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
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle