Graham Linehan on the art of the risky joke – and why the alt-right get it wrong

There’s a difference between transgressive comedy and hiding racism in plain sight argues the Father Ted comedian

(Getty, JG)

You may be aware of the Nazi pug case, in which Scottish YouTuber Mark Meechan landed a conviction for making a video involving his dog and a Nazi salute.

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I’ve spoken (well, tweeted) a lot about the guy’s alt-right background and association with fascists and right-wing conspiracy-mongers. This is a racist right-winger signalling to other racist right-wingers. That’s all I really think about it. But, Twitter being Twitter, my perceived position on the matter has somehow migrated to one I don’t actually hold – that I have something against transgressive comedy.

I have a general sympathy for Meechan, just as I have sympathy for all the young, dumb, angry white men falling under the spell of online hucksters, but my sympathy extends only so far. I notice some comedians seem to be taken in by his shtick, but in this I am reminded of my favourite Tommy Cockles joke, where he said of his dentist, “They say he tortured Jews during the war, but he was always terribly nice to me.”

There! That’s the sound of someone hitting the bullseye. A transgressive joke that reveals something profound about the human condition. But then, Simon Day, who created Cockles, is a virtuoso

Comedy is not easy. Given, say, six half-hour episodes of a sitcom to fill, writers will have to pull out every tool at their disposal to keep an audience’s attention from flagging, and one of the classic hack moves is to stick something offensive in there. You see it in a lot of scripts by beginners and it does the opposite to what the author intended. It makes the writer look desperate and insecure.

For such choppy waters you need expert navigators. Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly made Pulling a joyful experience, and the show skated very close to the edge in its frank depiction of some damaged people. At its best, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia does fine work; one of the best female characters in comedy co-existing with various forms of outrageous misogyny. Transgressive material features in even the lightest comedies. One of my favourite movies, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, uses disability as a comic engine, but the film is so expertly crafted that I doubt many even notice the buttons being pressed.

These, and dozens of other examples, are by people in full command of their craft. Their audacious work comes from an understanding – innate or hard earned through perseverance and experimentation – of the limits and possibilities of comedy. Much questioning is involved. Is this funny? Is it clear? Is the joke strong enough to take the edge off the offence caused?

Racist hacks of the online Right ask none of these questions. Journalists found a “style guide” for the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer that had this advice for its contributors: “The tone of the site should be light. Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred. The unindoctrinated [sic] should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.”

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To borrow one of their favourite phrases, the online Right is virtue-signalling to a select circle. And the joke, the real joke, is about hiding their racism in plain sight. You can call this what you like, but please, don’t call it comedy.