Ricky Gervais has never blanched when it comes to walking the tightrope between amusing his audience and offending them. He’s also made it a policy never to apologise, which in many ways is admirable. As he has said on his blog, ‘I hate when a comedian says "Sorry for what I said." You shouldn't have said it. You shouldn't say it if you didn't mean it and you should never regret anything you meant to do.’
But, while he hasn’t apologised for using the word ‘mong’ on his Twitter feed (pointing out, not unreasonably, that the only people who see his feed are those who have decided to follow him), he has felt the need to defend himself. His argument is that ‘mong’ is a word which has simply shifted so far from its original meaning that it is no longer offensive.
I don’t find this argument very convincing: was the word ‘paki’ less offensive when it broadened out to mean ‘anyone Asian’? Of course not. And the word ‘flid’ – a popular term of offence when I was at school – had long since ceased to refer to thalidomide even then. That still didn’t make it a nice word.
Stand-ups have a need to say the unsayable – I did it myself for many years. And although I don’t regret any of the poisonous things I said onstage, I wouldn’t say them now. Retard, for example, used to seem much funnier to me than it does these days – now it just sounds unkind.
The argument for why comedians should think before they use offensive language, even if they go on to use it anyway, is made forcefully by the gay comedian Rick Crom in the excellent US sitcom, Louie: ‘You might wanna know that every gay man in America has probably had that word [faggot] shouted at them while they’re being beaten up, sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So, when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. By all means use it, get your laughs, but now you know what it means.’