Given how much I enjoy comedy it's not really surprising that it was Frankie Boyle's comments about Down Syndrome that coaxed me into this. Whatever follows, I am amazingly impressed by Sharon Smith, the woman who objected to the comments; the class with which she has handled this whole issue - no press interviews, no righteous anger, just a bald statement of the truth in a free-to-view public forum - leaves me hugely awed and humbled. I'd have behaved terribly in her shoes!
However, I don't feel that this issue is as cut-and-dried as a lot of the commentators I've read seem to. Boyle himself (reported by Marc Lee in the Telegraph) says that, "there's no line you can't cross" in comedy, though surely there is at the very least a line of legality, where comedy becomes incitement to hatred? A very thorough investigation of the issue by Brian Logan uses the word irony more times than the Alanis Morisette song, as an explanation for the apparent intolerance perpertrated by many modern comedians. The argument here goes that portraying stereotypes can be framed as laughing at the [eg racists] not the [eg racial stereotype], but what about people who don't see it that way? And wasn't that the excuse which that Fawlty Towers episode used, not to mention ITV sitcom "Love Thy Neighbour"? Do we still see them as ironic today?
An exception is often granted in the case of people mocking a group to which they belong, eg recent film release The Infidel, or Jo Brand making fat jokes. But doesn't this more strongly reinforce stereotypes than a person from outside the group sending them up? After all, if we can watch a fat woman telling us she eats a lot of cake, isn't that more convincing than Jimmy Carr saying it? Parts of Djalili's stand-up involves parodying Islamic extremists; but given that he himself is Baha'i isn't that at great risk of cementing the link in people's minds between anything from the Middle East and terrorists?
Paul MacInnes' article (which mainly focuses on taboo rather than tolerance - which one of us has missed the point?!) provides a set of guidelines for comics to stay within. For all he admits that they, "could prove...to be a little woolly", I'm not convinced that they're even a helpful starting point. Why are we allowed to laugh at dominant groups but not oppressed ones? Does laughing with Michael McIntyre at the white British male obsession with lofts enforce a sense of this group being, "default" and others being "other"? Is it patronising to imply that oppressed groups can't laugh at themselves, or that the mainstream is unable to distinguish between caricature and reality? McInnes also talks about choice, but a person's weight isn't the only grey area here; in this country at least accent is often altered to denote class aspiration, and don't people choose their religion? From the other side, John Holmes didn't choose to be short, so is the running joke about his height on Radio 4's The Now Show inappropriate if he doesn't mind?
If Russell Howard can get away with impressions of a Taiwanese person on his BBC show, and Ross Noble can be lauded for his Stephen Hawking skit by someone else with a similar voice synthesiser, how much of this is about context? When I first pointed friends to the Frankie Boyle news story I coupled it with this film trailer parody, which also features a person with an impairment in a not-altogether flattering manner (he's described as a "retard" at one point), and yet no-one complained at the apparent irony - why not? And why was complaint so slow in coming, when Boyle's standard comedic fare on Mock the Week included paedophilia, kidnap and rape, not always separately?
And finally, what does it say about me that the first time I saw the headline I thought of Susan Boyle...?