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Eddie McGuire's 'Jokes' Are No Laughing Matter

Nailing the appropriate level of violation to make a joke succeed is correct target selection.

22/06/2016 10:00 AM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:54
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Tongue-in-cheek. Not.

Humour delivered in a professional context by amateur humorists is a scenario fraught with opportunities for failure.

In broad terms, we could categorise these paths to comedic underachievement as creating humour that is not funny, creating humour that is unfairly offensive, or doing both simultaneously -- as Eddie McGuire did so disturbingly with his artless attempts to amuse by attacking fellow sports commentator, Caroline Wilson.

Of course, pro comics can also fall foul of the above traps, but the majority develop the skill of knowing how, where and when to push boundaries so that the funny finds its mark and is still viewed as valid and justified even if it is outrageous, controversial or ruthlessly eviscerating.

Most humour theorists agree that for a joke to work it must violate a norm, this gives the humour the edge it needs to cut through the mundane and surprise our brains with an unexpected idea. But for us to find this surprise funny the edge must not cut too deeply. It must be a benign violation.

A big part of nailing the appropriate level of violation to make a joke succeed is correct target selection. 'The Late Show's' Stephen Colbert recently delivered a brutal takedown of presidential hopeful Donald Trump involving mockery of his genital obsession and the creation a flow chart of Trump thought bubbles that formed the shape of a swastika.

It was funny and totally acceptable.

Trump is a powerful, loud, egotistical individual who does not resile from maligning other people with his harsh opinions. In turn he can take and deserves a high level of comic violation before appropriate limitations are exceeded and it is the role of comedy to create balance in public discourse by providing it.

To be fair, McGuire was not delivering a finely crafted comedy routine honed by a team of exceptionally talented comedy writers when in a moment of seeming spontaneity, though some might speculate fuelled by genuine antipathy, he chose Caroline Wilson as his target. Yet the comic conceit of offering money to enlist support for holding a woman's head under ice water while others torment her shows an unsettling lack of sensitivity to the contemporary context of heightened concern about domestic violence along with strong indications that comic improvisational may not be Ed's strong suit.

The tasteless tone of McGuire's "jokes" was further compounded by the guffawing of the claque of blokes on his panel and their agreement, in response to Eddie's insistent search for consensus, that the idea of forming a gang to drown a woman was a pretty hilarious concept.

This episode resonates uncomfortably with one of McGuire's other infamous explorations of transgressive comedy when he riffed his zinger about Adam Goodes being exhibited in chains to mark the launch of the movie King Kong. Such comment, completely unwelcome at any time, being made around the period when Goodes was dealing with serial crowd abuse that many suspected was at least in part racially motivated.

McGuire's gags provide stark examples of how humour in the hands of the unskilled can create pain instead of hilarity or comic insight through lack of awareness of cultural sensitivities and the targeting those who are outnumbered, disempowered, victimised, undeserving of ridicule, or sometimes completely incapable of defending themselves.

Who can forget Peter Dutton's side-splitting witticism about indigenous people being late for meeting because they have water lapping at their door due to climate change? Or the Alan Jones rib tickler based on the claim that Julia Gillard's father had died of shame? If only these would-be comics had been booed off the stage for such graceless violation instead of receiving laughter from audiences keen to ingratiate.

The "only joking" defence offered by the comically incompetent is little more than a moral pratfall and of little consolation to those unfairly wounded by low-grade wit.

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