Comedian Frankie Boyle (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

The most pretentious edgelord

Lancing a Boyle

Artillery Row

I’m perfectly prepared to believe that comedian Frankie Boyle did not tell a joke about raping a well-known daytime TV presenter. Or rather, I’m prepared to believe that contrary to a recent report in the Mail on Sunday, he did not deliver a set of gags about “killing and shagging people”, including Holly Willoughby. 

He’s not your standard rape joke merchant

After all, Boyle isn’t stupid. He’s a darling of the left, a Guardian contributor, friend of Owen Jones. His home is the right side of history, from which he punches up, not down (punching being a residency requirement). He’s not your standard rape joke merchant. 

When asked about the joke at a Waterstones event, he allegedly clarified that “my routine about raping and f*****g Holly Willoughby was part of a very long routine about whether or not it’s OK to do a joke about that, and I look at it from both sides, there are pluses and minuses”. On Twitter, he explained that his “very long routine” concluded that “certain jokes are probably a product of toxic masculinity”. 

So that’s alright, then. It wasn’t a joke. It was an extended consideration of whether some things should be jokes, which no doubt necessitated the inclusion of some things that shouldn’t. 

I am not an expert on the art of comedy. Thus I put myself at risk of being declared a philistine and an ignoramus when I suggest this defence is not good enough. 

“Standup,” tweets Boyle, “is still the silliest, riskiest, most surprising art form.” Fair enough, but I can’t help wondering whom Boyle thinks he’s surprising, given his track record in scraping the barrel. A comedian who treats criticism of his own ethics as an attack on comedy itself has, I would argue, run out of places to hide. 

I’m sick of being told “you don’t get it” or “it wasn’t bigotry, it was about bigotry” when it comes to Frankie Boyle. His particular schtick — the way in which he’s earned his edgelord spurs — has been to name real people in his jokes (or “very long routines”). Real women, real abuse victims, real disabled children. 

Having done this, he then runs and hides behind the idea that actually, his target isn’t these people themselves. It’s the kind of people who’d make non-intellectual, bog-standard jokes about them, or maybe the kind of people who’d be shocked by other people making such jokes. Either way, it’s not him doing the offending. It’s the stupid bigots who’d mention raping celebrities without ensuring that their discourse functioned on some extra, highly complex meta-level. Or it’s the stupid bigots who’d confuse Boyle’s super-clever discourses about moronic, sexist jokes with moronic, sexist jokes themselves. Those people are the real offenders.

I first noticed Boyle years ago on Mock the Week. He mentioned Josef Fritzl, and I found it baffling. What was the aim here? To make some meta-point about how a man who imprisoned, raped and repeatedly impregnated his daughter shouldn’t be the subject of a joke? To embarrass his co-panellists, whose nervous giggles revealed them to be the kind of plebs who didn’t grasp they were in the presence of cutting-edge genius?

Was it to hold a mirror up to cruel, rapacious, bourgeois society which is, when you think about it, just as cruel and rapacious as Fritzl himself? Damn you, Mail-reading masses, clutching your pearls because a humble comedian dares to prod and poke at your hypocrisies! You’d let children starve but you can’t bear your cosy BBC panel shows being disrupted by someone who, like Rick from the Young Ones, just doesn’t respect your rules. 

Whatever it is, I don’t really care. There is pushing for a reaction, and there is choosing to incite shame and distress. 

Not being offended by Frankie Boyle is an in-group signifier

The thing is, Fritzl’s victims are real, live people. As is Katie Price’s disabled son, the subject of an incest-rape gag by Boyle. As is the female swimmer whose looks he has repeatedly mocked, suggesting she can only keep a partner because of “how long she can hold her breath”. Or the female cyclist, of whose upper body strength he tweeted “sexy, as it means she still wouldn’t be able to throw me off”. Or the female athlete who caused him to muse that he “couldn’t go out with someone who wouldn’t feel it when I punched them in the stomach. I’d end up having to pay for an abortion”. Is this really the person to deliver precious apercus on the nature of toxic masculinity?

I know, I know. I’m just some rando who lacks a PhD in the philosophy of the joke. Of the recent uproar, Boyle has observed that “papers like the Daily Mail are outraged by ‘safe space’ comedy and all for free speech, until it’s routines reflecting on things like stereotyping and toxic masculinity, or taking ideas into places where they can’t be used to churn out clickbait”. What are these places, Frankie? They sound very special indeed!

I suppose it’s really basic to get offended by the obvious. It suggests you’re the kind of person who probably thinks actual violence is a punch in the face, as opposed to feminists naming the class of people who administer punches to the face. We live in an age when coping with the reversal of what seems true marks you out as one of the true progressives. 

Not being offended by Frankie Boyle is an in-group signifier. It shows you’re one of those special people who knows all the hidden meanings, not just why Boyle’s back catalogue of transphobic gags isn’t offensive, but also why Ricky Gervais’s jokes about Caitlyn Jenner are, in Boyle’s own words, “lazy”. 

“I would like [Gervais] to have the same respect for trans people he seems to have for animals,” opines Boyle. Thank goodness for that. I’d hate it to be the same respect Frankie Boyle has for rape victims and disabled children. 

Approving of Frankie Boyle and not Ricky Gervais shows you get it. What it is you get, you’re not really sure, but anyhow, you’re better than all the people who don’t. Part of me thinks Boyle appeals to that “will suck dick for socialism” side of the left that enjoys holding women to ransom, testing how much men can get away with because, hey, bitches, it’s not as though you’ve got anyone better (and if you don’t pretend our rapey bullshit is deep and meaningful, it’s because you’re Tory scum). 

In the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, subjects are not ordered not to say the Emperor is naked. They are told something very specific: that anyone who cannot see clothes is a simpleton. This internalises the denial of perception. If there is any part of you that acknowledges that which is right in front of you, this only highlights your own lack. This is far more effective than simply being told not to say what’s there. 

There is something similar going on with the jokes and the politics of Frankie Boyle. He encourages the potentially offended to feel they are the problem while holding out the promise that if they are good and say nothing, no one will notice that the taint is inside them. 

Good girls don’t complain about rape jokes, but wait politely for the joker to explain why they were never rape jokes at all. If that’s not an example of toxic masculinity in action, I don’t know what is. 

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