Is swearing funny?
I find good swearing funny, although I think I find Christians getting angry at comedians who swear funnier still. The word that makes me laugh is ‘profanity’.
Swearing is absolutely funniest when a person you don’t expect to swear, suddenly does. My favourite example was the time my non-sweary mother was in a sewing collective making souvenir cloth bags for a gallery guiding conference the NGV was hosting in Melbourne. She was showing Tamsin and me the individually designed, handcrafted range when she suddenly offered us one. ‘You can have this if you like. We can’t give it to the visitors. Not with “Nobody fucks like me” written across it.’
Comedian Dave O’Neil thinks swearing has its place. “Swearing can make something funnier. It’s to do with attitude. It gives you the position as the comedian and it’s a bit rebellious or something. Especially in footy clubs when you call guys ‘fuckheads’.
I ask O’Neil for an example of a joke he thinks is enhanced by swearing. ‘I tell one that goes: “Women don’t get enough credit for childbirth. If blokes had babies, you wouldn’t hear the fucking end of it.” I think that works better with the swearing in it. It just enhances it somehow.’
In terms of which words to use, O’Neil says there are a few that just sound right. ‘I don’t like the c word much. It’s too harsh or something. But ‘fuckhead’ is funny. ‘Dickhead’ is funny. ‘Fuckwit’ and ‘Cockhead’ – both funny.’
O’Neil works the corporate comedy scene, and often has to work clean. ‘I don’t mind not swearing. In front of some audiences I prefer not to swear. With oldies I don’t like to swear. I find it weird. It’s like you’re being disrespectful. I’ve even done gigs where people come up to me after and say, “You were good and you know why you were good? You don’t swear”.’
For novelists, like comedians, it is hard not to swear. Both Tam and Mum think my characters swear too much, and final edits for both my novels have been an excercise in de-effing. But as an author, it’s a balancing act between unsettling the reader and being true to the character. Players was set in footy clubs and commercial television – both arenas where swearing is almost an occupational prerequisite. By far my sweariest character was network owner Sir Barry Haynes, who was based on Kerry Packer as depicted in books like Paul Barry’s The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer and Gideon Haigh’s The Cricket War. In this scene, Haynes is distractedly rewarding the loyalty of a network cameraman by agreeing to fund his butterfly documentary. Without the fistful of fuckens, Haynes loses his blokey menace.
The sweariest character in Making News is Anton Giles, the UK tabloid editor loosely based around Piers Morgan. This time, I imagined a hailstorm of plum-in-the-mouth invective, like in this scene where he greets The Globe’s new weekend trainees, including my celebrity footballer’s son, Lucas Dekker. It’s one of my favourite chapters. It’s not one of Mum’s.
The anti-swearing people can be quite zealous about it. Novelist Max Barry received some very tangible feedback on the subject after the publication of Jennifer Government. ‘I got a letter from a guy enclosing a copy of The Ten Commandments which said my books would be “even better if I didn’t take the lord’s name in vain”.’ Barry has kept swearing in his novels, ‘although maybe not as much in Machine Man‘. He explains the necessity: ‘If you’ve got an action sequence, or two characters fighting for their lives, it’s hard to imagine the situation where those characters wouldn’t swear. It just works as an intensifier.’
But Barry says he also has a soft spot for swearing that’s not ‘life or death’. ‘My favourite kind of swearing in fiction is when it’s not required — when it’s used for no reason. Like when two people are talking, and they know each other really well, and one character just swears, because that’s the way people actually talk to each other. That swearing is often funny. I love that sort of swearing.’
But what I love is scientists swearing. If you haven’t seen this 2008 lecture by Steven Pinker of Harvard University about what happens in our brains when we use or hear offensive language, then, to quote Bono, ‘this is really really fucking brilliant’.
And in Part II, Dr Pinker attempts to revive the 1585 expression, ‘Kiss the cunt of a cow’:
Swearing is funny. The audience tittering in the background as a very educated man talks to them about ‘fuck patois’ is surely proof of that.
If you need any further evidence, watch this final video. After you’ve watched it, you’ll say to yourself, ‘Oh, I get it. That’s why he wrote this whole thing —what a dickwad.’
And then you’ll call DHS.
PS In terms of parental defence, we don’t resort to ‘fuck patois’ that often in our house. On one occasion, however, Tam did engage in a spot of what Dr Pinker might have called ‘rage circuit theory’ and Jack pissed himself. Hence our experiment. Hence our entry to ‘Australia’s Funniest Home Videos (Underbelly Edition)’.