Expletives: the good, the bad and the crude
Yes, swearing can be a substitute for real humour. But used wisely and judiciously it can also be subversively witty.
Is it big and clever to swear? Yes it is, if you are 19 stone and a professor of astrophysics at Manchester University.
Yes, it’s an old Viz joke. But swearing on the telly, and saying rude things, remains an issue. BBC presenters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand have seemingly offended the entire world recently for making crude jokes against a person who ironically made a living out of mocking Spanish people. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has made fun of lorry drivers for their predilection for murdering prostitutes, while the likes of comedians Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle have made it their trademark to be as foul-mouthed as possible.
This is why it was timely that funnyman Frank Skinner presented ‘Have I Got Bad Language For You?’ on Monday night’s Panorama on BBC 1 (1). Skinner, previously renowned for his own bad language, was questioning whether it was big or clever to swear on stage or on TV. His conclusion (or at least those of his talking heads)? It isn’t. And Skinner has undertaken an experiment: not to swear during his live stand-up shows. So is he less funny for omitting the profanities? Do you have to be rude to be funny?
One of Skinner’s talking heads, Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, is a living example of the case against swearing being funny (2). Famed for his use of bad language, Brown is also the unfunniest man ever to have come from the north-east of England, or indeed anywhere in Britain, whose repertoire consists of merely abusing people, making ‘Paki’ jokes, and accusing his audiences of being paedophiles. Like Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning, Brown is an example of how bad language can be a substitute for humour, not an aid to it.
But swearing isn’t by default a bad thing. It’s all about context, timing and discretion. This is why I think the interviewees on Panorama were correct to chastise the main television networks for having too much swearing, and for issuing the formulaic disclaimer at the beginning of seemingly every programme after 9pm that ‘this programme contains strong language’. The resort purely to bad language leaves us with such shows as Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, the most abominable comedy ever to disgrace our screens (and to disgrace BBC Three night after night after night).
Used judiciously and intelligently, swearing can be excellent. Frank Skinner is a stand-up comedian, so he should appreciate that the likes of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks, Joan Rivers and Denis Leary would never have come to fame without their brilliant execution of profanities. The ‘Profanisaurus’ section of Viz comic rivals the linguistic dexterity of James Joyce. And in my opinion, the best employment of bad language to comic effect is in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), featuring the iconic sketch regarding the People’s Front of Judea (3).
Bad language can be coarse, but it can also be employed as a form of social subversion (as Monty Python showed). So those who complain that swearing is just ‘bad manners’ or an example of our culture ‘dumbing down’ do have a point. But they also miss the point. Swearing can be empowering. It acts as a reflex against all our given assumptions. It can also be lyrical, as anyone who has been to a football game will attest.
I think Skinner should stick to swearing. What’s wrong with being offensive, so long as it’s intelligent or constructive? Why should you kow-tow to the Mary Whitehouse brigade? It’s not as though Skinner is playing to audiences made up of members of the Women’s Institute or the Salvation Army. All in all, ‘Have I Got Bad Language For You?’ came across as a bit precious, as merely another example of BBC navel-gazing.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.