Frankie Boyle's USP is the guilty laugh. If Jimmy Carr is 10 on the guilty laugh scale, Frankie Boyle is 11. Sometimes you might find yourself laughing, even though you don't want to. And guilty laughs can be the best ones - think of the times you had to try and suppress a giggle in the classroom, or in church, or whatever. (My mind wanders back to a cub scout carol service back in about 198something when the boy sitting next to me deliberately sang "bum" instead of "balm" in To Be A Pilgrim, and I dissolved into a quivering heap of guilty laughter for about half an hour, no matter how hard I tried.)
Is he racist? I'm not so sure, but the thing with trying to walk that racism tightrope is that every now and then you're going to fall off. In this respect, he's not much different from Rod Liddle at the Spectator or Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail - always trying to go for the laugh, no matter how offensive it might be seen by some people, and so long as there's a sliver of deniability in there somewhere.
What's irritating is that the least obviously racist thing he does - using racial swears in the context of assuming that someone else is saying them - is the latest target, after Katie Price had a crack at Boyle the other week. I've done it myself with words like 'darkie' or the term 'Bongobongoland'. Does that make me a racist? I don't think so, but maybe I'm wrong on that one. On the other hand, when he makes a joke about Venus Williams's pubic hair being like velcro, well, is that OK because it didn't contain a racial taboo word?
If you've been to a comedy club, you'll know that the stuff Boyle comes out with is pretty small potatoes - away from television, jokes about rape, paedophilia, disability, race and everything else are sprinkled around, and get roaring laughs as well. But this is the recorded medium, and Boyle is someone who's in the firing line. You don't have to be a genius to see why he was a target while working for the BBC from their natural enemies; now he's working for the Sun as a columnist, it's the same again.
When you go and walk the racism tightrope, as Boyle does, and as Liddle and Littlejohn do from time to time, you are going to fall off every now and then. Sometimes it's so close to the knuckle it's halfway down to the elbow. And people have every right to complain - if they're offended, if they don't like it, if they think it's pretty feeble material, if they think it's plain just not funny, if they think it denigrates the people who are bringing it out. That's all fine. (That's a step away from calling for a ban, just to clarify. I might detest pretty much everything Littlejohn ever writes but I don't want to see him banned. Loathed by the vast majority of his readers, or fired, or fall in front of a bus*, fine - but banned? No.)
So where does that leave us? Frankie Boyle is trying to push the boundaries. Is he a modern-day Lenny Bruce? Probably not. Is he just trying to get guilty laughs? I reckon so. Sometimes he hits the target as well and makes me laugh - sometimes he doesn't. I don't take offence, but then again I'm not in any category who could take offence, so perhaps I'm not in a position to judge just how offensive these things are. Sometimes Jimmy Carr strays over the line from representing a comic persona whose one-liners are misogynistic into sounding like someone who's just a misogynist. But people laugh. Whether it's a guilty laugh or not, I don't know, but they do. Is it OK for Richard Littlejohn to make jokes about suicide? Sure, it's OK for him to do it, but I don't find them funny, and it's my right to say I think it stinks, and there's no justification for it, and, above all, it's not fucking funny.
Is Frankie Boyle all that different? Not really. Is there an important part of comedy that should be challenging, should push the boundaries, should take risks, even on television? I think there probably is. Does that mean people can just be out-and-out offensive towards minorities and get away with it? Well yes, in principle, I suppose; but it's the job of anyone who values the output of a broadcaster or publication to demand higher standards than that, and to demand that comedy, if it is offensive, is at the very least funny in the first place to someone. Is Tramadol Nights funny? I don't know, I saw the first one and haven't watched since. That was enough for me.
Further reading: Brokenbottleboy - Frankie Boyle is Bernard Manning in a suit made of irony
Indian Poof - Frankie Boyle a racist???
* Not really, of course.