In recent years, a number of high-profile British comedians have been criticised or actively reprimanded for telling offensive jokes. Examples include: Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Rob Brydon, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais, Russel Brand & Johnathan Ross, Jack Whitehall and even Stephen Fry. As it so happens, the relentlessly inquiring minds at YouGov have done a poll on attitudes to offensive-joke-telling, which grants us an opportunity to discern what the British public thinks about these incidents.
In April of 2011, YouGov posed the following question to approximately 2,000 respondents:
Some people think too much comedy on the TV and radio these days is offensive, while other people think that reacting to complaints is stifling the artistic freedom of comedians. Which of the following best reflects your view?
The possible responses were:
Radio and TV comedians no longer have enough freedom to tell jokes that some people would find risky or offensive. Broadcasters should back comedians against these sort of complaints and if people find them offensive they shouldn't watch.
Making jokes about subjects that would offend a large proportion of the general public is unacceptable on the television or radio. Broadcasters should listen to public complaints and make sure that comedy that is liable to offend people is not shown.
Television and radio broadcasters currently get the balance between artistic freedom and not causing offence about right.
Overall: 41% said that "comedians no longer have enough freedom", 32% said that "making jokes about subjects that would offend a large proportion of the general public is unacceptable", and 22% said that "broadcasters currently get the balance between artistic freedom and not causing offence about right". Interestingly, while differences by social grade and party affiliation were relatively minor, differences by age and gender were quite substantial. Specifically, as the two charts below indicate, both young people and men were considerably more likely to say that comedians no longer have enough freedom. (Answers of "don't know" are omitted from the charts.)