I already expressed my disappointment in Frankie Boyle’s approach to comedy. As I explained, his jokes have more of the school bully about them than the self-destructive genius of Jerry Sadowitz. However, the debate over Tramadol Nights has gone, in my view, horribly wrong with people suggesting he shouldn’t be allowed to joke about cancer or disability. Comedians should make jokes about any painful subject. That’s what jokes are for. The real question is handling it with skill.
Boyle’s joke about breast cancer (telling his friend “you shouldn’t be walking the Great Wall of China! You should be in bed playing with your tits before they drop off”) caused outrage. This is one of the only lines in Tramadol Nights I didn’t have a problem with.
Firstly, it was constructed with a patently ludicrous image of breasts dropping off like papier-mâché in the rain. It’s clearly nonsense. Secondly, the delivery was totally different to his usual aggressive stance. He seemed to be showing genuine concern for his friend’s well-being, albeit amusingly misguided and with a very poor grasp of anatomy. The jokes that followed were the kind people do exchange with their friends in times of great worry. It’s what jokes are for, to alleviate tension and allow us to broach painful subjects.
I was in the ambulance during my Mum’s third heart attack in two years and told her: “Really Mother, you’re just being repetitive now. Can you not do a bit of variation?” She replied with a muffled “sorry, I’ll remember next time” through the oxygen mask.
Jimmy Carr’s infamous joke (“Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012”) was fantastic. If anyone’s going to find that especially funny, it’s people in the military or their doctors, those who need gallows humour to get through life. As is often the case, outrage was co-opted by well-meaning outsiders who always seem to get offended on behalf of others. Even worse is when those who defend free speech suddenly forget the principle when their own pet taboo is touched upon.
There is also something extremely important that gets ignored in the age of so-called offensive comedy. If it’s taken as given that you are on stage with a comic persona and therefore don’t mean anything you say, then no subject can be off limits. “I won’t say anything I think can be taken the wrong way, as racist, or homophobic,” Boyle told the Sunday Herald in November 2008. This is where he and many people get it woefully wrong. If the foundation of the act is ironic, then that goes for everything, or is he suggesting that the sexist, ageist, disablist material can happily be ‘taken the wrong way’? Or that his audience is so thick that they do take some of his jokes seriously?
Sadowitz explained it perfectly when he noted: “Every joke is a target. I take it to its logical conclusion so everything is a target. That automatically negates any idea I’m a bigot or genuinely anti-this, it just makes it outrageous.”
As an aside, judging by the sketches in Tramadol Nights, Frankie seems to have abandoned that stance on non-racist and homophobic jokes. Sadly, he included them in his ‘offensive first, funny is optional’ scattergun approach. It takes skill to make dark comedy work and in this case Boyle blundered into a minefield wearing extra-wide skis. The cowboy and AIDS sketches seem to consider homosexuality amusing in and of itself, while I have yet to see a black man in the entire series who isn’t fucking someone/something.
This brings me to the Harvey Price issue. Mentioning the disabled child was not the problem. People say the joke was aimed at his mother and her media persona, but I fail to see what point it was supposed to make. It seemed more like the old school bully mentality that a rather large child with learning difficulties must automatically be some kind of super-strong out-of-control freak that ‘normal’ people should be protected from. It was misjudged and futile, like so many of his brutal put-downs of minor celebrities, but this is a totally separate issue from the cancer jokes.
So I will defend Boyle’s right to joke about painful subjects and I will continue to call him out when he does it badly. If that’s too nuanced a view for your stance on this issue, then tough drop-offable titties.
P.S. Don’t forget Jerry Sadowitz ison tour! Go see if you want to find out how it’s meant to be done! Book here NOW!