When news broke last week that comedian Joe Lycett had been reported to the police for a routine in his touring show, the joke was very much on the offended punter. “Imagine someone calling the police over a joke they didn’t like? Snowflakes everywhere,” tweeted Lycett’s fellow comic Janey Godley, while the Spectator fulminated: “We need to kick the cops out of comedy.” But where there’s comedy, cops have seldom been far away. Trace their interactions over the years, and you find the art form sharpening its rebellious self-image, but also its role as a lightning rod for social anxieties. You’ll find a few sense of humour failures, too.
Lycett has yet to reveal which particular joke prompted police interest. But my guess is it’s the home video he screens onstage of his childhood self, frolicking half-naked. Because images of child nudity are illegal, Lycett tells his audience, he has concealed his private parts in the film with a disproportionately large digital penis – or a “giant donkey dick”, as reported in last week’s coverage. It’s a cheerfully puerile visual gag, if not an obviously offensive one. But can we be surprised – after the recent furore around theatre production The Family Sex Show, for example – that there are people who might find Lycett’s priapic tot too hot to handle?
Comedy fans of my vintage will be reminded of Chris Morris’s notorious “paedo-geddon” episode of the Channel 4 news spoof Brass Eye – a series, incidentally, that’s far more confrontational and in-yer-face than anything in 2022-era comedy. Following that broadcast, Scotland Yard considered prosecuting Channel 4 under the Protection of Children Act, with charges relating to the “taking, making and showing of indecent photos of youngsters”. No prosecution materialised, although the Nottinghamshire police vice squad did nix a documentary they were making with the broadcaster, citing their “disgust” at the Brass Eye special.
Comedy’s defining brushes with the law, in the 1960s and 70s, also concerned indecency. Standup’s self-image has deep roots in the prosecutions of the American comics Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Fifties hepcat and standup trailblazer Bruce was repeatedly arrested and tried for obscenity – or, in the words of his prosecutor during a 1964 trial, for his “nauseating word pictures interspersed with all the three- and four-letter words and more acrid 10- and 12-letter ones, spewed directly at the audience”. Bruce was found guilty and died – of a drugs overdose – while on parole pending his appeal.
Carlin’s later Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television riff led to a legal fight between the Federal Communications Commission and a radio broadcaster that aired the routine – a case that went to the Supreme Court. “FCC v Pacifica,” wrote Carlin in his autobiography, “became a standard case to teach in communications classes and law schools. I take perverse pride in that. I’m actually a footnote to the judicial history of America.” The court ruled he was being indecent, but not obscene.
In such a context, to “kick the cops out of comedy” would be to divest the art form of its heroic history as a canary in the mine for social progress. But we don’t live in the 1960s any more. Nor in the kind of state where comics are routinely harassed by the authorities. In Russia, a standup of Azerbaijani origin, Idrak Mirzalizade, was sent down for 10 days and later banned from the country, for a joke allegedly inciting hatred against ethnic Russians. In Britain, however, comedians inciting ethnic hatred – as Jimmy Carr was accused of doing earlier this year with his jokes about the Nazi persecution of Roma people – don’t get jailed, they get a Netflix special.
One of comedy’s signature brushes with the law came, not under a dictatorship, but in kindly Canada. Standup Mike Ward’s offence was to tell jokes in 2010 about a disabled TV personality, the child singer Jérémy Gabriel, who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which can affect facial bone structure and cause deafness. The singer’s family filed a human rights complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal. Ward lost, but then embarked on an 11-year legal battle to overturn the verdict. He also made a show about the case, aggressively promoting his own free-speech warrior credentials. In 2021, Canada’s supreme court ruled in the comedian’s favour, judging his routine about Gabriel to be “nasty and disgraceful” – but not illegal.
Could such a case unfold in the UK? Of course – as Godley’s “snowflake” tweet implies, 21st-century Britain is far from an anything-goes standup Shangri-la. And while knee-jerk responses to the Lycett story assumed the complainant to be some kind of shrinking woke violet, right-wingers are just as apt to dial 999. Take Nigel Farage, who tweeted “this is incitement of violence and the police need to act” when Jo Brand joked on Radio 4 about throwing battery acid in the Ukip man’s face. The Met investigated but took no action. Furthermore, in the US, ex-Senate candidate Roy Moore tried to sue Sacha Baron Cohen after the comedian, in his TV show Who Is America?, used a fake paedophile detector on Moore, which beeped. The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge, who described the segment as “clearly a joke”.
Another recent dust-up often cited as a comedy cause célèbre qualifies as such only if you consider Scottish YouTuber Count Dankula (AKA Mark Meechan) to be a comedian, which he barely is. Meechan posted a video in 2016 showing himself teaching his girlfriend’s dog how to perform a Nazi salute, and to react to the question: “Do you wanna gas the Jews?” He was fined £800, while the rest of us were subjected to comment pieces proclaiming his right to free, if unpleasant, speech.
So much for affronts to public decency. But comedy is just as apt to run afoul of the law when private interests are at stake. See comic Stephen Grant’s legal battle with his ex-wife over the right to joke about her on stage, or Sunda Croonquist being sued in 2015 by her own mother-in-law for making too many, er, mother-in-law jokes. One reels to consider how the likes of Les Dawson might have fared in such a climate. But maybe that’s the point. We all knew Dawson was joking – whereas modern standup trades, more than before, in truth, autobiography and authenticity, rendering it more vulnerable to legal claims of this nature.
One such was lodged by the ex-husband of comedian Louise Reay for defamation over jokes about him in her 2018 show. Described by a leading lawyer as a test case, the suit raised concerns among comics about restrictions to their right – a pretty fundamental one – to discuss their personal lives onstage. The fact that Reay’s ex-husband dropped the case, and that most of these claims don’t prosper, demonstrates the law’s difficulty in pinning down live comedy. Here is an art form where context is everything, where what is said is not often what is meant – an art form that pretends to be telling the truth when it suits comedians to do so, but in which fact and fiction are constantly blurred for artistic effect. How do you legislate for that?
I’m not sure you can. Many of the most exciting modern standups – Stewart Lee, Jordan Brookes, a whole suite of intriguing US acts such as Kate Berlant – engage in a neverending game of cat-and-mouse with who they really are and what they mean. And liveness is also an issue: a comedy show differs from one night to the next, according to the relationship established with the audience. As any standup will tell you, the context of a joke – its intention and impact, if not precisely its legality – can be only be judged with any hope of accuracy by those people in the room for that particular gig.
That’s what makes the art form special. But it also makes it a minefield for “the fuzz” as Lycett calls them. On what aspect of a comic’s performance, after all, are they to focus their attention? The words, which aren’t usually meant to be taken at face value? The perceived intent behind the irony? The body language? Or the giant pixelated penis – which, let us remember, appears in Lycett’s show precisely so that he doesn’t break the law.
Or, when he told us that, was he only joking? Either way, there’s sure to be another comedy-versus-the law case along soon. If history shows how hard it is to regulate this most quicksilver of art forms, it also suggests that the police, and the courts, will be given ample opportunity to keep trying.