But is some comedy simply not funny?
Some comedians play it safe; others push boundaries. Comedy has always been that way. One comic will keep it clean, sticking to the saucy or safely risqué, another will go to the edge. Very occasionally a comedian will break new ground by stepping into dangerous and uncharted comedy territory. The response can vary from nervous laughter to total outrage. Until recent times, most stand-up comedy here in the UK had long revolved around sex.
Max Miller, the Cheeky Chappie, reigned supreme as Britain’s top comedian from the 1930s to the early Sixties. He was the master of innuendo and double entendre and was idolised, not only by his audiences, but by generations of comedians who followed. Miller was reportedly banned twice by the BBC, but though much of his material was regarded as “blue”, he never actually swore in his act. Acclaimed cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe grew up listening to Miller on the radio. In a 1989 television documentary he said of his comedy hero: “I liked Max because he told jokes about sex. I liked him because he was rude and he always had a sense of danger about him.” Miller’s comedy was often set in a world of seaside landladies and commercial travellers and featured “girls who do and girls who don’t.” These settings and characters were picked up and exaggerated in the Seventies by Benny Hill, whose comedy was largely visual and targeted at TV audiences. Beautiful girls in micro-skirts and black stockings, leering middle-aged men with paunches, and camp, cravat-wearing gays were staples of The Benny Hill Show, which was a regular ratings-topper.
Comedy, though, changes with the times, and while sex is not entirely off the comedic menu, contemporary comedians are generally far more inventive in the topics they choose to tackle and satirise. Most have moved away from outdated, typically British humour and are probably more closely aligned with American stand-up legends like Lenny Bruce, who has been described as the first great philosopher-comic. Nowadays our comedians go with the news. They are topical, political and irreverent. They can be outrageously tasteless, intolerant of hypocrisy and discomfortingly honest.
“You can laugh about everything but not with everyone”
– Pierre Desproges, Comedian
They offer a point of view. But are they funny? For some people, far from it. Jimmy Carr, in his Netflix special, His Dark Material, sparked fury with his comments about the Holocaust, joking that “nobody talks about the positives” in reference to Nazi murders of hundreds of thousands of people from the Roma, Sinti and traveller communities. While some fans have defended Carr, Downing Street has said it is “unacceptable to make light of genocide,” and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries described the gag as “abhorrent”. Carr himself told audiences on his latest tour that he risks being “cancelled” because of his choice of comedy material but has also defended the joke as “funny” and “edgy” because it’s about “the worst thing that’s ever happened in human history” which we should “never forget”. Not everyone is laughing.