Date: December 29 2012
As a nation, we are in more and more furious disagreement about what's funny and what's not. There's now a long roll-call of public personages who have put their foot in it with a dodgy gag.
"I was only joking," is the first line of defence. Cue a heated debate on "so-called" comedy. (That's how the "so-called" experts always begin the lesson.)
Sure, let's all be instructed by the humourless who have diligently classified prank calls, funny home videos, silly foreign accents and footy players in push-up bras as low comedy and think it should be banned. Meanwhile, satire is deemed as high art, necessary for democracy - until it crosses some imaginary line of offence, and then it should be banned. (Hey, if it were up to me, I'd outlaw puns.)
Those calling for a more uplifting and better class of comedy will be disappointed - the fart joke has been enjoyed by humans for millennia.
Some of the debate on comedy is useful, some of it dangerous to free speech, and there's a whole lot more that defies rational argument. Even the comics can't agree.
Recently I was in conversation with comic Charlie Pickering on ABC radio. He said there are some occasions where genuinely racist or homophobic jokes cross the line and there should be consequences for such behaviour.
(We do have anti-vilification laws in Australia, along with guidelines for permissions and privacy.)
"The rest of the time the test should always be: 'Is it funny?'," Charlie said.
Most of us would agree. Wouldn't we?
Wil Anderson was there too. He disagreed with Charlie. There can be no final arbiter of comedy - let the marketplace rule, he said.
Referring to the online petitions gathered to kick various people off the airwaves who have offended public sensibility, he added: "First they come for Alan, and then they come for Kyle, and then they come down the line for Wil … and who's next?
"Everyone has the right to be offended, and that's where their right stops. You don't have the right to tell me to stop what I am doing."
We'd agree with that too. We're against censorship. Right?
What is it about comedy that causes such argument? Much of it is in that test that Charlie mentioned: "Is it funny?"
Fact is, we will never agree. While there is universality on what brings us to tears - dying babies, bereaved parents, abandoned dogs and cruel oppression - comedy doesn't enjoy that luxury. Is a skid on a banana peel hilarious or humiliating?
Be offended, but don't offend further by calling for censorship or demanding that a higher power arbitrate. After all, The Man Who Sued God was a comedy, starring Billy Connolly, not a documentary.
The only real benefit in banning Freddo Frog and the Paddle Pop Lion is that impoverished comics will never again have to don the suit of shame and slope around shopping centres between gigs.
"Muuuuuum, the Paddle Pop Lion's smoking!"
One of my mates was sacked because a kid dobbed him in for having a sneaky durrie outside a play centre. Another got booted from a stint as Caramello Koala after putting a headlock on a billy lid who kicked him in the gumnuts. (Sorry.)
It's a bastard of a life inside the fat suit for adults - even more so for little kids who can't take off the padding at the end of the day.
I've no doubt the Obesity Policy Coalition cares for our kids deeply and is at its wit's end in calling for a ban on cartoon characters who encourage youngsters to scoff lollies.
I too despaired when the kids came home from primary school with a tray of Freddo Frogs to flog to raise money for new sports equipment. Oh, the irony!
But sweets and lollies in plain packaging? What of Willy Wonka, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Gingerbread Man? Too late - Sam the Froot Loop Toucan has flown the coop.
Not long ago, I received an email from a woman asking if I could help her stop the schoolyard derision of Healthy Harold. (He's the smiley giraffe from Life Education Australia who gets around classes promoting the even-toed ungulate mammal lifestyle.)
What could I say? I'm the mother of two who, as little ones, heckled Barney the Dinosaur at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York, much to the disgust of the locals. "Hey Barney! You're a real dumb-head." (Cringe.)
Kids can see a do-good message galumphing down the track, and if you ask them, they know Freddo Frog promotes chocolate. They get it. Our kids are not stupid.
The answer is in tighter regulation of the fast food, energy drink and lolly-pushing bandits who have unfettered access to our children. As much as they would like us to see them as low-fat, high-fibre good corporate citizens with only the best interests of our kiddies at heart, these are devious marketeers who are, right this minute, scoping out your kids through social media, sports clubs and schools. They push their products every way they know how. They must be stopped.
It's not worth targeting Freddo. He's just one in a pantheon of beloved children's characters - from The Famous Five to Harry Potter - with a fondness for lashings of ginger beer, jam scones and Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans.
Even back in Middle-earth, Hobbits ate six meals a day and were rather fond of the old pipe-weed.
The Hobbit and Les Miserables are doing massive business at the box-office. You won't get a laugh out of either - even though we could do with one right now.
It will be magic v misery for best picture at the Oscars.
Time for a new category for best comedy, I say. But could the terribly self-important lower themselves to discuss the hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary?
Nope … just as Will Shakespeare wrote so long ago: "Though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve."
Mike Carlton is on leave.
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