Most comedians give very little thought to offence. It's not, I think, because they don't care who they offend. It's because comedy is an amoral business: most jokes are at someone's expense. Whether it's Hardy bullying Laurel, Jerry smacking Tom in the face with a hot iron, or Jeremy Clarkson making a jibe about Gordon Brown's half-blindness, the laugh comes at a cost to a victim.
This doesn't really matter in live performance - comedians gig in front of thousands of people every year. You soon learn what they will and won't tolerate. But television comedy is now obsessed with not causing offence. In the aftermath of Sachsgate last year, there is a genuine fear lurking amid light entertainment departments that someone, somewhere will complain. It's especially difficult for the BBC, whose staff have always been painfully aware that they shouldn't offend the public who fund them.
The problem is, of course, that people are offended by very different things. The same people who shrugged at all the fury engendered by the Ross/Brand affair were appalled by Carol Thatcher's golliwog remark. At the same time, the 'political correctness gone mad' brigade couldn't understand why Thatcher was being dumped from The One Show, when Jonathan Ross was back on the air.
And every comedian will tell you that if a joke is funny enough, people often forget their proclivity to take offence - I think most people would claim that they didn’t find disability funny, for example. But I have seen literally dozens of comedians make jokes about Heather Mills, which were entirely predicated on the fact she has only one leg. I've never seen anyone heckle or complain that they find the joke in poor taste: they're happy to disregard their belief that disability is not a laughing matter because they don't like the butt of the joke.
Offence can now even take place remotely - I've had two complaints recently. The first was from someone who'd read a review of my last stage show (and a nice review at that) and wanted to complain about some of the jokes she hadn't seen. The second was from someone who was going to see me the following week, and wanted to make sure I wouldn't do jokes she had read about in a review from 2002. I think offending someone seven years after the joke may be a personal record.
The real problem with offence isn't that people are offended. It's that our priority has become trying not to offend anyone, instead of making good television. This isn't an exaggeration - try to name three good sitcoms on TV at the moment. It's almost impossible. Channels are so desperate not to offend that they are simply making bland wallpaper - After You've Gone, Plus One, Two Pints of Lager...I'm mentoring teenagers at the moment, and the first thing I always ask them is what comedy they like - Judd Apatow movies, Jackass, and Mock The Week tend to crop up. But without exception, their sitcom choices are historic - from my childhood, not theirs - Blackadder, Red Dwarf.
We don't make many sitcoms now, partly because they aren't cost-effective - they're expensive to produce, and hard to get right. But it's mainly because we're running out of things to be funny about - whatever we send in to producers tends to come back with questions and concerns that someone might be offended if this joke, or that subject matter goes out on air. And someone assuredly will be offended. It's just that shouldn't be a reason not to make something.
It used to be the case that if something offended you, you complained, and someone said sorry. You considered this fair enough, and everyone shook hands, forgave, and forgot. But now there is a widely-perceived right not to be offended. We really seem to believe that we should be able to turn on our television or our radio and agree with everything we hear. Which is obviously impossible, since people are often offended by diametrically opposed things. The only way everyone can be unoffended is if we stop making comedy altogether. The belief that people have a right not to be offended isn't just anathema to cheap jibes at someone's expense. It's the nemesis of every kind of comedy, because we start second-guessing the response to jokes before they fully exist.
So let's agree to try something different. There are now approximately 10,000,000 TV channels. If you find yourself watching something you don't like, switch over. If you don't think Channel 4, for example, should have broadcast it in the first place, write in and say so. When someone writes back and apologises, accept it. Don't demand that someone be fired, don't insist that nothing like that should ever have been broadcast in the first place, don't write to your MP. Just accept it. And watch something else.