Sorry Ricky, that joke isn't funny any more

"Mong face" is just a punchline desperately in search of a set-up.

I once went to see Bernard Manning and I laughed so much it hurt. It was the night he died.

No, it wasn't. It was during my days as a provincial hack, when Manning had come to do a show, I was offered review tickets and I went out of idle curiosity. Turning up a little late, Manning wheezed onto stage -- he was in his 70s -- and complained about how he'd got his Rolls Royce lost in Tooting.

"It's full of fucking Pakis there, isn't it?" he roared, and you could sense the relief and joy in the room. Yes, we were going to get our racist jokes. All was going to be right with the world. Here we were, in a safe place from nascent political correctness, which was already going mad.

I did laugh a lot at his jokes at first. Manning, whatever else you think of him, had great comic timing, and some of the material was funny.

I say this, as you know, as a fully paid-up member of the PC Brigade and the fun-hating Left (capital L essential). But about halfway through, I found I wasn't laughing so much. Bernard packed the second half of his act with more and more (badly crooned) songs; even after a lifetime in the business, his material didn't stretch to more than an hour. Because there came a point when, having heard gag after gag in which the Jew, the Paki, the nigger, the woman or whoever was on the receiving end, it became pretty predictable. And you got the sense that he knew that himself.

Which brings me to Ricky Gervais. After tweeting a picture of his "mong face" the other day, he unleashed a gentle tornado of disapproval. Many condemned him for the use of the word; others were disappointed with his behaviour afterwards, in which he claimed that "haters" were just jealous of his success.

Richard Herring, who knows a sight more about comedy than I do, wrote a well-crafted blogpost about why it jarred with him.

It jarred with me too, not because of the word itself but because, as was the case with Bernard Manning, there can come a point where offensive jokes stop being funny, where the situation shifts and it begins to look like simple trash talk, of one stronger person picking on a weaker person. For me, the time when Gervais's followers started berating anyone who had taken offence was when it stopped being funny, if it ever had been.

I'll put my hand up now for the avoidance of doubt and say I like offensive jokes. On his most recent tour, I saw Jimmy Carr complete a night of brilliant gags with an encore in which he tested his audience by telling increasingly shocking jokes. It culminated with a one-liner so extraordinarily filthy that I really can't repeat it here -- suffice it to say it was truly vile and unpleasant. And hilarious. But your mileage may vary. You may have sat through it in stony silence, horrified, wondering why on earth anyone would find that amusing. Not me; I loved it.

I think comedy can be about testing boundaries and revealing to ourselves the prejudiced, awkward, dark and downright unpleasant folk we sometimes are deep down inside.

Whether it's Frankie Boyle mocking the weak or Stewart Lee honing a typically convoluted riff about wanting to see Richard Hammond decapitated, it makes me laugh. Look back at now revered classics like Derek and Clive or The Producers, and there are still parts that should -- and do -- make you wince. But I find myself laughing, too.

And one of my all-time favourite moments of TV -- Alan Partridge temporarily escaping from his crazed stalker, Jez -- relies on the line "No way you big spastic, you're a mentalist!"

So what's the difference there between Partridge's "spastic" and Gervais's "mong"? Why do I find one funny and the other tragic? I think it comes down to a question of tone. Partridge is berating someone who's tried to imprison him, and you can forgive his use of the playground slur as a punchline; with Gervais there is no set-up, there's just a punchline. Mong. I look like a mong! Mong. That's all there is to it.

True, some people do go out of their way take offence, others can't help being offended, and others aren't offended at all. I tend to fall into the latter category when it comes to comedy, but that doesn't mean I can't see understand why people are upset, offended and dismayed by certain jokes. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you're going to hurt others' feelings.

Sometimes that's a price worth paying for a laugh, and sometimes it isn't.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Electronic Arts
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Why I'm not worried by Mass Effect: Andromeda's bad reviews

Despite the mixed response for the latest Mass Effect, I am still excited about playing the latest in the series. 

The reviews for Mass Effect: Andromeda are in and they’re…mixed. “Bioware’s worst RPG yet,” is Eurogamer’s verdict. Notoriously generous examiners IGN have given it seven marks out of ten, which is essentially a four out of ten in anyone else’s estimation. “It’s a timid and tepid tale too heavily reliant on what came before,” declares Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

The facial animation is uneven, the opening mission is reputed to be dull, and the game is overladen with bugs. The game’s aggregate score on Metacritic stands at 78, the lowest rated of the entire franchise.

But I’m not worried. Why not? Perhaps it’s because I’ve just finished replaying the original Mass Effect, and many of the complaints seem familiar. The combat in the first game is crushingly dull, the supporting cast have hours of dialogue, much of it wildly contradictory in terms of what they are supposed to think, and a large amount of it is cheesy in the extreme.

Just as the beginning of Andromeda is widely accepted to be, the opening hours of Mass Effect are only mildly more diverting than watching paint crawl. As is typical of a BioWare game, you are treated to an excessive amount of exposition about the overarching plot and a dishwater dull tutorial level, accompanied by a male companion who is, if anything, even more ennui-inducing than his surrounds. In Knights of the Old Republic and the original Mass Effect, this thankless role is given to the same unlucky actor, Raphael Sbarge, who plays both Carth Onasi and Kaidan Alenko. Kaiden at least improves as the game wears on, while Carth’s only redeeming feature is that you can leave him aboard your ship once you leave Knights’ crushingly dull tutorial world of Taris.

It is also, a decade after its release, still laden with gamebreaking bugs. Only yesterday, my Shepard got stuck halfway up a hill and I had no option but start over from 20 minutes earlier. The dialogue is uneven and patchy. And don’t even get me started on the Mako.

While there are dozens of explorable worlds, most of the planets yield nothing more than text on the screen and a couple of experience points. And yet, since the first Mass Effect came out, I have spent upwards of 600 hours playing that first entry in the series, though it is surely by any measure the weakest of the trilogy.

Why? The beauty of Mass Effect to me is that you never know what is beyond the next hill, that space feels huge and boundless, even though mostly the answer to “what lies beyond” is “a pretty sky and a whole bunch of text”. The plotline comes a distant second. As for the gameplay? I played the first two games in “Casual” mode and the last in the series in the new “Narrative” mode. If there was a “watch a pretty video of the combat to free up more time for exploring and working out which of the people you meet are down to bang” option, I would play that option.

For me, all Andromeda has to do to be a great game is have interesting characters and that same sense of exploration and wonder as Mass Effect. For it to be a good game, all I need is the thrill of seeing alien skies. And even the most damning of reviews promise open skies and near endless horizons. I can’t wait to get aboard the Tempest.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.