text saying "When does the laughter stop?" overlaying an image of a pregnant woman with a face drawn on the stomach

I recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme, The Moral Maze to discuss the morality of comedy. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, four interrogators challenge four experts on a specific topic. I love a challenge and comedy deliberately breaks moral codes that excluded women until the era of alternative comedy gave us the freedom to exploit our own feminine issues. A smiley face on a pregnant stomach may not be everybody’s taste but is it a question of morality?

Although I work in comedy, I personally find confrontation challenging and I am more comfortable encouraging and coaching other people to confront an audience to make them laugh or argue a point.

That said, I followed my own advice and prepared for the programme by asking myself some questions on the topic and arguing back my points. Of course, during in the seven or eight minutes I had on air in the ‘witness stand’ there was no time for all of my well-planned responses, so I am sharing them here instead. The programme is still on line here if you missed it and these are some of the answers I prepared earlier!

Should comedy reinforce or challenge the moral consensus of its audience?

Absolutely comedy should challenge moral consensus. Every culture has its preferred channels for humour and this is a vital form of communication within our communities. This varies relative to language, climate, landscape, war, peace and politics as well as entertainment. All are open to humorous interpretation and we laugh at things that are familiar to us, make us feel acknowledged, understood and safe. When we laugh together, we share something and this can be very powerful in terms of building teams in a business environment or engaging followers in a leadership contest.

When is mockery offensive and when is it satire?

The lines are continually blurring and moving. Satire is supposedly a ‘friendly’ way of sending somebody up, calling them to account or making light of serious issues. Yet satire is all in the eyes of the beholder when it comes to being ‘offensive’. Comedy Roasts are considered cruel but people are happy to expose themselves to such eye-watering scrutiny. AKA Donald Trump’s Roast in 2011 pre-presidency and we could argue that if he can get through that experience, then he was well prepared to ride the storm of a video involving a little bit of ‘pussy’. Is that offensive? Who was offended here? Who knew!!

I’ve seen a real change in attitudes around language. 15 years ago, when I created Funny Women, you couldn’t easily say ‘vagina’ – now it’s a comedy staple but there are still people who take offence to biological terms.

Are comedians as important as pundits or politicians to the health of democracy? Or has comedy dumbed down debate and trivialised issues we should all be taking seriously?

Yes, for sure. It’s hard to tell comedians and politicians apart anyway! We remember somebody who is funny and clever politicians know how and when to get a laugh. Which is why some politicians employ comedians to help them with speeches – they know the tactics of comedy. Look at Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson who constantly lay themselves open to ridicule to make themselves more ‘likeable’.

All through history reigning monarchs and leaders have employed ‘fools’ to illustrate the social positioning of their kingdoms. Modern day satire, whether that be in the media or on the live comedy circuit, provides the same function and this is continually played out as an important part of today’s political arena. It doesn’t pay to take yourself too seriously.

Satire is exactly a combination of this – disarming your audience with what might be perceived as a ‘cheap laugh’ leaves them more open to the point you are really trying to make.

Was Moliere right when he said that the function of comedy is ‘to correct men’s vices’? Or should we just stick a cucumber through next door’s letter box and tell them the Martians have landed?

Comedy takes many different forms and surrealism has a part to play. By questioning the ridiculously sublime we are opening up our creativity out of which may evolve a solution. Art has taken that course and been the focus of much debate – inexplicable comedy can fulfil a similar function even if it’s just to get somebody to laugh at a silly simplistic idea or a rude word.

What may appear as a simple ‘joke’ is often placed as a question and art and literature are peppered with this. The Greek philosophers knew this and it has been played out through history from Chaucer, to Shakespeare to Dickens. All is explored from our reaction to a literary ‘prat fall’ to the slip-on-a-banana-skin.

Here are five further points that I addressed on the topic:

Cultural Engineering

We use our creativity to change culture, hence ‘cultural engineering’. The use of humour is an important cultural conduit via which we can communicate on many levels, prevalent in literature from Chaucer, through to Shakespeare and Dickens; in politics through newspaper sketch writing and cartoons to Spitting Image and The Thick of It and even the way we bring up and educate the next generation – for instance, everybody remembers the ‘funny’ teacher. Comedy is holding up a mirror to society and the use of humour is a way of exposing the best or the worst of ‘being human’ (or not as the case may be).

Humanity

Comedy or using humour is a vital part of our humanity. It’s instinctive and everybody has the ability to ‘be funny’ or make other people laugh, intentionally or not.

At its simplest level, we make people laugh to communicate effectively and improve wellbeing, for example we tickle children to make them laugh when they are feeling sad – the recently deceased Ken Dodd (whose death prompted the subject matter of this episode of The Moral Maze) employed a very obvious version of this – he tickled his audience with well-crafted and innocent comedy.

Doddy’s ‘Tickling Stick’ is emblematic. What may appear ‘trivial’ and lightweight appeals to us at the most basic human level – the urge and experience of communal laughing is a true expression of our humanity. A good comedian understands the trigger points and can combine something base or puerile with something laden with meaning to make a more serious point.

The rise of women in comedy

Women have always been there and are hugely influential from Joyce Grenfell, Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore in the 1950s and 1960’s who wrote and produced their own material to Wood & Walters, French & Saunders, and in the alternative 80s, to today’s Miranda Hart, Sarah Millican, Katherine Ryan and many more.

Women’s humour is essential to communities and goes under the radar because it is internalised and ‘circular’ in nature having a key role in the upbringing and education of future generations and sustaining the elders. It’s my belief women use their ‘sense of humour’ to bond, reassure and instill a sense of wellbeing within families and communities.

It’s all about sex

Men use humour to display strength power and leadership. A man can laugh a woman into his bed and research shows that a ‘GSOH’ comes highest in the list of attributes women look for in a male partner.

In the wild, female mammals demonstrate their submission to a male by showing their neck, a vulnerable part of the body. When we laugh we throw our heads back revealing our necks in a throwback to our less evolved animal heritage. Getting a ‘cheap laugh’ takes on a whole new meaning in the mating game!

Leadership

There’s a lot of training talk around ‘thought leadership’ and comedians can be considered in this context as they can bend public opinion and raise issues with their material, particularly if they have a strong following.

Laughter increases endorphins, happy hormones, which are released in responses to pain, stress, shock, surprise, excitement, consumption of spicy food and orgasm! This results in a relaxed state when we become more open to the possibilities and the rhetoric being presented to us. No wonder satire is so powerful.

Laughter also increases your production of serotonin, the brain chemical that keeps your neural pathways working effectively. In the ‘fight or flight’ model, a good leader might use a funny story or joke to relax his followers and spike their serotonin production to give them clarity for the task ahead or to be more open to his or her instructions. Good leaders also know that if they can make their followers laugh at something they have in common, this has a valuable and unifying effect and makes the group more open to achieving the tasks being imposed.

Lynne Parker

Lynne is the founder and chief executive of Funny Women www.funnywomen.com, comedy experts helping women to perform, write and do business with humour. Lynne regularly talks about her work with Funny Women in the media and on public platforms. She also runs workshops for companies and organisations exploring how we can use humour in the workplace to build confidence, improve communications and encourage teamwork. Please visit www.lynneparker.co.uk or email lynne@funnywomen.com for more details.

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