From Lenny Bruce and Rowan Atkinson to Frankie Boyle and Dapper Laughs

On Friday, Frankie Boyle took to the stage at the Féile an Phobail festival in West Belfast. ‘I cannot say how sorry I am to have divided a united city’, he joked, to riotous applause, referencing the weeks-long campaign from local disabled groups to have Boyle dropped from the bill.

Last year, there was even a campaign to block feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite – someone whose views are as right-on as they come – from appearing at Goldsmiths University. For a campus feminist group, her ‘whorephobic’ dislike for the sex industry was enough to spark a picket.

That’s right, that Down’s syndrome routine is still haunting him. A 2010 bit in which the unashamedly offensive comic mocked children with the disorder – including their life expectancy, their hair and their clothes – was held up by Féile For All, a family-led protest group, as justification for the comic to be banned from the community-run festival.

In a time in which comedians can be ousted from their TV shows for offending feminists, pilloried on Twitter for daring to joke about unpleasant topics and banned from college campuses for refusing to tow the politically correct line, Boyle and Feile’s refusal to be cowed was admirable.

Much bigger institutions than Féile have fallen over at the first sight of outrage – and when faced by far less sympathetic petitioners. And Boyle’s insistence on standing up for thatroutine, which has been much-misquoted over the years, was also vital in the current offence-seeking climate. ‘I completely stand by it, and if you do not think so you can get out’, he said, sparking another roar from the crowd.

These are strange times for comedy. While the state no longer polices the nation’s nightclub stages, informal skirmishes against offensive comics have, in recent years, come to serve the same, censorious role. Though they may not hold the brute force of the state, the bombardments and two-minute Twitterhates that come to bear on those who dare to laugh at the unlaughable have had a chilling effect.

As the old line goes, everything is offensive to someone. And, in recent months, gaggles of easily offended campaigners have shown us just how true that is. Because it’s not even un-PC or gallows-humour comics that are the targets of this pious fury. No one is safe. Last year, there was even a campaign to block feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite – someone whose views are as right-on as they come – from appearing at Goldsmiths University. For a campus feminist group, her ‘whorephobic’ dislike for the sex industry was enough to spark a picket.

Most comedians are viscerally anti-censorship. A refusal to watch your language, tow the line and not rock the boat goes to the core of the form. And this is why comics from Lenny Bruce to Rowan Atkinson have been at the forefront of fighting state attempts to restrict obscene, offensive and blasphemous speech.

But there is a tentativeness that pervades; a feeling, even among comics, that there is a line that cannot be crossed. Not only are comedians now anxious holding the line against the new witch-hunts, all too often they light their torches and join in. Last year, when petitions were circulating to have jokey-sexist comedic Dapper Laughs’ ITV2 show dropped, forty-four comedians signed an open letter, slamming the comedian’s ‘dangerous’ humour.

Now, protesting something isn’t the same as censoring it. Comedians should be criticised if they’re outrageous, pointlessly provocative or just plain cack. But even when they don’t call for an act to be banned, an open letter or a hashtag campaign is not an act of contestation, it’s an act of public shaming. In this intolerant environment self-censorship inevitably takes hold.

What drives this offence-seeking war on comedy is a fundamental confusion about what free speech and tolerance really mean. Just because some comics think the word ‘gash’ or Down’s syndrome are hilarious, doesn’t mean you have to as well. To paraphrase that old Enlightenment dictum: I thought that joke was rank, but I’ll defend to the death your right to make it. That’s the principle that comics need to uphold.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at Spiked. He is chairing the debate 'That's NOT funny! Are offence-seekers killing comedy?' at The Stand 3 on Monday 17 August at 4pm. Kate Copstick, Andrew Doyle, Janey Godley and Shazia Mirza will be on the panel.

Tickets are free.

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