The recent heatwave inspired many people to bring out their stories of the summer of 1976. I have a memory of it which has nothing to do with the temperature, but which I think could be even more relevant to our times.
It happened in the baking, crammed, nicotine-steeped ballroom of a holiday camp. I was eight. The campers were gathered for the night’s fun, provided by the camp’s resident comic. On the dot of 8 p.m. he told the audience it was time for the kiddies to head to bed. We were handed over to the care of a redcoat (about 20, unvetted, just some bloke – there is an entire vanished world in that) and led back en masse to our chalets.
It felt so unfair. I could stay up for hours yet! I wasn’t a baby any more! Why was this happening? Because, I was told, the nature of the jokes was going to change. I just wouldn’t get these jokes – they might seem nasty or rude, and would likely distress me. When I was older, OK, then I would understand. But the grown-ups were talking now.
In 2022, the assumption that once you’ve passed a certain age you can fully understand the nature and function of humour has been lost. The children never grow up, and never come to understand the jokes told in the ballroom of life. This happened quite suddenly, and quite recently.
The comedy culture of the Noughties has a bad reputation, but for me it had a vulgar vigour and a direct connection to the grown-up jokes of the previous decades. TV shows such as Bo’ Selecta!, Little Britain, Strangers with Candy, Nighty Night, The League of Gentlemen; films like Psycho Beach Party and American Pie; the riotous puppet parodic musical Avenue Q, which features a jolly, hilarious song called ‘Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist’ (‘Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes / doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes!’) – all of these were, with varying degrees of sophistication and of success, in terrible taste. But we took that bad taste in good faith.
The idea that the creators of these shows were motivated by prejudice is laughable. But if anyone today were to pitch a sketch show featuring a vicious lesbian civil servant (played by a man) who terrorises the unemployed, and a pre-op, gravel-voiced transsexual taxi driver with huge hairy-knuckled hands – well, they would be shown the door at the very least, if not reported.
It was understood – and this was just yesterday, remember – that this humour was not to be taken literally, let alone seriously. That these were jokes that made you squirm, and that they were funny precisely because they poked at the polite sensibilities observed in public. It is astonishing that the creators of Little Britain, whose entire schtick was to be the most crude and inappropriate series on TV, have fallen in with the most crabbed, ungenerous interpretations of their own work, decrying it as ‘of its time’ and sanctioning the removal of portions of it. (Though this is nothing compared with Frankie Boyle, who pulled off an impressive metamorphosis from king of the rancid to overseer of orthodoxy.)
Bad-taste humour is a coolant valve: it acts as a way of blowing off the steam from the edges of public discourse. So what happened? The answer is obvious. The death of bad taste corresponds almost exactly with the birth of social media and smartphones. We handed everybody devices that enable them to mob and raise hell, and the small but loud section of the public that hadn’t crossed the pubertal bridge into an adult understanding of bad taste, their screws already seven-eighths loosened by crank ideologies, took umbrage loudly and repeatedly.
2009 was the Rubicon year – we had the tech, but we weren’t yet aware of what it meant: that every passing humorous observation would be dug up from the dust, maybe decades later, by malicious people determined to put the worst possible interpretation on it. To resist the attacks of these people merely encouraged more attacks – of the ‘That’s exactly the kind of thing a trans-phobe/racist/witch would say!’ variety. So now we are left with the grim rictus-grin humour of The Last Leg or the Daily Mash, or vacuous, awkward ‘sad-coms’. Comedians with generally impeccably liberal backgrounds and outlooks – Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais – are decried as hate-stoking bigots for making tiny, nuanced steps beyond the sanctioned parameters. (And really, the very idea that actors, writers or directors should act as moral exemplars is ludicrous – look at them!)
This shrinks our culture and limits our understanding of ourselves. The posh, humourless left-wing student was a stock comedy type in the 1980s – think Rick of The Young Ones and Tracey Ullman’s character Roz. Even EastEnders had one briefly. In an era when we are dogged to a much greater degree by privileged zealots, when one of the Bristol statue-topplers is actually called ‘Milo Ponsford’, we have one parody – the Twitter account Titania McGrath, whose creator Andrew Doyle is regularly, and I’m afraid quite seriously, accused of fascism.
There are many modern figures who would, in an earlier age, have been lampooned. The crazed Remainer who thinks Britain is sliding into Nazism; the Brexiteer who insists that Britain is now completely free; the young, healthy lockdown fanatics who still wear masks outside; the enthusiastic ‘ally’ who gets African names wrong and mistakes different ethnic people for each other. (This actually happened on the BBC’s Politics Live last week.) Characters like this ought to be written – they’d help us to make sense of our lives. But who would dare?
I have been struck recently by the high number of friends and acquaintances who have confessed to me that they are part of ‘evil chat’ WhatsApp groups. Sometimes there is friendly competition about who can say the ‘worst’ thing. WhatsApp has become the secret repository of the bad taste of our times, an encrypted samizdat of wrong humour. But dark humour shouldn’t just happen in encrypted spaces. Our civilisation needs to grow up again. Send the children to bed. The adults need to talk.
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/podcasts Gareth Roberts and Rosie Holt on the downfall of bad-taste humour.