"The job of comedy is to offend"

In recent decades [Rowan Atkinson] has seen the rise of “a whole different form of establishment”. He has, in the past, railed against what he calls “cancel culture” and has, more specifically, campaigned for the modification of the UK’s Religious Hatred Bill in the mid-noughties (to strengthen performers ability to criticise religion) and to have the notion of “insult” removed from the UK’s Public Order Bill. “It does seem to me that the job of comedy is to offend, or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential. Every joke has a victim. That’s the definition of a joke. Someone or something or an idea is made to look ridiculous.”

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Shouldn’t comedy kick up at people in authority, and not down at those who have no power? “I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about saying what you’re allowed to make jokes about,” he says. “You’ve always got to kick up? Really? What if there’s someone extremely smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied, who happens to be below in society? They’re not all in houses of parliament or in monarchies. There are lots of extremely smug and self-satisfied people in what would be deemed lower down in society, who also deserve to be pulled up. In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”

He talks about how some on social media take jokes out of their original context in order to stir up anger (“Not all jokes are for everyone”). I argue that social media also gives a lot of people a voice they never had before. He agrees that we’re only beginning to learn how to use the technology. “It’s terribly young,” he says. “In terms of the history of man, it’s been around for a very, very short time and we’re still adjusting. Here, in this country, we’ve got something called an Online Safety Bill, which is only possibly coming into the Houses of Parliament soon. And you think ‘Isn’t that sort of 20 years late?’. But you’ve got to live with something for quite a long time to find out how you’re going to live with it.”

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