I listen to BBC7 radio a lot and one of the most charming things about it is that before The Navy Lark, or whatever, the links-person will warn us that the comedy contains “humour acceptable at the time”.
This usually means that some bloke will say “knickers” halfway through, and the studio audience will roar unrestrainedly.
At other times, BBC7 will air excellent examples of modern comedy — The League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, Knowing Me Knowing You.
I don't recall these coming with a warning and that must be because it's a given that modern humour is based on giving offence.
Paradoxically, the general acceptance of offensive humour came up alongside the knowledge that there are certain things we shouldn't make jokes about.
What was outlawed — the straightforward, ignorant bigotry of Bernard Manning — was replaced by something far worse: the cowardly, preening, calculated bullying practised by comics as different as Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle.
Don't pick on anyone who might hit you — that's the first rule of modern comedy. That's why the jokers steer clear of race, while bashing women and the handicapped.
It started with Thatcherism, like a lot of things: “Let's kick Michael Foot's stick away,” crowed Kenny Everett at a Tory rally.
And now Labour MPs mock a Tory with cerebral palsy. Pigs, walking on two legs? Ooo, I bet they feel as cool as Frankie Boyle bullying a Down's Syndrome kiddy. When Steve Coogan broke ranks to scold Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear presenters for jeering at Mexicans, you could sense the bafflement on both sides.
So much said about so many people, such rotten slurs allowed to go unremarked — just joking — and Coogan decides to get worked up over a heap of refried beans. But it looked good, his priggishness — shocking, and fresh, like the New Comedy used to. Not getting the joke is the new rock ‘n' roll.
“There's nothing as sad as the laughter of those who have lost their faith,” someone once said.
Something happened a while back which literally left people not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and while it may have made them free, it certainly didn't make them happy.
I think rap music had a hand in it; n-word this, ho that, bitch the other. When white, middle-class liberal men started quoting, gloating and getting off on the gynophobic geometry of rap, that's when it started — this climate of abuse.
It was being stopped and then it was restarted — just because there was now a culturally legit way for men to call women names.
It's interesting to observe how the same sort of political activists who once sneered at the sexual chastity of the white working class now defend the medievalism of |Islamist morality by claiming the young fundamentalists have been “provoked” by the licentiousness of young proletarian women.
Misogyny is the cultural coin that draws groups together whatever their differences; the brotherhood of man bonding over the broken bodies of women.
Men showing off to each other, in the manner of the old Flanders and Swann song: “Ma's out, Pa's out, let's talk rude! Pee, Po, Belly, Bum, Drawers” — that's what comedy is. Talk about a boys' club; the rise of Miranda Hart is remarkable in that even those who praise her see fit to marvel that she has triumphed as a comedian in spite of her alleged ugliness.
She is, in fact, a tall, pretty woman who for some reason colludes in this fiction by claiming that she is often mistaken for a man. Has she seen what male comedians generally look like? They could barely be mistaken for being human.
A good sense of humour has always been the ultimate non-negotiable when modern people seek to attract mates: we would rather admit to being bad in bed than to being humourless. But in the wake of Coogan's magnificent Mexican stand-off, this may be about to change.
The moronic chorus of snickers which saw fit to sanitise Jimmy Carr's rape jokes may well melt away now that one man has drawn a line in the sand and said that He Just Doesn’t Get It.
We can but hope.