makes fun of middle-class white men.

That’s not to say that modern comedy isn’t cruel and witless. Just that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The cruel and the scatological are not new elements in British comedy. On the contrary, they are two of the great pillars of British humour. From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Swift and Sterne, from Gillray through Marie Lloyd to The Inbetweeners, great swathes of what the British find funny has been bums and humiliation. Often humiliation because of bums and the things that come out of them.

When Quentin Letts rails against the ‘sex-obsessed’ I can only assume he’s talking about the smutty undergraduates of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue: ‘Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.’ or ‘The archivist says he always loves to watch his little dog as he scampers up to Samantha with her couple of crackers held out and pants around her ankles.’

Those who claim bleakness and cynicism in comedy are new and deplorable traits are, quite frankly, jabbering idiots who would be best served by being put the sort of establishment where they restrict access to pointy objects and have special non-swallowable Scrabble tiles. British comedy has never been darker than during its ‘golden age’: Hancock’s Half HourSteptoe And SonRising Damp are all utterly pitiless, as isFawlty Towers.

To sanitise and strip British comedy of its rich (and thoroughly offensive) heritage is to do it a disservice. I don’t blame the columnists of The Daily Mail for preferring to live in a Baden-Powell fantasy world, but we should really stop listening to them as if they were talking about, you know, reality.

Two other pillars of British comedy are silliness and satire, at both of which we excel, and which are often combined. From the Big-End and Little-Enders to On The Hour’s train drivers, on strike because they can see the track narrowing as it reaches the horizon and ‘with fixed-guage rolling stock, this could derail our trains’ satire often tends towards the surreal, making the point that the world is often surreal.

However, as satire ages, and its targets become more distant its silliness is what endures. Now, MontyPython’s Flying Circus is usually described as ‘surreal’, but what made the programme unique wasn’t its nonsense, but it’s gimlet-eyed view of the world.

All jokes have a point. No matter how surreal or slapstick, every joke tells a story; it represents a take on the world. Richard Curtis appears to have forgotten that.

In this spectacularly misjudged video for the 10:10 campaign, he appears to be labouring under the impression that people blowing up is funny in and of itself. Even when the people around react with screams of horror. Even when it’s grownups blowing up children.

Franny Armstrong, a founder of the 10:10 campaign said it was: ‘a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python or South Park’. Except no one in the known universe has been able to divine what it was intended to satirise.

Is this meant to warn us about the potentially fatal consequences of inactivity on climate change? If so, surely after a couple of people had refused the teacher should have sighed and blown everyone up. If you don’t act we all die. Probably still a rubbish film, but at least one with a point.

The film’s called No Pressure (and I’m guessing that the people blow up because they are de-pressurised?), so it would seem that it is suggesting that there really is pressure, even when people say there isn’t. Except that there’s actually much less pressure around them so they explode. Unless they’re highly-pressurised from the inside. Or something.

No one seems clear what it was trying to say, and if you’re unclear about what a joke is trying to say then it doesn’t work. That’s the thing about public communications: it helps if you have something you want to communicate. Instead, and I say that as someone who generally supports the aims of the 10:10 campaign, of just producing a bullying piece of proto-psychotic wish-fulfilment.

Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’s worst film. That’s Love, Actually. If you don’t believe me, pause for one second to consider a film that begins with a mawkish voice-over about 9-11 and ends with an 11-year-old child breaking through three levels of airport security, essentially unhindered. Next to that, No Pressure begins to look like a conceptual masterpiece.

The campaign organisers seem to be labouring under the delusion that what people found offensive was the gratuitous gore. Here’s a hint: when adults execute children to the screams of their horrified classmates, those adults are not the good guys. The problem is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s utterly incoherent.

For those who are un-shocked by massive child-violence, however, there’s always rape. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran this piece which bemoaned that making jokes about rape is becoming more acceptable.

I’m so politically correct it hurts. Literally. At the first whiff of a historical imbalance in power relations I come out in hives. I get gastric cramps when I read the word ‘niggardly’. However, not only should comedians have the right to make rape jokes, but they should be encouraged to.

Sexual violence is, unfortunately, part of the world we live in, and, as such, is one of the things we have to deal with as humans. One of the ways humans deal with things is by making jokes about them.

The implication of the article’s sub-heading ‘What makes comedians think rape is something to laugh about?’ is that there are subjects which are off-limits to comedy. You could as easily ask: what makes comedians think mass murder / genocide / paedophilia is something to laugh about? Maybe we shouldn’t touch these issues, but without them we wouldn’t have Gillray’s cartoons about the Terror in France, Mel Brooks’s The Producers, or the Brasseye Special. If we decide that some topics are taboo, the question then becomes who gets to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable subject for comedy.

Not all rape jokes are equal. Every joke takes a position, and not all positions are equally pleasant or unpleasant. There is an obvious difference between a joke or routine that honestly explores a comic’s personal reaction to a difficult subject, and one that trivialises sexual violence.

It’s certainly not unfair to judge a comic by their jokes. If their jokes revel in misogyny and use rape as a means of getting cheap laughs, then that tells you a lot about them. The greater a variety of comedians who feel able to give their personal take on rape and its part in our society, the better. As long as the only people who feel comfortable doing material about rape are those who couldn’t care less about it, the worse for everyone.

The problem is not that too many comics are telling jokes about rape, but that too few are, and many of those who do are doing it simply to shock. We need to have a culture in which comedians of all stripes feel free to discuss any subject that is important to them. More rape gags, please, and from more people.

As a comedian you are responsible for what you say. Like it or not, your jokes are yours. Until Keith Chegwin hears them.

But then I would say that. As a character comic, none of my jokes are mine. I get to espouse the most horrific opinions, tell the foulest, most shocking jokes, and blame them on the character I’m playing. And I do.

One of my characters is a racist, sexist, bigoted freak, and the act consists of watching him slowly have a nervous breakdown, and revealing the reasons for his being such a miserable human being. However, some of the laughs during that act do come simply from the shock value of hearing someone say terrible, terrible things. I did the act once at a rural club, where one of the patrons nodded throughout the whole thing, nodded and pointed and muttered: ‘Yes. Yes. He knows. That’s right.’ I later discovered that the pub the night was being held in was where the local chapter of the BNP hold their meetings.

Even a routine in which a horrible person is shown for the hollow, diseased shell they are will be taken by some people as a positive affirmation of their awful views on minorities, women, and the current underuse of the word ‘poppycock’. Standing on a stage wielding a microphone is a powerful thing.

In the end I decided that, as it had only happened once, and that, for anyone with even a sliver of functioning brain, the point of the act was to discredit those opinions rather than give voice to them, I should continue doing that bit. Although I have to accept that in so doing I am also giving voice to them, and a tiny, stupid minority will take comfort from the very thing I designed to discomfit them.

If one really wishes to find comedy that was ‘cruel and witless’ one doesn’t have to look far beyond Quentin Letts’ ‘golden age’ of comedy. (Incidentally, in his staggeringly ill-informed article, Mr. Letts bemoans that we have no Pixar, no animation company capable of making touching films that garner international success. We’ll assume he’s never heard of Aardman.)

The casual, grinning racism of a lot of the acts on The Comedians in the 1970s reminds us that not all comedy of the ‘golden age’ was gentle silliness with a good heart. It appears, instead, that any joke of any viciousness was acceptable as long as it was aimed at the Irish, blacks, mothers-in-law, Pakis, immigrants, married women, unmarried women, and gays. Those who seem so horrified by today’s comedy seem to have chortled happily through the ethnic mugging of The Two Ronnies.

Comedy has always been cruel and witless. It’s just that we only really notice when it stops being cruel and witless about the people we don’t care if it’s cruel and witless about. We only feel the need to write opinion columns about how cruel and witless it is when it’s cruel and witless about people like us. Or, in Prince Charles’s case, people very specifically like us. You know, us.

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