The war on banter is killing comedy
Comedians’ crusade against Dapper Laughs is coming back to haunt them.
This week, we witnessed the end of the BBC’s most farcical fit of PC pique ever. That’s right, Samantha-gate: the BBC’s shortlived investigation into whether the portrayal of ‘the lovely Samantha’, the mute and fictional scorekeeper on BBC Radio 4 panel-show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, was a bit sexist.
For those unversed in the weird world of Radio 4 parlour-game panel shows, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is a geriatric half hour of punning, kazoos and innuendo, beamed live (one imagines) from Barry Cryer’s nursing home. The lovely Samantha – who famously ‘sits on [former host] Humph’s left hand’ – is a throwback Carry On muse who, in between rounds, is the target of a few saucy gags.
Springing into action after a handful of complaints, the BBC’s Editorial Standards Committee conducted what it called ‘lengthy and detailed’ discussions with the show’s producers and stars. After a few days of soul-searching and the stinging realisation that Samantha, er, didn’t exist, the Beeb called it off, much to the relief of those onlookers concerned they might have lapsed into a parallel universe.
It was a ridiculous case, where even the most Victorian-minded could agree that, on this occasion, PC did go a bit mad. ‘Smut, sarcasm, self-deprecation and innuendo are like the Queen, fish and chips, queuing and complaining’, said comedian Shazia Mirza in the Guardian, while, in the Telegraph, William Langley described it as another attack on harmless fun from ‘the Beeb’s PC puritans’.
What seemed to sting most was that Samantha was a comedic creation. Snuffing out Samantha would, Mirza argued, gloss over the difference between comedy and reality. It is this sort of enlightened response you wish you heard being made more often in other areas of public life. Because as touchy as British society has been about the influence of dodgy films, violent videogames and porn in recent years, comedy has always been given a pass. It’s the double standard on which British comedy has thrived. British comics and comedy writers are given a boatload of taboos and a socially acceptable means with which to bust them. A firm, unqualified defence of artistic expression is often tricky to come by these days. But from Monty Python to Frankie Boyle, provocative comedians have always been able to defend themselves: ‘It’s satire, it’s a send-up, it’s a joke!’
As such, British comedians have found themselves at the centre of some of the crucial free-speech battles of recent times. When, in the mid 2000s, the New Labour government was planning to introduce anti-religious hatred laws, comedians made eloquent, principled defences of their – and our – right to be offensive. In 2012, Rowan Atkinson, Al Murray, Stephen Fry and others were the faces of Reform Section 5, a successful campaign to have the word ‘insulting’ removed from the Public Order Act’s definition of incitement to religious hatred.
But the haven comedy provides in an increasingly illiberal society is under threat. It’s not just the bizarre accusation that Jack Dee making insinuations about Samantha ‘nipping out’ is ‘highly sexist, offensive and harmful’. Nor is it the law, seeking to clamp down once again on loud-mouthed, mullah-baiting comedians. It’s something that’s coming from the bottom up. A new army of buzzkills with one target in their sights: banter.
Comedy historians may well note these as the banter years: the emergence of a generation of laddish comedians and pranksters raised on political correctness and sick to the back teeth of it. It’s what has made The Inbetweeners and Uni Lad the toast of university halls, and ‘clunge’ the catchphrase of a generation: a joyously juvenile rebellion against the speech-policing nature of our times.
But for many onlookers, this is no laughing matter. From students’ unions to the cultural elite, lad banter is seen as a threat to equality, to women – to the fabric of society itself. The anti-bantz crusade claimed its first major victim last month when Dapper Laughs – the super-lad character of comedian Daniel O’Reilly – was publicly shamed and then tossed out of polite society. His TV show – a guide to pulling – was, er, pulled by ITV2 following pressure from Change.org petitioners. After a few weeks of being the centre of a Twitter rage, O’Reilly was brought before the nation on Newsnight where he, frustratingly, pleaded for forgiveness for his ‘dangerous’ brand of humour.
The snobbery of it all was startling. Dapper, like Samantha, was a cartoon character – a caricature lad who was convinced he made girls ‘moist’ wherever he went. But, given that his audience wasn’t made up of mid-forties Radio 4 listeners, Dapper allegedly posed a clear and present threat. As one incensed student, who campaigned to have Dapper banned from performing at Cardiff University, put it: ‘Dapper Laughs trivialises rape, objectifies women and encourages other men to do the same.’
But what was perhaps most shocking was the fact that comedians themselves joined in the rage against Dapper. Indeed, they helped spark it. Stand-up Lee Kern (no, me neither) penned a piece for comedy site Chortle dubbing Dapper’s show a ‘rapist’s almanac’ and a ‘woeful, misogynistic celebration of banter-based cretinism’. It went viral, and comedians including Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan chimed in with approval on Twitter.
There’s room in comedy for contestation. Not everyone has to laugh along. But calling a fellow comedian ‘dangerous’ and insisting he be snuffed out embodies the very touchiness that comedy has always fought against. While ‘edgy’ stand-ups today might liken themselves to Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks, the great provocateurs of comedy, it seems most of them have got much more in common with Mary Whitehouse. Today’s panic over lad culture is the sex-and-violence panic of old dolled up in PC rags. Dapper, for daring to stray from the script, probably did more to push buttons than any of his holier-than-thou contemporaries. Thanks, in part, to the prudishness of modern comedians, shouting ‘moist’ is now officially edgy. Now that’s the real scandal.
Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
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