When I was growing up I was aware of these rapidly changing norms, with the boundaries of behaviour pushing ever outwards. At first not particularly comfortable with this abandonment of the comforting Catholic conservatism I'd been reared with, I gradually became desensitised enough to enjoy it. By the time I got to university I was surrounded by irreverant young people who considered few topics taboo, joking readily about sex, violence and prejudice. This wild new frontier of funniness was liberating and enjoyable, though the more extreme classmates continued to shock the rest of us with ever more gruesome humour.
One strange and relatively tame example was the wave of racist jokes prompted by a friend's observation that my Irish surname Leavy sounded like the Jewish author Primo Levi. I was henceforth known as Primo, Levi, or "the Jew" and, despite no Jewish ancestry that I know of, attracted wild anti-Jewish humour that played on historical stereotypes of Shylock, the cunning and money-grubbing loan-shark. If someone mentioned that they needed to visit the ATM for money, another friend might remark: "Ask Levi for a loan". The worst (that is, best) example of anti-Semitic humour that I remember was when a mother of one of the boys died and we attended her funeral. Another classmate spotted me outside the church afterwards and said: "What are you doing here, Christ-killer?"
Genius! For these jokes did not reflect any true anti-Jewish sentiment, but rather a mischievous amusement in messing with it. Anti-Semitism seemed to us an odd, largely abandoned, prejudice of 1930s weirdos. The hilarity came from attributing Jewishness to me and then exaggerating the stereotypes that went with it to a ludicrous extent.
We could do this openly because anti-Semitism had ceased being an issue among this group of anti-racist and tolerant liberals. Since we all knew the whole thing was a joke, anything went: I could demand a pound of flesh and get only sniggers.
Of course this kind of humour might not play so well in regions where anti-Jewish racism is still strong and violent. A former workmate once repeated a French comedian's views to me: that you can joke about anything, but not with anyone. There is wisdom in this: our absurd jokes over Shylock and Christ-killing were acceptable in our context, but making them in the smouldering ruins of an Israeli house after a Hamas rocket attack would probably backfire. The audience is everything.
Nonetheless truly gruesome and deliberately offensive comedy have entered the mainstream in Britain and Ireland today. The wonderful American cartoon South Park constantly smashes through social norms with grotesque violence and sexuality, like the episode in which the child Eric Cartman tricks an older boy into eating chilli made from the corpses of his own parents. When the boy discovers his mother's finger in the food he starts weeping, and Cartman joyfully licks the tears from his face. South Park dismantles deeply-held religious and political beliefs with glee. To give a few examples:
- In the episode "Bono is Crap", Randy Marsh produces the world's largest piece of human excrement, only to be replaced by U2 singer Bono, who makes one slightly bigger. The episode features scenes of noisy defecation.
- In "Britney's New Look", Britney Spears attempts suicide with a shotgun, which instead blows off most of her head and leaves a gurgling, living stump. The people try to push her into suicide as part of a Pagan ritual to produce good crops.
- "Over Logging" involves Randy Marsh's addiction to internet pornography. Scenes include this middle-aged man masturbating while watching Japanese girls vomit in one another's mouths.
- "The China Probrem" features George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indiana Jones, playing on the idea that they had ruined the Indiana Jones franchise by adding the unnecessary fourth film. It also features them raping a Stormtrooper: nodding at the poorly received Star Wars prequels released in recent years.
South Park was followed by other comic shows that used disgusting and offensive humour. Welsh prank comedy Dirty Sanchez featured a man nailing his friend's penis to a block of wood, for a laugh. English comedian Jimmy Carr regularly jokes about murder, rape, child abuse and disability, like:
- "Say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012."
- "I was raised as a Catholic. I hated going to church when I was young; stand up, sit down, kneel, God I wished the Father would pick a position and just fuck me."
- "You know a girl's too young for you when you have to make an aeroplane noise to get your cock in her mouth."
Then there's Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, regular contributor to BBC's Mock the Week, who imagines Queen Elizabeth II saying: "I am now so old that my pussy is haunted." Or the brilliant Canadian comedy mocumentary Trailer Park Boys, which had to negotiate with the TV company over the number of "fucks" used in early episodes, and went on to use constant "shit analogies" like: "You feel that? The way the shit just sticks to the air? There's a shit-blizzard comin." Or Channel 4's excellent Peep Show, which featured a bemused man being raped by a female soldier, and an eager teenage boy manipulated into giving oral sex to an older male musician he admired.
To watch such cheerfully offensive material on mainstream television I gradually got the impression that we lived in a truly liberal age where anything went, no topic remained untouchable from humour. Necrophilia, child abuse, genocide, poverty, rape, suicide, cannibalism - all got their shot in a new age of unrestrained comedy. Depravity was now funny.
This experience, and probably the experience of debating with Islamists, communists, anarchists and other radicals (the maddest of whom openly called for genocides) on online forums, seems to have dramatically reduced my capacity for outrage. All the old taboos are ditched and nothing is sacred. The only guidance is that French comedian's assertion that even though all topics are open for jokes, one needs to control who one tells such jokes to.
Yet my complacency is not reflected in the wider public, if the regular outbursts of moral rage are anything to go by. Most of these controversies puzzle me in our apparently post-prudish age, for the outraged people today are as often young liberals as old conservatives. British commentator Charlie Brooker deals with this beautifully by pointing out that outrageous comedy of the past would become loved and influential with time. Brooker's Screenwipe programme shows a 1970 Monty Python clip in which characters discuss cooking and eating the corpse of a dead mother, along with grubbily sordid humour in a bunch of other much-loved British comedy classics. Brooker's clip from Steptoe and Son shows the pair playing Scrabble: the board is covered with dirty words including bum, spunk, cock, nipple, tit, enter and rape. Yes, that was a rape joke on mainstream television back in 1972.
This post is inspired by an absurd incident here in Ireland, when several police officers were accidentally recorded discussing a female protestor they had arrested. The audio clip, available here, shows the men joking about raping the woman. After noting that she seemed North American, they continued:
Garda B: “Well whoever, we’ll get Immigration f**king on her.”
Garda A: “She refused to give her name and address and told she would be arrested.”
Garda B : “.......and deported”
Garda A: “And raped.”
Garda B: “I wouldn’t go that far yet….. She was living down at that crusty camp, f**k sake, you never know what you might get.”
Garda A: “Give me your name and address or I’ll rape you.”
Unidentified garda: “Hold it there, give me your name and address there, I’ll rape you.”
Garda A : “Or I’ll definitely rape you.”
Unidentified garda: “Will you be me friend on Facebook?”
Yet when I heard the audio clip I thought I recognised the same kind of absurd humour I see on television or hear from my friends all the time. The leap from arresting a woman, to deporting her, then all the way to raping her is so extreme, so ludicrous that the men laugh in surprise. Like the Monty Python clip discussing the consumption by undertakers of a man's mother, or the South Park episode in which Cartman photographs himself with another boy's penis in his mouth (to prove that the other boy is gay), it is the madness of it that makes it funny.
This interpretation - the first and most obvious interpretation to me, given the modern tolerance for filthy humour - has been rejected by many observers. Instead the story has become massive news with several commentators insisting that joking about rape is "not funny". Yet comedians like Jimmy Carr joke about rape and child abuse and are loved for it. Joking about anything at all can be funny, the more gruesome and disturbing the better, sometimes.
My response is not outrage at all this outrage, but bewilderment. Where have these people been all this time? Did they entirely miss the way culture had shifted in recent years, that programmes like South Park regularly joke about rape and murder? Were they unaware that when young adults sneakily change the Facebook statuses of their friend they call it "frape": Facebook rape?
Amusement at male rape inspires the regular comic movie "don't drop the soap" scenarios when male prison inmates are terrified of being raped by over-sized cellmates. In Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanemo Bay, for example, the boys are ordered by a gigantic bearded prison guard called Big Bob to accept his "cock-meat sandwich". Perversion and abuse are all regular parts of mainstream humour, so why the silence for years and then sudden moral panic over one incident, plucked for outrage from hundreds of others?
In this case the men were on-duty police, so any outrage should emphasise that. But as ordinary people such humour is unremarkable and is as likely to end up on evening television as in shocked newspaper columns.
In time this outrage will fizzle out, but another will follow soon. Large groups of people seem to swing from one outrage to the next, carefully ignoring massive quantities of disturbing public material to selectively pick individual scandals to denounce. This is tiring, puzzling and bizarre.