Following on rather neatly from my previous post about someone who used humour to make others feel small, I've just caught up with the story about comic Frankie Boyle's latest mishap. At the opening show of his new tour, he upset a woman in the front row of the audience with a routine poking fun at people with Down's Syndrome, and then challenged her after noticing her disapproval. The woman in question, Sharon Smith, has a daughter with Down's, and later wrote about the experience in a blog post, which has been picked up by the mainstream media.
The problem with this kind of incident is that it instantly leads to the familiar knee-jerk reaction from many people of "oh, this just shows how talentless these so-called 'comedians' are, time for them to be banned from TV". Last autumn, I picked up on a post in the Caledonian Comment blog concerning Rebecca Adlington's fury over Boyle's jokes about her on Mock the Week - the suggestion was that if TV executives didn't now realise how unfunny he was, that just proved how "arrogant" and "out of touch" they were. In truth, of course, they'd be far more out of touch if they didn't realise how wildly popular Boyle and others like him are.
This is such a difficult issue, because much of the best comedy (admittedly not all) relies on material capable of deeply offending someone. We all have our points of vulnerability - even, I presume, Frankie Boyle. Does this mean that such edgy comedy should always be regarded as undesirable? Sharon Smith herself seems to be somewhat conflicted on that point, admitting with admirable honesty that one of the reasons she went to see Boyle's show in the first place was that she liked "how nasty he is" and "wanted to see him out of the confines of a TV editing suite, to hear him say things he could not get away with on mainstream TV".
On the other hand, I don't think it's a legitimate criticism to make of Ms Smith that, since she knew exactly what Boyle is like, and had booked her tickets in that full knowledge, she therefore had no right to be upset about what happened. She didn't "know what to expect" - she had no way of knowing that one of her own personal 'points of vulnerability' was going to come up. It was hugely bad luck, both for her and for Boyle. So I'm unable to reach any conclusion about whether a comedy routine based around stereotypes concerning a vulnerable group of people can be regarded as funny or even morally acceptable - in a sense it's a question that doesn't have a right or wrong answer. It's all in the eye of the beholder.
But what is truly shocking and utterly indefensible about Boyle's behaviour is how he reacted after things started to go wrong. To begin with, he should never have challenged her when he saw she was unhappy - he should at least have had enough awareness of the sensitivities of the situation to realise that someone offended by the initial jokes was unlikely to react in a benign way to being effectively told to "lighten up". But having made the mistake of drawing her into the performance, and then seeing her stand her ground and refuse to see the funny side, that was certainly the moment for him to bail out and try to make amends. There are many ways he could have done that - perhaps he could have humanised the situation by asking her about her daughter, and then used her answers as the basis for some lighter, whimsical, self-effacing humour (which he is certainly capable of) to suggest ways in which she might like to get revenge on him for being so nasty. And then having hopefully smoothed away some of the awkwardness of the situation (without the need to alienate the rest of the audience from her, or vice versa) he could have apologised in a way that didn't compromise his right to be edgy and offensive in the future.
Instead, he did something rather different. Although he conceded it was the "most excruciating moment of his career", he then told her that she had paid to come and see him and that she should have known what to expect, and that as it was his last tour "he didn't give a f***". In making the latter comment, he was essentially inviting the rest of the audience to conspire with him in making her an object of mockery, and that is what's truly despicable. He probably only did it because he was so horrified to find himself in that situation and was relying on his comic instinct to get him out of it - but that's not much of an excuse.
So while incidents like this tell us nothing one way or the other about Boyle's talent as a stand-up comic, in this instance I'm very glad he got what was coming to him - and let's face it, 9 times out of 10 the celebrity in that situation would get away with it, with the person he's trampled over being left with no right to reply. Another small triumph for the equalising power of the internet.