"No offence, but..." - Does modern comedy go too far?

A recent Guardian article: The new offenders of stand up comedy caused quite a stir in recent weeks, not least of all for a number of out-of-context quotes that Richard Herring and his fans were decidedly unhappy about. I for one hope Mr Herring gets a decent apology. But it made me wonder, how offensive is too offensive?

Putting aside the irony that an article decrying controversy would itself cause a raft of controversy (see the subsequent reply), I must admit I didn’t read the whole thing particularly thoroughly, mainly because it read as a list of “you wouldn’t believe what he said!” stories. But the issue of offence in comedy is an interesting one, and for once in my life, I actually have an opinion.

I’m currently toying with stand up comedy (tonight being my 13th gig) and I make a point of not overtly offending anyone – unless the audience happen to work for Facebook, are cunningly disguised Wombles or closet Wookies. This isn’t a result of some highly developed moral code, or a fear of not getting booked, it’s because “offensive” comedy is bloody hard.

I watch a lot of my fellow open mic-ers every week, and its given me a new found respect for anyone who can be offensive and funny at the same time. There is a fine line between shocking and alienating your audience, and I’ve seen that line crossed on several occasions. The room falls silent, and no matter what the poor comic does, they can’t get the audience back on their side. Nobody wants to be the first to start laughing again and publicly declare “yes, I’m just as horrid as you think the chap on stage is”.

Possibly something that’s missed when mainstream comedians are criticised for being offensive is everything that’s gone before. They will no doubt have done hundreds of performances, to audiences of all kinds, and somehow managed to keep enough people laughing that they got asked back. If one person disgustedly walks out of a room where 499 other people are laughing their socks off, its not a shameful example of the degenration of polite society, its a 99.7% 99.8% successful performance!

There seems to be a popular misconception that being offensive is an easy way to be funny, or even a “cheap laugh” (the finest example of this misconception being YouTube comments). But while a certain amount of shock can enhance the mental conflict that creates humour, it doesn’t make it in the first place. Be edgy, by all means, make people gasp, shame your mother, but don't forget to be funny.

I have a long ways to go before I even consider writing a joke about race, gender or gross sexual deviancy, so I’m going to continue work on my compendium of gags ending in “…and that was just the men”.