Are there limits in comedy?

A new film, Three and Out, starring former The Office actor Mackenzie Crook has fallen foul of ASLEF – the train driver’s union; the reason being that there is a perception that the film makes light of the very serious issue surrounding people committing suicide on railway lines and the effect that this has on drivers.

The comedic merits of the film are unimportant, but when Crook was challenged on the red carpet by a protestor about the content of the film and the real life implications for train drivers who had been affected by the issue it raised an important question about comedy and its possible limits.

Comedians have argued that it is their job to push the envelope and, like the court jesters of yesteryear, speak about the kind of issues that others are too timid to confront. It is interesting then when the often abstract ‘artistic license’ nature of comedy is confronted head on by the real subject, or those closely related to that reality. After Crook had told the protestor to reserve judgement until he had viewed the new film, the protestor offered to accompany him to the premiere. According to reports in the media Crook fudged the awkward proposal by telling the protestor that he didn’t think that would be allowed.

Comedy has played an important role in what is becoming an increasingly hysterical society in which people have become closer than ever before thanks to new media and social networking sites. This has had both its positives and negatives. The furore that surrounded the Brass Eye ‘paedogeddon’ special in 2001 was a tactful and positive contribution in that it admonished people’s hypocrisy in general and the irresponsible behaviour behind a certain red top’s ‘name and shame’ campaign in particular. Similarly the brilliant English comedian Stewart Lee subverted audiences around the United Kingdom in 2005, including one in Belfast, when during a routine about suicide bombers and the post-September 11th global trauma he asked the paying public to give a retrospective round of applause for the IRA. Some people were disgusted by the joke, failing to recognise that the butt of the joke was in fact the IRA – ‘decent British terrorists’ according to Lee.

The present culture is one where people seem to relish being offended. Comedy is inevitably all about perspective and choice. While one person may find a certain routine hilarious another may find it grossly offensive and vice versa. One wonders if the members of ASLEF, while of course valid in their objections to the film, have as individuals found humour in similar dark subjects that had not affected them personally. Three and Out may not find its place in cinema history but the footnote that has accompanied its release in London has re-opened a debate that will surely continue at various points for hundreds of years.

Source: Belfast News Letter, April 2008

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