Yesterday the old, racist British comedian Bernard Manning died, leaving a media unsure what to say about him. Though he’d been off TV for nearly thirty years he still made a fortune touring working men’s clubs where his behind-the-times humour was still appreciated. Many commentators seem to be saying that we’ve moved on a lot since the seventies, but I’m afraid I’d say that the problems we have with Manning are still with us today.
It seems to me that there are two kinds of jokes people find unacceptable. The first are the ones that Manning sometimes used to tell – jokes that promote prejudice. The second are ‘close to the bone’ jokes, which make light of a subject or situation that some people think is beyond the pale. The first, so far as I can see, is not ok – nobody’s saying they “should be banned” but all the same the hatred at their core should be exposed wherever posible. The second kind is not such a problem, but should of course be treated sensitively – you wouldn’t put rape jokes on kids’ TV, for example.
The problem is that instead of being against the hatred as a whole we’ve instead just banned categories of it – first racism, then sexism and homophobia. Any painfully unfunny trip to your local comedy club will reveal that this has just meant the same jokes are switched to other groups – chavs, gingers, Americans, short people, fat people… We’d never dream of complaining about any of these as our entire national character seems to be based on being able to “take a joke” – so the only option is to promote your “minority group” and try to “raise awareness” – exactly the kind of thing that starts people moaning about “political correctness”.
We English often have an unpleasant school-bully streak to our sense of humour. If people can start distinguishing between the two kinds of jokes above perhaps we can start to move away from that, though I don’t know how likely that is.
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