Do comedians need profanity to be funny?

Posted on September 12, 2012


‘The utter bloody rudeness of the world today.’  
– Lynne Truss Talk to the Hand. 

The excessive use of taboo language has slowly integrated itself into western, modern day society. It only takes being in the presence of secondary school adolescents to realize swearing has become the ‘norm’ for general conversation. The meaning of profane has faced the processes of pejoration and broadening, as in the 1400s it meant something that did not belong to the church. But now it commonly refers to the negative and disrespectful act of word discretion, which has the power to offend others quite severely. A renowned excuse for profanity is that it helps release anger or expresses emotions and psychological research can vouch for that, but how do we account for its use in everyday conversation? When our physiological chemicals are in balance? When we’re making simple, verbal exchanges between fellow companions? When walking along a school corridor during lesson change you’ll hear ‘oi pr**k, what lesson you got?’ Is this really necessary?

Whether it’s racist, sexist, homophobic or just pure ‘swearing for the sake of swearing’, for some reason it’s funny. It shocks us and it makes us happy. Hearing vicious words or laughter at another’s expense makes us happy. In the fall of winter we feel victory and a sense of self-achievement at witnessing others slip and fall over ice. As long as it’s not us we feel no remorse on the matter. School teachers scold their students during the week for discriminating against classmates for x, y and z, advertising anti-bullying campaigns through posters plastered over school corridors, whilst at the weekend watching ‘Live at the Apollo’ which contains comedians making jokes about others and 9/10 using offensive language. It seems a tsunami of hypocrisy is sweeping through our nation and instead of slowing down it’s speeding up. Maybe political authorities just haven’t noticed the impact of profane language on relationships. We spend so much time blaming violence and abuse on ‘chemical imbalances’, ‘psychological frames’ or ‘not being loved as a child’, when possibly the answer has been screaming abusively at them in the face. 

The words we choose to employ have a major impact on our mood and potentially shape our whole personality. Those four letter words are aggressive, so inevitably make the person using them aggressive. It is very rare to hear a jovial, posh person curse excessively. Bringing me back to comedians, Michael McIntyre never swears in his routines, yet he is one of the most successful up and coming stand-up acts, exemplifying that obscene language is not obligatory when creating comedy. To the other extreme, Frankie Boyle is known for his controversial, dry humour which has caused great offense to people such as Katie Price A.K.A. Jordan. In 2010 he made a joke on ‘Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights’ saying ‘I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cage fighter – she needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from f**king her.’ When these types of comics are displayed on television for all to see, it’s not surprising there are so many linguistic dysfunctions in particular geographical locations.     It seems evident that expletives attach a type of covert prestige which has been investigated by Professor Peter Trudgill of Norwich. This may be one explanation behind the excessive use of inappropriate words, used especially by men. In a study, Trudgill found that when asked about their own speech, males claimed to use more slang than they in fact did, implying they attached some kind of prestige to taboo language. Some of us may recall Johnny Rotten’s verbal outburst of the most offensive vulgarism in existence – the ‘C’ word – on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here’ in 2004, or Gordon Ramsey’s cook show on Channel 4 appropriately named ‘The ‘F’ Word’ in relation to his infamous cursing. A logical explanation behind the reason why males use profanity more (or aspire to use profanity more) may be because aggression is related to power. Although the patriarchal society is becoming an outdated notion, it still primitively remains intact.

So where do we go from here? Is it a matter of it’s simply too late or can we start making changes now and hope for the best? The issue we face is that adolescents are the main culprits of abusive language and we all know breaking habits of a life time is extremely difficult to do. But if we don’t do something about the youth culture of today, these teens are going to ‘run their mouths’ into adulthood and role models of this kind can’t end well; it’s a slippery slope. We’ll end up with an infant’s first words being four letter ones and I don’t mean ‘papa’.

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