Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Jokes at expense of the vulnerable aren't clever and they're not funny

The weather is bleak, recession is biting and the news headlines generally grim. Never mind folks - here's something that'll give you all a right laugh. Handicapped children. Vulnerable adults. Oh, what a hoot their disability is! Let's all gather round and have a good snigger ...

For poking fun at the disabled is currently just about the coolest thing in comedy.

And this is something a mite darker than the 2012 updating of jokes about the ma-in-law. It's taking "comedy" to a level that isn't about humour but which is more about cruel, abusive taunting. It's the schoolyard bully with a studio audience.

If it's not Frankie Boyle mocking Katie Price's disabled little boy, we've had Jimmy Carr sneering at Down's children and Ricky Gervais referring to Susan Boyle as a "mong" (surely one of the most offensive words ever used on television).

What Gervais actually said in a late night show on Channel 4 last year was that: "She (Boyle) would not be where she is today if it wasn't for the fact that she looked like such a f****** mong. When she first came on the telly, I went, 'Is that a mong?" You all did."

Hilarious, eh?

Gervais later claimed that the more modern sense of mong (short for Mongoloid) is the fairly inoffensive "dopey."

"I have used 'mong' but never to mean Down Syndrome and never would," he insisted. "The meaning of words change over time; 'gay' for example. The modern use of the word 'mong' means dopey or ignorant, it's in slang and urban dictionaries."

If we are to be fair to the man - and I try to be - we have to accept his word for it that he was not aiming for a shabby little laugh at the expense of the vulnerable.

And it should be said that when confronted by a distressed mother of two young Down's children who have that vile term of abuse regularly hurled at them in the streets, he did accept that he had been "naïve".

Some small comfort there then for the many viewers who complained to Channel 4 at the time?

Well, actually no. For while a ruling from Ofcom on those complaints does accept that the comments could cause considerable offence they were held not to have breached guidelines since the show went out well post-watershed.

"The late scheduling of the programme, and its late night comedy context on Channel 4, meant that the majority of the audience was likely to expect the exploratory and subversive bent of the programme in general and of Ricky Gervais's humour in particular."

So offensive isn't quite as offensive after 10.30pm?

And exploratory and subversive? Maybe the school bully could use that pompous get-out clause next time he or she is hauled up before the head for hurling abuse at a disabled classmate.

I do have sympathy with regulatory bodies which are tied to strict interpretation of guidelines. And like most people I do get black humour. I understand that good comedy goes beyond cosy.

But kicking the kid with special needs?

I'm sorry but that just isn't a laugh. It's cheap, it's low, it's vile and more even than any of this, it's dangerous.

Not so long ago we read in horror about the case of the mother and daughter driven to their deaths by the torture and abuse of a local gang. Were the vicious thugs who did that just being "exploratory and subversive" too?

How can you excuse the sneering comedian and yet (rightly) castigate the yob in the street hurling similar verbal abuse?

A funny thing has happened to our humanity if we think mocking the vulnerable and defenceless is ever innocuous and harmless.

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