Frankie Boyle: the bastard child of Ofcom

Ofcom creates precisely the stifling conditions in which an unfunny misanthrope like Boyle can flourish.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

Glaswegian comedian Frankie Boyle has a reputation for being a bit rude.

He has suggested that Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington is unattractive, has disparaged Regina’s vagina and has mocked Downs Syndrome sufferers. In fact, his rudeness is more than a reputation; it’s a career. Frankie Boyle is The Offensive Comedian – ‘I knew what to expect’, said the mother of a disabled child after Boyle recently made a crack at her kid’s condition.

So why, given the fact that Boyle’s whole act is built upon being gratuitously inappropriate, does the state, through its communications regulator, Ofcom, feel the need to point out that Boyle is being gratuitously inappropriate? Do they think that we are incapable of coping with Boyle’s particular brand of entertainment by ourselves?

It certainly seems that way. Ofcom’s latest opportunity to tell us what is and what is not acceptable came in the wake of an episode of the grim Glaswegian’s equally grim Channel 4 show Tramadol Nights. Brave to the last cruelty, Boyle decided that a joke about the disabled son of privacy-averse shleb Katie Price, aka Jordan, was in order: ‘Jordan and Peter Andre are still fighting each other over custody of Harvey – eventually one of them will lose and have to keep him.’ Ofcom promptly received over 500 complaints, including one from Price herself, who accused both Channel 4 and Frankie Boyle of an ‘utter lack of judgement’ – which was quite an accusation coming from someone who once asked Sun readers to vote on whether she should have her breasts enlarged.

Still, the furore was enough for Ofcom to wade in and lay down some manners. Criticising Boyle and his producers at Tramadol Nights for ‘demeaning the physical and mental disabilities of an eight-year-old boy’, Ofcom decided this week to issue censure instead of a fine. Boyle had done wrong, even if he didn’t recognise it they said. By ‘target[ing] and mock[ing] the mental and physical disabilities’, he’d overstepped a line.

Censoring this, censuring that, Ofcom is constantly in the process of setting the boundaries for acceptable speech. It’s like the long etiquette arm of the state, deciding what can and what can’t be said, what is and what is not appropriate. All of which not only reins in our freedom to speak our minds, or in Boyle’s case empty its bowels – it also suggests that we are incapable of exercising the moral judgements of which Ofcom believes itself to be the chief executor.

Because here’s the thing. Arguing that Boyle ought to be free to curl off his jokes about disabled children is not the same as withholding judgement upon those jokes. Boyle’s brand of comedy is ripe for criticism. ‘When I was a wee boy I had a dream that I was eating a giant marshmallow’, he says during an episode of Tramadol nights. The punchline is about as surprising as death: ‘And when I woke up I was being sexually abused.’ That’s Boyle in a miniature. His whole act seems to rest on an endless series of broken taboos, of predictably saying the wrong thing. If Bob Monkhouse famously had an ever-expanding joke book, Boyle has an offensive algorithm, one capable of generating an endless series of similar punchlines using a few unsayables, such as rape, paedophilia, wanking. To give Boyle his due, he doesn’t restrict himself: sometimes necrophilia, infanticide and bestiality will feature, too.

This isn’t dark comedy. There’s no sudden intake of breath when the child-abuse punchline makes its appearance. This is bland comedy; the child-abuse punchline always makes an appearance. To break a taboo with a joke, to cause that sudden intake of breath, depends on some shared acknowledgement that what is prohibited is prohibited for a reason, that a moral rationale is somehow being challenged: ‘I can’t believe he just said that!’ But with Boyle the taboo-breaking is too easy, too believable: ‘I can well believe he just said that.’ That’s because nothing is precious or valuable in Boyle’s universe except the absolute certainty that people are shit and that they do shit things to one another. There is no reason, at least as far as Boyle can see, not to break taboos. Like a child who’s been told by his mum not to swear, Boyle keeps swearing.

That Boyle’s comedy is so decadent and adolescent is at least significant. It’s the product of a society in which we are constantly told by external authorities, from Ofcom to the Advertising Standards Authority, that we can’t say certain things because someone somewhere might be offended. And it’s this culture of offensiveness – the official criteria by which speech is regulated – that provides the stifling, inhibiting climate in which a comedian like Boyle blossoms. His is a reflex, an infantile but automatic response to an oppressive, speech-regulating paternalism.

That is why Ofcom, by attempting to create and impose some form of etiquette, is not the solution. It is part of the problem.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Free Speech


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