It is true that somehow comedy has the ability to turn things which are utterly unpleasurable, into something that brings joy and laughter; consider The League of Gentleman’s hapless vet Dr. Chinnery for example. Writers and performers regularly test their audience’s limits in terms of embarrassment, disgust, offence, and guilt in what Leon Hunt describes as a ‘negotiation of taste’.
This dark, and cringeworthy comedy became particularly prevalent in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Britain and continues to this day. Indeed, myriad comics make their living by trading on this knife-edge and there has been much debate in recent times as to whether people have the right to feel offended. Artists like Ricky Gervais or Steve Hughes might argue that your offence is simply not reason enough for them to stop hawking their particular style of comedy. Ricky Gervais went as far as to say, ‘Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right’; and Steve Hughes took aim at political correctness on prime time BBC programming. All of this begs the question, to what extent will an audience follow writers and performers to the precipice?
In the period outlined above, embarrassment became key to successful comedy. Several comedy creations from this period were successful by way of presenting the embarrassment that the characters feel as an antidote of sorts to the real embarrassments that their audiences experience. Characters such as Alan Partridge, Frasier Crane, and David Brent could be said to have been sacrificed for our own sins.
Therefore, it can be reasonably argued, that the purpose comedy serves in a society, is to allow it to better contemplate its own ills. This is perhaps why, in times such as these, there has been such a fertile propagation of satirical comedy texts in television, radio, film, the written word, and on the stage. The emergence and success of sitcoms such as The Thick of It, and stand-up comics like Bridget Christie serve to prove this point. It is high time that we begin to reconsider the structures of society that fail us, and by dismantling them through comic discourse, societies might well become more sympathetic. However, the risk is that a comic treatment of something so grave as the political corruption for example, reduces it to something less serious.
However, there is no escaping the fact that dark comedy can be employed as a release valve and that the more desperate and cringeworthy the character, the more audiences will lap it up, safe in the knowledge that for once it is not them who has mis stepped.