Having been an avid consumer of late-night comedy, as well as being a youthful forty-seven-year-old male (going on twenty-seven), I feel qualified to comment on the impact of no-holds-barred humour on impressionable or just tired minds. Roll back the years to circa 1988: I’m fourteen and looking for ways to rebel and be cool. In this quest, I discovered Bill Hicks marching across the screen of Channel 4 with his diatribe stream of consciousness hitting me like heroin in the veins of a soon to be addict. Everything he yelled at me was The Truth. In a world where people lied to make the struggles of life seem less harrowing, or to charm their way to a friendship, lover or a promotion, those late-night poets of the dark art of Truth (posing as comedians) were living legends to me.

However, I no longer want to be cool. I find the concept (which I was obsessed with until my early forties) to be somewhat an insane idea. To seek liberty is natural. To strive for individuality is inherent in us all. However, to blindly relate to anyone who portrays themselves as a libertarian is misguided. There have to be rules or you get chaos. To believe you can say what you like and disregard the feelings and principles of others is immature, nihilistic and (in the case of comedians like Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle and Ricky Gervais) profiteering off other peoples’ hardship. 

Fast forward to February 2022 and the king of the crass one-liners, Jimmy Carr is all over the news about a ‘joke’ he told about gipsies on his Netflix show: 

“Everyone talks about all the Jews killed by the Nazi war machine, but no one ever talks about all the gipsies who died. No one ever talks about that because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”

I might have once sided with the camp commenting on social media that it was just a joke and if I didn’t like it don’t go to his show. However, I responded with: “The concept of a joke is dependent on everyone being in on the fact it’s a joke (not a slur). However, in this case it’s quite clearly a sign of how odious #Jimmycarr is. How has he gotten away with it for so long? 

I find Jimmy Carr to be the poster boy for the normalization of the subtle erosion of foundational principles of society. A joke like: “I think you know a girl is too young for you if you have to make the aeroplane noise to get your cock in her mouth,” is a perfect example of this.

There’s a double standard in us if there’s a good laugh in it.

For a long time, I didn’t care. If I read a headline about someone being raped, or a genocide, or a local girl murdered, I got annoyed that I had to feel something when I was seeking entertainment or an escape. My late-night comedy friends contributed to this. Clearly, there is a part of us that wants to live in blissful ignorance, and risky comedians play on that for money. What they are essentially doing is normalizing that drunken, feckless part of us we had as teens, saying, “Go on, allow yourself to be a bit horrible.” Once you crack the seal, you allow yourself to be a little more horrible. And a little more. 

I’m not saying comedians are responsible for my insensitivity or caused my fourteen-year-old self to lose touch with what mattered in a deeper part of himself, what matters to society as a whole (I blame politicians and capitalists for normalizing inhumanity). What I am saying is we have a personal responsibility to draw a line and not cross it. Jokes like Jimmy Carr’s: “I don’t like swearing during sex, who wants to hear that kind of language, especially from a child,” have gone unaddressed. 

Ricky Gervais is deep, insightful and one of my favourite comedians. However, he crosses the line into puerile self-entertainment too often, and he knows it (he laughs at his own jokes as much as anyone else). I get bored of his stand-up whenever he starts spinning personal disdain for certain types of people as ‘just a joke’. Personal feelings aside, the trans issue is a very serious and complex one and jokes should be avoided as a means to bring some levity to the topic. Do it in private to your friends if you must, but not on such a public forum and with a massive following. It’s irresponsible, and he’s wise enough to know it. But it’s like that with comedians, they’re like politicians, if you let them away with it, they’ll do it.

And what about jokes about obesity? “Just stop eating,” is a favourite of his, while he clearly drinks and eats what he likes. His self-loathing might be worth making jokes about, but for others, obesity is not a simple matter of stopping eating or drinking. The body is complex. Add to that, a brain’s proclivity for solving problems quickly and efficiently, it doesn’t take a genius to see how shoving a cream cake into your face becomes an suitable way to stem an emotional breakdown in the office. Coming from a millionaire, those jokes are the epitome of the saying, ‘that’s rich’, because he isn’t stressing about paying his heating or losing his job because there’s a toxic enviornment at work and you happen to be the one person trying to fix things, and end up the emotional punch bag, just for kicks.

Addiction is not a joke. He doesn’t take the mick out of gamblers or alcoholics. Trans, obesity and addiction all fall into the same bracket: somewhere in between childhood trauma and disillusionment.

Is that funny?

When I think back to being immature and looking for my own escape from the difficulties of life through late-night comedy, I can’t help thinking that there was an antagonistic bitterness beneath the jokes; damaged, sinister jesters rather than happy funsters and satirists.  In saying all that, it’s hard not to laugh at and admire Ricky Gervais because he is human and thoughtful in his own way (I’m not sure I can say that about people like Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle). The point is, it’s up to us to not laugh when decent comedians cross the line. And there must be a line!

Drunk on Laughter.

However, the problem with that is the feedback loop of drunken punters feeding a comedian’s ego. When I’m sober, I’m left-leaning. When I’m drunk, I’m right-leaning. Or sober: more altruistic, drunk: much less so. The feedback loop is that popular comedians affect us like preachers, reading from a bible we have drunkenly written. It stirs and charms us at once because it’s us at the end of the day. And more sinisterly, it turns us into a hoard of mindless minions who beat down our own deepest parts that might actually find jokes about damaged people tasteless. I doubt any victims of sexual abuse find it funny when their horrific ordeal is seen as just a punchline.

Cancel culture is difficult to side with because it attacks freedom. Woke idealogy is arbitrary in that if someone is offended, then the offender is arbitrarily wrong. There is a line and it can be crossed in many ways! Yes, I may be disgusted by Jimmy Carr and I won’t go to his show. If I had been molested or raped or affected by the Holocaust, I definitely wouldn’t speak to a Jimmy Carr fan. However, he should not be cancelled because an accepting society has to take the rough with the smooth. You are welcome to deflect your self-loathing onto others, in the privacy of your own kind and home. I accept that as reality. Being honest with oneself is probably the hardest thing to do for most people. Maturity and age generally fixes that, unless you skull a six-pack a night and have killed off those few decent brain cells.

Comedians have to stop espousing the idea that they can say what they like with impunity in public to their massive followings under the guise of it just being a joke.

This is the joke.

Famous comedians work hard at being successful not at being humanatarians. Your participation and laughter are part of the punchline. At the end of the day, we allow them to warp the impressionable, the slow and the just-too-tired-to-think minds of their listeners for profit. A cold and unfeeling public who makes jokes about complex issues is not the way a society thrives, quite the opposite.