Edgy comedy is a little passé; the most recent furore over rape jokes is nearly a year old, and civilisation seems less likely to collapse at news of Frankie Boyle doing what audiences pay good money to hear him do. Nevertheless, it remains instructive as regards the relation between the comedian’s attitude to their act and the audience’s attitude to each.
For instance, Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais have each been embroiled in controversy over jokes concerning disabled people. Discussing these cases with a work colleague, he was willing to give Carr but not Gervais the benefit of the doubt. The suggestion was that Carr didn’t mean to offend paraplegics but was poking fun at those who would find straightforwardly offensive comments amusing, whereas Ricky Gervais was hiding his genuine prejudice behind a veneer of irony, or so my colleague maintained.
I don’t know enough about either Carr or Gervais to judge whether they mean to cause offence, or are flirting with it for the sake of edgy but ultimately acceptable comedy. But what I found interesting is the suggestion that it’s valid to judge a comedian’s act partly on their attitude towards what they say. A comedian who says things which on the face of it mock vulnerable people, and who fully intends to do this, can be judged differently to one who says similar things but without this intent.
One obvious issue this raises is knowing what a comedian’s attitude really is; another is the danger that remarks intended for a comedy-savvy audience who are aware that the comedian doesn’t mean them will reach those who don’t or won’t appreciate such subtleties. But more generally, it is interesting that the sincerity or otherwise of a comedian’s comments can be seen as relevant. This marks quite a change from the days before stand-ups wrote their own material, when comics would simply recycle material without any thought being given to the attitude expressed.
It also allows stand-ups to play with a kind of irony which can be particularly potent because it is unclear, at least some of the time, what the comedian’s own attitude is. More precisely, a stand-up can do this in real time, in a game of chicken where they dare the audience to draw an implied conclusion which is never actually stated. For instance, consider the following Tim Minchin ditty:
The dynamic of the comedy is pretty clear, and by this I mean not just misdirection, but that the misdirection concerns Minchin’s own attitude. Indeed, this is a sophisticated example, with two different suggestions which are confounded: that he’s about to use a certain epithet; and that he’s making a point about the use of this epithet and so setting himself up as something of a do-gooder (a point he still makes, but in a round-about way). Not all of this kind of misdirection involves edgy comedy – consider the introductory words to this song, which perform the same trick:
But comedy about taboos and our attitudes towards them is where it flourishes most easily.
A final thought: this kind of comedy seems to rely on irony, so in theory it shouldn’t work if the comedian is sincere in the apparently offensive things they say. But I suspect that once this kind of game has started, it might be possible to play it successfully regardless of one’s own opinions. In which case, a kind of comedy that relies on the audience’s views as to the comedian’s attitude would in effect become independent of that attitude. Whether this is actually ironic or not, I'll let Alanis Morissette decide.