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30 March 2023

Frankie Boyle’s “shock” comedy was vile – no wonder he’s given himself a makeover

The once “edgy” comedian is now a left-wing commentator who stars on Taskmaster, comedy’s cuddliest show. How did he get here?

By Marc Burrows

Frankie Boyle’s TV show, New World Order, has not been renewed by the BBC, to much wailing and gnashing of teeth by his fans – of which there are many. It’s OK though. He’s back on telly anyway, in the new series of the genuinely-beloved Channel 4 game show Taskmaster, alongside Jenny Eclair, Mae Martin and Ivo Graham. The BBC haven’t given a reason for cancelling New World Order, though the statement announcing the news did include the line, “We look forward to seeing what he does next on the BBC”, so we can assume it wasn’t an issue with his style or content (though Boyle, posting on Twitter that the decision was “not surprising in the current climate”, seemed to imply that he was actually too left-wing for the BBC).

This is interesting, because it wasn’t that long ago that Boyle was a pariah for almost the opposite reason. After an ill-advised jab on Mock The Week at swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s appearance, a horrible tweet about raping cyclist Victoria Pendleton and, most infamously, a run of offensive jokes about Katie Price’s disabled son on the immediately-cancelled Channel 4 show Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights (including a punchline about then-eight-year-old Harvey raping his mother), there wasn’t a mainstream channel in Britain that would touch him. He’d gone too far.

So how did we get from there to here? How have we gone from the Frankie Boyle Outrage Machine being generally loathed, to having him rehabilitated to the point that he earned himself six series of a BBC TV show and a starring spot on Taskmaster, one of comedy’s most cuddly and likeable programmes?

[See also: Succession season four review: a script sharper than broken glass]

Partly it’s that the public is broadly forgiving, as long as someone has the smarts to stay out of sight while the fuss dies down. A willingness to spend a few years in the wilderness will generally mean, if you’re good enough, an invitation to eventually come back in from the cold. And Boyle is good enough. He’s one of the sharpest comics working today, with an ability to find jokes between the lines of the most complicated stories. When he’s on form, he’s untouchable. Secondly, it’s that Boyle was canny enough to learn from his mistakes: though not canny enough to actually apologise for them.

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In comedy we often talk about “punching up” and “punching down”. “Punching down” is when the target of the joke is someone perceived as being in a weaker position than you – which if you’re a white man with a microphone is most people. Jokes about women, the trans community and disabled people might therefore generally be considered to be punching down. “Punching up”, meanwhile, is when you focus your righteous outrage on the powerful – governments, royalty, that sort of thing. Boyle’s popularity was rooted in his skill at punching up; speaking truth to power. He came unstuck when those same skills were targeted at people perceived as weaker than him. Since then he’s chosen his targets more carefully. Thirteen years into a Tory government, his upward punches have been plentiful, and he’s increasingly leaned into that part of his comedy, with a column in the Guardian and more appearances on political shows.

Boyle’s rebrand reflects a broader shift in our culture – comedy, undoubtedly, has changed. When I first started out in stand up in 2009, I was given some unsolicited advice by a friend of mine, who is now quite a successful comic with an international profile. “I loved that line, but it needs something else” she said, “would you be open to a suggestion?” “Sure” I replied, aware that the line she was referring to had completely died, and that she’d absolutely smashed her set. “Maybe just add something like: ‘So I raped her.’”

In 2023 I’m horrified by that punchline. Back then, though, my thought was closer to “that’s a bit much”. It wasn’t really my style of comedy – or hers. But it didn’t seem like a hideous, where-the-hell-did-that-come-from move. Shock comedy was in vogue. Ricky Gervais was massive, Russell Brand was a legend, Boyle was the biggest name on the UK circuit. Every new act or open mic night was full of rape and paedophiles jokes by wannabe “edgy” young comics who dressed like Russell Howard. Another act, now a panel show regular in the UK, used to do a bit about ignoring rape alarms that had the punchline “so I carried on raping her”.

[See also: No laughing matter: Why can’t we make jokes about the unspeakable?]

And it worked. Audiences, by and large, loved it. They were easy punchlines – saying the “unsayable” triggered this weird “I can’t believe he said that” release of tension that manifested as a laugh. The crowds were used to this stuff from the big TV names and they didn’t blink at it in a comedy club either. The 2000s – that era of Big Brother, Nuts and Zoo magazines and the heyday of Top Gear – were a weird time.

Fifteen years on that feels like a different age. I’ve seen newer acts try that sort of thing on audiences and be met with indifference or open hostility, but rarely laughter. We’ve evolved past it. So, too, has Boyle, who may have been unwittingly responsible for that shift. Those horrible downward punches clearly demonstrated where the line was. Collectively it was the point we all took a step back and said “woah … bit much, mate?” Ultimately, that was for the best (though its doubtful that Adlington, Pendleton, Price and other figures mocked during Boyle’s brutal peak will take much comfort in that).

Comedy is important. Satirical comedy, even more so. At its best it should puncture the powerful and elevate the oppressed. We’re a lot closer to that now. Frankie Boyle has learned to choose his targets and when to keep his mouth shut, and as a result seems to have been forgiven. Now if only Ricky Gervais could do the same.

[See also: To dissect a good joke, do you have to kill it?]

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