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Taboo: Comedy hasn’t lost its edge yet

Is comedy threatened as people get increasingly sensitive to having their feelings hurt? No offence, but Robin Ince is not convinced

I was worried about Radio 4’s Taboo within the first 40 seconds when comedian Tanyalee Davis said: “The woke generation is crippling society as a whole.”

Woke culture” is a very broad phrase.

Some days it seems that being woke is the crime of anyone who is not actively trying to be an arsehole.

Fortunately, this was not how the documentary continued, this brief burst of extremism was the hook to drag me in, the sentence to prime me for furious social media rebuttals so I could bask in my outrage while clamouring to be ethically pure.

My Twitter jabbing finger remained at rest for the remaining 28 minutes.

Taboo was a considered conversation, led by journalist Kate Copstick, with a wide variety of comedians, many of whom I have seen adeptly skate on thin ice in comedy clubs, but rarely fall in the water.

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Desiree Burch define taboo as “that liminal space, that buffer zone”, a way to talk about what is deemed to be off-limits more, while for Kate Smurthwaite it is a place to challenge “these social norms that are meaningless”.

The early conflation of taboos and the outrage of “the woke” could muddy the waters.

Those people defined as “woke” can often infuriate people because traditional thoughts on race, sex and gender are challenged by their ideas. This is not a simple case that taboo-busting is in conflict with some woke agenda as some high-profile comedians defined as “edgy” are actually shoring up traditional reactionary columnists in the mainstream.

Scott Capurro, a master at toying with offence, realises that without taboos and boundaries, he has no playground and no ammunition.

Do people overreact to jokes? Yes, and the news media know this. It is a very simple way to safeguard your advertising revenue.

It takes very little effort to be outraged by a joke and you can stay outraged for the whole day, constantly returning to the bottom half of the internet to add your further fury.

Live comedy is an easy target because a joke experienced live is very different to those words being placed on a screen; the voice, context and nuance is lost.

Is this irreparably damaging comedy?

I am yet to be persuaded.

Presenter Kate Copstick wants to tackle the rise and rise of “the recreationally offended” and introduces the theme with an entertaining barrage of apoplectic hyperbole.

Burch wonders why we hold our comedians to standards that we won’t hold our politicians to. Comedians are a shortcut to being able to put your tribal beliefs on display. Look at any online article about a comedian and below it you will see a frantic mess of comments celebrating and denigrating the act with the sort of passion that should really be reserved for the destructively incompetent politicians who affect our real lives far more than a prickly punchline.

I wonder if one of the reasons newspapers are so angry about the offended is that they are taking away their job. For decades, the news media has stirred up easy offence with misinformation about picture books that will make your kids gay or rap music that will cause riots. Now they are having that offence turned back on them and they do not like it, so they screech about the people they accuse of screeching.

Copstick worries about whether comedy is “doomed to a cotton wool future of sugar and spice and all things nice because we all have to be woke”.

I don’t think so. There are plenty of highly paid comedians cashing in on creating easy offence and then spending the second half of their Netflix special talking about the outraged reactions they received. Far from being cancelled, they are recommissioned.

American comedy legend George Carlin once said that the task of the comedian was find the line and then step over it. But when you are stepping over the line, are you stepping forwards or backwards? Are you really dressing up reactionary and regressive politics as rebellion? Are you punching down or up? Taboo was the start of a conversation that could be going on for a long time yet.

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