The last laugh: Comedy censorship

It took a few mesages on Andrew Sach’s answering machine to rock the British comedy world. Six months on, has broadcasting regulations limited creativity among comedians?

This question has loomed over the British comedy scene since last October, when a series of messages left by presenters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand on the answering machine of veteran comedy actor Andrew Sachs were broadcast to the nation.

Known and loved for pushing the boundaries of taste, the presenters unleashed a wave of indignation as almost 38,000 complaints were made to the BBC Trust and Ofcom. The messages, aired on Russell Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show, had included comments about a sexual relationship between Brand and Georgina Baillie, the granddaughter of Sachs. The incident went all the way to Number 10, with Gordon Brown describing the broadcast as “clearly inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour”.

The debate over the acceptable boundaries of comedy rumbles on. London-based comedian and writer, Patrick Monahan, holds down several regular comedy jobs. Besides compering the Late and Live events at the Gilded Balloon, the spiritual home of comedy in Edinburgh, he works with the Paul O’Grady Show on Channel 4 and performs sell-out performances at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

Monahan believes comedy should live or die by its ability to make audiences laugh – not by how controversial it is. The 33 year old who is half-Irish and half-Iranian is impatient with comedians who merely try to push comedy to its extremes.

“When it comes to comedy there is no right or wrong,” he says. “It is down to personal taste.” Monahan is adamant, though, that audiences, not broadcasters, should decide where the line between funny and offensive lies. “What I personally find offensive is when a lot of money is put into a comedy show and it’s really bad. At the end of the day broadcasters need to find things that are just plain funny, not edgy, different or even too mainstream.

“The reason British comedy works well is because of the range of culturally different comedians. It has a wide range of talent to showcase.”

He warns regulation can compromise talent, adding that the most effective form of censorship is audience-driven. “People are not stupid,” he says. “If they are offended they should – and most likely will – switch off their televisions or radios.”

While Monahan advises broadcasters to be wary of regulating comedy, one kingpin of the Scottish stand-up scene defends a more cautious stance. “Broadcasters have a legal commitment,” says Tommy Sheppard, the founder and director of The Stand comedy club in Edinburgh and Glasgow. “There are a whole range of controls in broadcasting that do not apply in a comedy club.”

So, if the airwaves should be monitored for offensive material, should the stand-up arena also be regulated? “When it comes to visiting The Stand, people should remember there is a sign on the door that says ‘comedy club’ and because of this not all things comics say should be taken on face value,” says Sheppard.

This is not to say The Stand accepts any type of joke or comment. Sheppard disapproves of poorly thought-out humour whichbelittles race, gender or sexuality. He tells of how he and fellow organisers of the annual Glasgow Magners’ Comedy Festival stopped a promoter arranging a Bernard Manning performance as part of a previous festival. Sheppard defends the decision to exclude the veteran comedian, who died in 2007. He says: “Bernard Manning’s comedy was not so much a joke but in fact a mission statement.” He carefully explains how Manning would include comments in his show which could be interpreted as contributing to racial tension.

While acknowledging broadcasters have a difficult task when searching for material suitable for the airwaves, Sheppard isscathing of BBC Scotland’s contribution to modern comedy. “There are many comedians who perform each night in The Stand who would be able to write good TV shows, but in my opinion BBC Scotland has not put enough spending into developing this talent.”

This is disputed by Alasdair Macleod, the head of editorial standards and compliance for BBC Scotland and emphasises the broadcaster’s dedication to promote groundbreaking comedy. “The BBC will continue to be responsible for cutting edge comedy like Gary Tank Commander and Limmy’s Show, which are both handled sensibly and have generated a terrific response from the public.”

Comedians like Monahan are still unsure about how guidelines and regulations will affect output. “If everybody followed guidelines you would be compromising talent and comedy,” says Monahan.

Macleod defends the BBC’s regulation of comedy, saying: “There are rules set down within a regulatory framework which oblige the BBC to work within generally accepted standards.” The public broadcaster’s dedication to its licence holders, he continues, causes “the BBC to think about not offending its audience”. He adds: “A lot of people have a low tolerance of offence, so it’s not a case of never offending anyone, but we consider very carefully what we broadcast, when we broadcast and what warnings we give to the public.”

A column by Michael Deacon of the Daily Telegraph commented that members of the BBC view comedy like the public regards a contagious virus. He added that many people working in comedy – including James Mulville, co-founder of Hat-Trick Productions – fear the press, rather than broadcasters, dictate what is reasonable for broadcast.

Lavery also notes the distaste expressed by some journalists towards the scandals involving Ross, Brand – and a comedian closer to home. A joke by Glaswegian stand-up Frankie Boyle about the appearance of Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington on the BBC2 show Mock the Week provoked 75 complaints to Ofcom. The comment was initially defended by the show’s producer, but after one viewer persisted with his complaint, the BBC Trust conceded Boyle’s comments were “humiliating”.

“What is notable about both of these scandals is that they involved shows made by the BBC, and the most damning newspaper reports came from newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Sun,” says Lavery scathingly. “Both these papers are owned by large media conglomerates which may have a vested interest in seeing the BBC dismantled.

It is interesting that while Frankie Boyle has appeared on numerous shows on Channel 4, such as 8 Out of 10 Cats, and made extremely similar statements, none of these have ever been picked on by the tabloid press.”

Just what is acceptable in comedy, and who decides this? Could the British public really have been duped into a new sense of moral standards because of the agendas of certain media groups?

When Sheppard and Macleod are asked to define what is offensive they struggle to answer, simply because humour is subjective and what offends one person might not offend another. Lavery backs up this point by claiming: “Everyone has different ideas of what is acceptable. Some people love comedy that is close-to-the-bone, some love Michael McIntyre and some love both.”

Finding the balance between offensive and humorous is one of the biggest challenges faced by British comedy. Promoters like Sheppard realise this. Regulation is necessary, particularly when comedy is on television or radio, he says, but “broadcasters must not use regulation as a cloak of mediocrity as this will present a great danger for quality comedy”.

As society becomes more diverse, comedians will also change, reflecting the world they see around them. But will they have the freedom to test society’s preconceptions and prejudices, pushing the boundaries of humour – and good taste. And who will be watching?

Words by Oonagh Brown

Images by Steve Ullathorn and the Stand

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