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A joke too far: the fine line between comedy and offence

ByCharlotte Gower

Nov 18, 2014
courtesy of the guardian

Dapper Laughs, the TV show cancelled on sexism grounds, raises the issue of the acceptability of offence in comedy:

At best what you do is offensive, at worst it incites harassment and violence”. This was Emily Maitlis’ opening line in her interview with comedian Daniel O’Reilly earlier this week on BBC Newsnight. Over the past few days, O’Reilly has seen the demise of his Vine star character ‘Dapper Laughs’ as his controversial jokes have been brought to the world’s attention, culminating in the axing of his ITV2 show Dapper Laughs: On the Pull. This decision has prompted questions as to where the fine line is between comedy and offence; is Dapper Laughs simply harmless fun or is he actively damaging, a misogynist who revels in teaching a ‘how-to’ for sexual assault and violence?

O’Reilly’s hype gained momentum in summer 2013 when he began to post on the social media site Vine. His videos were initially relatively tame, mostly of him making awkward jokes about how to pick up women. But with time, his posts became increasingly controversial and explicitly offensive. In one video he asked, “How do you know if she’s interested? Show her your penis. If she cries, she’s playing hard to get”. Attention to Dapper Laughs on social media sites has been overwhelming; at the start of this month he had 1.7 million Facebook likes, 600,000 Vine followers and 370,000 followers on Twitter.

O’Reilly’s controversial reputation as a comedian escalated when one of his recorded shows was posted on YouTube. Dapper says, in reference to a female member of the audience: “she’s gagging for rape”. Surely this isn’t just harmless humour? This suggests that Dapper is decisively inciting sexual violence by saying that women who say ‘no’ don’t mean ‘no’. Similarly, in the first episode of his TV show, he makes some contentious jokes about homelessness which have been strongly criticised by the homeless charity Shelter.

The ‘lad culture’ which O’Reilly is touching a nerve with seems to be more prevalent than ever in British universities. There is, even at Edinburgh, a prevalent binge drinking culture amongst some people, particularly induced by sports initiations and social media websites such as the “Lad Bible”. These initiations across the UK have reached some scary extremes. Earlier this semester, football club initiations at the University of Exeter pushed it so far that initiations involved kissing a dead conger eel. There is also, to some extent, a social climate which encourages an obsession with sex. Dapper’s preoccupation with sex and picking up girls has worrying parallels with the stories shared on the Everyday Sexism Project, a constantly growing collection of “experiences of sexism, harassment and assault”. Hostility towards Dapper Laughs became more prominent at the start of November when 50,000 people signed a petition calling ITV2 to axe Dapper’s second series, which they have promptly done. In the face of this furore, O’Reilly appeared mortified when he appeared on Newsnight this week. He emphasised that Dapper was a “character”, which didn’t reflect his own personality. This undermines his previous claims that Dapper Laughs was an “extension” of himself and suggests that perhaps he is using Dapper Laughs’ characterisation as an excuse for his behaviour.

The treatment of O’Reilly is interesting in relation to comedians notorious for their sexist jokes. The likes of Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle have all been noted for insinuating sexism, but their shows still triumph whilst the fall of Dapper has “ruined [his] life”. Whilst the likes of Gervais, Carr and Boyle show their comedy on TV shows, Dapper Laughs has gone about gaining his popularity differently. His attention has spurned from social media sites such as Vine and Facebook, where he could upload several posts a day rather than a TV show where he would only have a weekly slot. This had a more concentrated effect, which gave his viewers a false sense of online familiarity which could make them more susceptible to imitation, because it appeared that, unlike on TV shows, Dapper had a more personal relationship with his viewers.

What will happen to Dapper Laughs now? Although O’Reilly believes he is a “victim”, the media hype surrounding the Dapper Laughs case could just have the opposite effect; fuelling his reputation and providing him with a platform to become a reality TV star. Despite this, the case of Dapper Laughs has and will continue to probe questions in the media concerning the increasingly fine line between humour and sexism.


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