For their forthcoming book ‘Provocative Screens’ Dr Anne Graefer, Lecturer in Media Theory, Birmingham City University has been researching with Dr Ranjana Das from University of Leicester on what really offends people when watching television.

Their interviews with 90 adults in the UK and Germany revealed quickly that humour and comedy is a minefield when it comes to offence.

In this blog post, Dr Anne Graefer looks at some of the key points their research revealed about offensive humour on television.

Controversial, edgy humour is by now a staple of many television programmes. Even television advertising and programmes on public broadcasting services are slowly but surely pushing the envelope of what constitutes acceptable material for humour.

A case in point is the new contentious sketch The Real Housewives of Isis shown on BBC Two’s ‘Revolting’ that caused a stir and upset a lot of people. “It is normalising Islamophobia,” argues one side; “it is part of a liberal society to make fun of religion,” says the other side.

My colleague Ranjana and I landed in the middle of a heated discussion when doing our fieldwork for our forthcoming book ‘Provocative Screens’ which focuses on humour, television and offence. What do television audiences really find offensive about humour? And what does that tell us?

What we’ve learned:

  1. No topic is off limits ‘per se’. Most participants highlighted that the context matters: who is the teller of the joke and who is the receiver

 Even though most people were keen to tell us in the beginning of the interview that topics such as disability, blasphemy or the Holocaust are absolute taboo to joke about on television, they often reformulated their answer when considering the ‘humour regime’ i.e. considering who states it and in what context.

Most participants agreed that a joke is offensive when delivered by a member of a majority group addressing a minority group, whereas the opposite was generally considered less problematic, as our interview with Tina*, a young hairdresser from London showed:

“I really do not like jokes about disabled people … to be honest … I always put myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t like to be ridiculed… But if a disabled person makes fun of his or her disability then this is gallows humour and that is funny, I think.”

  1. Religious humour and offence

Jokes about religious minorities were perceived as offensive and discriminatory mostly by participants who were religious themselves or who experienced through their own lives the severe consequences of such humour, as Resa* explains:

“I think jokes about your religious belief can go too far. And I came to this conclusion because my father is Moroccan, and I know what religion means to him. I have the feeling that this topic needs to be protected and treated with respect and it angers me with others do not respect this border.”

Most of those who were not offended by these jokes and found these jokes funny, viewed themselves as the most liberal in society: Not being able to find things funny seemed to make people humourless outsiders.

Our key finding here therefore was: Taking offence at religious jokes is largely considered ‘uncool’ by audiences presenting themselves as very liberal. People who are indeed offended by these jokes often have personal experiences of discrimination, or are religious themselves.

  1. What qualifies as offensive humour is a matter of social class

 Many middle class interviewees stressed that any subject can be non-offensive if it is of ‘good taste’.

Here the criteria of what qualifies as good taste is based on cleverness, semiotic complexity, and the difficulty of the joke, as Torsten* in Germany shows:

 “I don’t get these jokes because I am much more a fan of Austrian cabaret [satirical revue] because that is better, cleverer, and a bit political. But this guy [Mario Barth] with his cliché ridden jokes annoys me!”

Mario Barth is a German comedian who mainly deals with the interactions between men and women, and has been criticised for reinforcing sexist stereotypes.

Our middle class participants stated repeatedly that they are offended by humour that is too obviously framed as funny. The fact that our appreciation and preferences in humour possess social stratificatory powers is clearly expressed in Sarah’s* judgment of Mario Barth’s comedy act:

“Well this kind of humour is, I don’t know … kind of unterschichtenhumor (underclass humour). I simply do not find it funny.”

*Names have been anonymised

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