Not in Front of the Children

Cutting edge humour isn't actually cutting edge - it has simply moved from the private to the public

“The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth up to seven miles away – and that fact also works if you remove the word moth.” Where would you be most likely to hear this joke – at a dinner party or on the BBC? Answer: On the BBC, of course. This joke was told by the comedian Jimmy Carr on Radio 4’s Loose Ends in 2006, and the BBC had to apologise unreservedly for it.

But why is this kind of material being broadcast by the BBC? Unlike many others, I’m not asking this question as a form of protest against the Corporation and its apparent lowering of standards, but because I think that the answer may lie in an area previously overlooked. Rather than asking why we should be paying for the transmission of this kind of “cutting edge” humour, which seeks to shock and offend, we should firstly be asking whether the humour is, in fact, cutting edge. And it isn’t. Offensive jokes have always been told – it’s just that they have now moved from the private to the public sphere. I wouldn’t be able to pull off telling a joke about a disabled person in the pub or workplace without causing offence (or extreme awkwardness at the very least). Jimmy Carr, on the other hand, has based his entire career on telling this kind of joke to the nation.

We’re probably less offensive in our private humour than we’ve ever been before. Political correctness has imposed certain inhibitions upon our private behaviour which stop us from telling the dodgy jokes that we used to – the closest I get to engaging with taboo comedy is when I get a shocking text message sent to me by a friend. We’re now at a point where comedians can be more honest in front of an audience of millions than we can among our own acquaintances.

So, if we’ve decided that offensive humour will always exist, but that the question is whether it will be aired privately or publicly, then a new question emerges. Would we prefer offensive humour to be left to the private sphere? Or do we prefer a stranger who is actually paid to be funny to tackle the job?

That’s entirely a matter of taste. All I know is that, if a colleague told a joke like the one above in the office, I’d cringe. But when the Thunderbird-puppet-lookalike Jimmy Carr does the same, I laugh.

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