Posted tagged ‘John Cleese’

Joking apart

September 2, 2009

While sorting through some memorabilia of my student days in a little-known Dublin university, I came across a magazine that had been produced for a student rag week in 1975. I sat down for a moment, expecting to be entertained afresh and maybe being able to use some of the material. By the time I had flicked through the first two or three pages I was aghast. It was all jokes. Well, ‘jokes’. Not only was it absolutely inconceivable that I would ever be able to quote anything I was reading to anyone, I found myself feeling distinctly queasy. I swear that it is very very hard to shock me. People have tried it in as diverse places as my family dining room and in the law courts, and have never succeeded. But this was stomach churning stuff. Absolutely nothing in there was funny, and almost everything was grossly offensive. I could not even begin to recreate the state of mind that the authors must have been in. Well, the cover said that it was being sold for various worthy charities, and I presume that’s why I bought it (or maybe I never looked inside the covers at the time); but that hardly justified the stuff that was in it.

The odd thing is that around the same time that someone was concocting this garbage, some clever and genuinely exhilarating comedy talent was being developed in other university settings. The most famous academy of comedy was the Footlights society in Cambridge University, and in the 1970s and early 1980s people such as Clive Anderson, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones were gaining a reputation there – just as John Cleese, Eric Idle, Peter Cooke and others had done earlier. But there have also been several other universities that have been homes to extraordinary comic talent, as it happens including my own Dublin City University: Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Dougal from Father Ted) developed his act while a student in DCU’s School of Communications. While we shouldn’t think of comedy as something elitist, there is something pleasing about humour that is ‘knowing’, both in the comic sense and in the sense of a well applied but lightly worn intelligence.

And yet, it seems that good comedy must always do battle within the campus world with stuff that really isn’t funny. This week the Oxford University Conservative Association got into the headlines for holding an event at which members were encouraged to tell ‘inappropriate’ jokes. It appears that at least one such ‘joke’ was highly racist, so that Oxford has required that the association remove the reference to the university from its name and has, in effect, banned it from activities on the campus.

I suppose that, at a level of generality, it is worth asking questions about the dividing line between humour that tests the limits of conventional tolerance and that therefore represents a tradition of pushing the boundaries, and humour that is simply offensive and that targets vulnerable groups. It is not necessarily an easy line to draw, and it is probably tempting to say that we cannot define it but will know it when we see it transgressed. And of course universities should not encourage intellectual and cultural caution or prudish attitudes. So I don’t know the answer. I love good humour, and believe that much humour that has flouted convention and respectability has played a hugely important role in developing a insights that have helped society to mature. But humour is never good when it tries to get laughs at the expense of human dignity or equality. Maybe we cannot do more than be sensitive to this. Or maybe we sometimes have to accept the juvenile offensive stuff as the price we pay for the humour that genuinely builds us up.