The last laugh: bad gags, sexism and xenophobia

Stephanie Davies reflects on humour and how it can be a measure of social change

Boxing Day should have been an idyllic affair. Just me and my father watching old movies. It was the first time for over ten years I’d visited my family on the Isle of Man for the festive period and after a busy Christmas Day with all the family, Boxing Day was supposed to be a relaxing affair, just me and my Pops, on the sofa, with cold cuts and chocs.

But then he took control of the remote and it all went a bit wonky.  

“You choose,” I told him. And he did. The next four hours were a marathon of bad gags, sexism and Xenophobia. His channel of choice was showing end-to-end Carry On films and while he chuckled and guffawed, I sat there shaking my head, amazed at what passed for humour in the late sixties and 1970s and how badly the films had aged. 

Take Carry on Again Doctor, for example, in which Dr Nookey and Gladstone Screwer (phnar) run a clinic for women where they hawk a mystical weight loss serum that causes the patients to change sex. By today’s standards, the script offends most minorities and succinctly highlights the cultural humour gap between my generation and my Pop’s.

Some humour is timeless. The slapstick of Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin still holds up today, for example. But the ‘cheeky’ postcard humour of the sixties and seventies, where women were ‘birds’ and ‘dollies’ and were either brainless eye candy, severe disciplinarians, or stooges to poke fun at, has not stood the test of time. That’s not me dancing to the tune of the Wokey Cokey, it’s a fact. Society has moved on significantly in the past fifty years, to the point where what were once cinematic national treasures are now things anyone under the age of 50 will watch through their fingers.

It’s no longer acceptable for white male actors to play transexual Thai brides with racial stereotype names

Indeed, if you ever want to illustrate to someone that society has progressed, sit them down and make them watch Carry On Cowboy, or Carry on Follow That Camel, and remind them that these were the sort of things audiences laughed at just a few generations ago.

Humour is a good barometer of social change. Consider Little Britain, which ran from 2003 to 2005, and the subsequent David Walliams and Matt Lucas vehicle Come Fly With Me which ran through 2011, for example. Both have been pulled from the BBC iPlayer and Netflix because, as the BBC said, “times have changed since Little Britain first aired”. Watching them now can be an uncomfortable experience if you class yourself as progressive and, for anyone under the age of 25, viewing them is likely a triggering experience. 

It’s not just blacking up that is offensive. Victoria Wood branded it misogynistic, the Vicky Pollard character was cited as being classist, it was attacked for mocking the obese and Dr Adrian Wagg, chairman of the Continence Working Party, condemned the sketches where an old lady wet herself, saying: “Urinary incontinence is not a joke for the thousands of mainly older people affected with this embarrassing and life-destroying condition.” Although I beg to differ on the latter speaking from experience…that’s all I’m saying.  Work it out for yourself, I’m a runner and laugh for a profession. There has to be some casualties, I try and laugh it off, but it makes it worse.

So, have we lost our sense of humour? Have the woke police taken over? Probably not. We shouldn’t judge anyone who still finds the questionable humour they grew up with funny. But you’re doing them a favour if you explain why it’s no longer acceptable for white male actors to play transexual Thai brides with racial stereotype names, while bearing in mind humour is only a reflection of the social norms of the times in which it was set. Cultural change takes time and is usually measured in generations, rather than years. So just because it’s now rare to see Carry On movies on mainstream channels, or indeed other anachronistic tv series such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum or Mind Your Language, that doesn’t mean we’ve reached peak inclusivity and diversity. Watching these films made me reflect how far we’ve come but that we still have a long way to go.

Stephanie Davies is the founder of Laughology


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