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Comedy, censorship and political attention

Comedy is one of the most difficult forms of performance, due to the fine line it walks between humour and offensiveness. Most comedy is derived from some form of offense, it is simply how it is presented that causes different reactions and results. Humour is all in the interpretation and when a joke, or type of joke, is presented out of context or to the wrong audience it will not be accepted as funny - particularly when of an offensive nature. Due to the broadcast nature of television comedy programs, hitting only the target audience is difficult. Many different people will publicly debate the screen worthy nature of their humour. "South Park" is one such comedy program that receives widely different views from different sections of the community. Those who see its intent find it entertaining, while those who see its potential for harm find it dangerous. "Sex and the City" is another comedy program that has received attention due to its course language. Some find the language acceptable in the context, others see the language as unacceptable on television under any circumstances. Such programs receive high levels of public attention due to the way they refuse to conform to what is seen as the "correct" and "moral" nature of the community. Still other programs exemplify how a show will mould itself to suit its audience and what they find amusing. "Good News Week" is the Australian version of a British program "Have I Got News for You", and since its beginning it has carved out its own identity when compared to the original. It now pitches its comedy to the Australian audience's sense of humour, taking a more biting, harsh and offensive angle to the presentation of the week's news. Attention is drawn to such comedy not when it is being seen by only its intended audience. It is when others see the program that the humour is lost and the offensiveness is seen out of context, provoking strong debate over why it is screened at all.

Humour, as with any form of communication is subject to the rules of encoding and decoding a message. It is a negotiation between the joke-teller and the listener, where the listener will have the final say on whether the joke is funny or not. While an amateur joke-teller may fail due to poor performance skills, this is not usually the case for a professional. As Jerry Palmer writes, "Professional performances are more likely to fail because of some mismatch between repertoire and audience: different audiences have different stylistic and thematic preferences in comedy."

Another factor a joke must negotiate is context. There are times when an occasion may deem some types of humour inappropriate. Or when crude and usually unacceptable forms are acceptable. It is all about the occasion and the participants who accept or decline the joke. To put the argument in simplest terms, Palmer states "one person's humour is another person's offensiveness"

But why is offensive humour acceptable at all? How is it that transgressive words or actions can be acceptable if performed in a humourous way? Again, this is decided by the three elements involved in the exchange - the performer, the audience and the context. Offensiveness in humour can be read in a number of ways. Comedy can be paralleled to any form of performance, or to any art form. Laurie Stone sees that "the goals inspiring the richest comedy are the same steering all art: to say what is usually suppressed and also to speak truthfully". To do so a performer "has to forgo his or her alliance with authority". When humour is used effectively it can open windows into culture and politics, making strong statements about the state of the world in which we live. It is true on some occasions offensive humour is performed to appeal to racist, sexist or bigoted beliefs. On other occasions offense is used to show our own vulnerability and weakness, to teach us about our own society and its actions. This can be a fine line though, and it is here that debate from political and critical areas arises - as part of the wider negotiation of what is humourous and what is not.

"South Park" is one program that has been the focus of debate about the value of its humour. Those who find it offensive read it on its surface level, seeing four children acting offensively in, as David Dale puts it, what "looks like a low-budget kiddie cartoon". Those who support the program argue for its intent, that it is "a collection of in-jokes for Generation Xers tuned into popular culture". One piece of merchandise for the show, a "Kick the Baby" t-shirt, was removed from sale in ABC stores due to concerns it might encourage people to actually harm infants. While many people saw this as foolish and reactionary, it can also be seen as a valid political tactic, to show support for the "moral" argument against the program, or at least one aspect of it.

The debate increased upon the arrival of the movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut". The film takes the show to another extreme, being more offensive than ever. This is the focus of much attack from the conservative viewpoint, that the humour is simply inappropriate - and the rating is such that children can get in if they really try. Many film critics and more liberal views see the other side, that the film is self-aware and is making comment about censorship and responsibility in society today. The film is about the four children going to see an offensive movie and its effect on them and their actions afterwards, which leads to mass protest by the parents and citizens in America - the same situation faced around the world by the movie itself.

Both groups have valid arguments. One side argues that its potential to influence children requires further censorship of the film. The other argues that the humour is valid because it is a comment on society we should learn from. The film-makers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in an interview screened on Foxtel's "Showtime" channel stated that their greatest concern was the incredible violence in the film was perfectly acceptable to the US censors, while some jokes and swearing were marked for removal.

"Sex and the City" is a sit-com that has also gained much attention over the use of course language. Specifically, it has openly and casually used the word "fuck" in the dialogue, while one episode uses the word "cunt" a number of times. Here in Australia the timing of the arrival of this show coincided with a court decision that "fuck" is no longer a rude word. This timing sparked much public debate regarding decency and morality in our society. The program producers, and Channel Nine (who are screening the show here), argue that the usage is harmless - matching only the way people really do speak in today's adult society. Others argue that while this may be the case it does not warrant the open use of such language in broadcast television, where children can view the program easily. While it is on in a 9.30 timeslot which makes it allowable, one article sees that this really forces parents to put their children to bed early if they want to protect them from such language.

"Good News Week" is a program that exemplifies targeting your audience carefully. Derived from the British series "Have I got News for you", it brought a new style of show to Australian television - a game show hosted and played by celebrities where the winner didn't really matter. It is about the humour and entertainment generated by the interaction of the participants. The British version sees the participants making situational type jokes about the news more often than jokes about the people involved in the news. Here is Australia the style of humour is more personal, and often seen as more harsh. The Australian version has evolved to fit closer to this Australian style of humour, often attacking the politicians and celebrities involved in the news - while the panel of players also often make jokes at the expense of each other. The show also regularly features politicians on the teams of celebrities, who are prepared to be joked about in the name of improving their popularity. With such high level support, the show has often stepped a fine line between good and bad taste jokes, using its reputation to have them deemed as "cheeky" and acceptable. If this program was sent to Britain in this form it may well be seen as in bad taste, as it has not built a reputation in the British community. This movement shows how comedy can be tailored to fit the audience and gain popularity, and in doing so can perform challenging and subversive humour that is deemed appropriate and humourous by those who view it.

It is in these arguments and debates we see clearly the communicative issues of humour. When the target audience is not the only audience to see the performance, some will be amused and others will be offended. It is easy to limit the audience in a situation such as theatre or stand up comedy. But when the performance moves to a broadcast medium, the audience control is lost. In turn this can and will raise debate in the community, via the media and political arena, over suitability of some humour to "the general public". For many of the artists involved, this is part of the purpose of creating the work. By generating debate they feel they are promoting thought and understanding in society and culture, like any good work of art.


"Because I Tell A Joke Or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference"
Editor: Wagg, Stephen (Routledge, 1998)

"Taking Humour Seriously"
Palmer, Jerry (Routledge, 1994)

"Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy"
Stone, Laurie (The Ecco Press, 1997)

"Do you really think you should take the children to the Park?"
Dale, David (Sydney Morning Herald - July 10, 1999, p. 8)

"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut - shortcut documentary"
Warne, Andrew ("Showtime" Channel, Foxtel)

"Kids cursed by ratings imperative"
(Sun-Herald - October 10, 1999, p. 75)

"Hear no evil in c-word, says Nine"
(Sydney Morning Herald - September 24, 1999, p. 3)

"A ton of fun as the nerds demonstrate what they can do"
Squires, Tony (Sydney Morning Herald - October 31, 1998)