The death of controversial humour?

Peter Kay sparked fury when he made a risque joke on Strictly Come Dancing. Source: University of Salford Press Office via Flickr

By G Gavin Collins

Comedian Peter Kay became the most recent victim of unfounded accusations of bigotry, after he made a light-hearted quip about celebrity judge Robert Rinder’s sexuality on the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing. The joke, that Judge Rinder’s sexuality was a ‘firmly closed case’, did not appear to cause any controversy during the program, but, as with most faux-outrage witch hunts, took the form of social media ‘slacktivism’.

Despite the fact that Mr. Kay’s accusers consisted only of a handful of Twitter users, the media, sensing an opportunity to stir controversy and drive up ratings, proceeded to write dozens of stories on an issue that most viewers of the BBC program were likely not even able to perceive.

The charges levelled against Mr. Kay seem to be part of a category of baseless accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, which have in recent years targeted everything from sport teams’ logos to Halloween costumes. Despite there being no evidence that Mr. Kay dislikes gay people, many news headlines following the incident seemingly imply that this would not be an unjustifiable opinion if one were to weigh up the evidence.

There appears at present to be an epidemic of neo-puritanism directed at comedy. The American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, recently spoke out about his policy of refusing to do comedy shows on university campuses, because of the hostility against him from many millennial audiences who appear unable to appreciate the distinction between comedy and actual hate speech directed at minority groups. The fact that Jerry Seinfeld, a comic who specialises in observational humour about mundane topics and rarely even swears during his stand-up routines, complains about feeling this kind of pressure while on stage is a strong indication that it is modern audiences and not the comedians, who are at fault.

The labelling of every off-colour comment or joke as a form of bigotry also weakens the deterring effect of those labels on behaviour that actually warrants their use. The failure of many serial hair-trigger accusers to recognise their overzealousness has likely contributed to the recent rise of populist political candidates, who have in some cases made a war against political correctness a part of their campaign platforms.

Most rational people would recognise that there are still instances of genuine bigotry and discrimination, and that jokes dealing with topics such as sex or racism are best left outside of council meetings or the office. It does not follow, however, that off-colour humour should be banned from humorous television programs or comedy clubs because of an easily offended minority, who fail to appreciate the context in which something is said.

Risqué comedy is in danger of disappearing entirely if the media and advertisers, pressured by a small but vocal minority, cannot find it within themselves to target actual bigots, while leaving alone people who appreciate the occasional juvenile attempt at humour.

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