‘Every joke has a victim’: Rowan Atkinson says a comedian’s job is ‘to offend’

Try as woke culture may, there are some facts that can’t be toppled by the feelings of the easily offended. That is why, like the fools of Shakespearean plays, genuine comedians have stood firm against the inanity of the self-important and declared “you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”

Having spent more than four decades honing his craft, 67-year-old veteran comedian Rowan Atkinson refuses to be shackled by the restraints of cancel culture. While promoting his new Netflix series “Man vs Bee” which premieres on June 24, he sat down with The Irish Times where he expanded on his views.

“It does seem to me that the job of comedy is to offend,” Atkinson explained, “or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential.”

“Every joke has a victim,” he stated plainly. “That’s the definition of a joke. Someone or something or an idea is made to look ridiculous.”

The Times highlighted Atkinson’s activism against cancel culture noting his campaign for changes to the UK’s Religious Hatred Bill of 2006 to protect a comedians ability to mock religion and his position against the UK’s Public Order Bill “to have the notion of ‘insult’ removed.”

“I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about saying what you’re allowed to make jokes about,” the actor stated before challenging the notion that jokes could only be made at the expense of those superior to you in some manner.

“You’ve always got to kick up? Really? What if there’s someone extremely smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied, who happens to be below in society?” he asked of the idea. “They’re not all in houses of parliament or in monarchies. There are lots of extremely smug and self-satisfied people in what would be deemed lower down in society, who also deserve to be pulled up. In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”

Atkinson’s position on free speech in comedy is shared by his fellow Netflix entertainers Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais who have both been campaigned against for their jokes. Like Atkinson, the comedians are equal opportunity offenders and to those with senses of humor, they have been lauded for favorably reviewed work.

Much of the problem, as Atkinson sees it, comes from the manner in which people behave on social media. In January 2021, he spoke with the Radio Times and described the culture online as a “binary view of society” because of algorithms and he criticized the notion of either being for against any position.

“It’s important that we’re exposed to a wide spectrum of opinion, but what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” he said.

Atkinson added to that idea, telling the Times, “we’re still adjusting. Here, in this country, we’ve got something called an Online Safety Bill, which is only possibly coming into the House of Parliament soon. And you think ‘Isn’t that sort of 20 years late?’. But you’ve got to live with something for quite a long time to find out how you’re going to live with it.”

In a separate interview with GQ, the comedian hinted at a breakdown of culture if free speech wasn’t protected. He explained, “Tragedy and comedy are extremely close bedfellows and you can’t really have one without the other.” He reiterated his point that “every joke has a victim” and expanded on it saying, “whether fictional or non-fictional or notional, ideological or human and therefore, there’s always someone suffering if there’s a joke. I suppose you have to accept that’s the way it is.”


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Kevin Haggerty


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