Sean Lock and the boundaries of comedy
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
It is rare that the death of a comedian is noted by mainstream news. In fact, it came as a surprise that Sean Lock was as well-known as he was. It is naturally impossible here to fully account for this popularity, but a common thread throughout his comic oeuvre was that his humour did not hesitate to enter into the somewhat surreal or risqué. Looking back on some of his sketches, it is easy to imagine scenarios where, with an unsympathetic audience, his jokes would have fallen flat. In the field of comedy in general, what is funny is entwined with breaking taboos. Indeed, often during a gig the comedian will put in a lot of time into actively offending their audience members - and yet, this is something laughable.
What is curious about this is that there runs an equally noticeable current in which comedy has become more socially self-conscious. In so doing, comics have had to revise material to avoid the audience’s offence, and once popular material has become, and in the majority of cases, justifiably, taboo. Of course, this is nothing new to anyone, but at some point, during their career, each comic will have to face the dilemma: who do I offend?
The approach that people take regarding how risqué or even offensive comedians can be is generally placed in one of two camps. One that maintains the accountability of comedy to not be offensive, the other being the gratuitous freedom of the comic up to and including offence. There is no easy synthesis of both these approaches.
The safe bet has always been to make fun of politicians and the establishment. The BBC abounds in comedy of this sort. But as such, the punchlines are generally predictable, and at most you get clever witticisms. These witticisms often carry a hint of worry in them too, that as the politicians are learning to laugh at themselves, the comedians themselves are becoming redundant. Radio 4 panel shows indulge in the chuckle of the impotent, where laughter becomes an appeasement for genuine political rage.
Comedy that does not take the safe bet is not however made funnier by mocking minorities. Overbearingly offensive comedy often lapses into being boring, becoming the inane cackle of the bully. I myself remember an ill-fated gig where a comic mis-judged their audience, going off with too many comments about women which in the end were clearly only masks to cover the comic’s genuine resentment of women.
But equally the freedom of the comic must remain. Comedy that addresses no taboo but is a mere succession of lists of foibles - that which makes up most of MacIntyre-esque observation comedy - produces sanitised laughter as meaningless as ‘lol’. (In fact, if you watch a comedy program with canned laughter, try to focus on the canned laughter itself, there is something distinctly eerie in it, and upon tuning back to the jokes themselves, one realises that they are not funny; canned laughter is the sign telling you to laugh at absent jokes - it is a cheap scam, teaching us that we laugh mainly because there are others laughing). And here the comic will return to their catch-22: so, who do I offend? The comic must explore the boundaries of the funny for fear of becoming dull. One of the key aspects of comic experimentation is the breaking of taboo, but this brings with it many failed experiments. Offence and laughter are tools of the exact same unforgiving trade.