That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore: Comedy Moments That Are Darker In Hindsight

chris langham the thick of it

This title is, perhaps, misleading. Depending on your precise tastes – and, if it comes to it, the strength of your stomach – the following comedy moments may kill the joke stone dead, or alternatively have you roaring with guilty laughter at just how horrible it all is.


Chris Langham’s Self-Hatred In The Thick Of It

The Thick of IT

Were I to list all the beloved entertainers who turned out to be sex offenders, we’d be here all day, but The Thick Of It deserves special mention for the sheer vitriol it levels at the looks of its cast (the baby-faced Chris Addison being casually addressed as ‘the little man in the red and yellow car’ was always a personal favourite). Adding a further poignancy, the relevant lines actually came from Langham’s own mouth when his wobegone Minister for Social Affairs worries that an old photo makes him look like ‘a disgraced geography teacher’, and later that the Prime Minister’s wife thinks of him as ‘very probably a registered nonce’.

Only days after winning a BAFTA for that very performance in May 2006, Langham was charged with possessing indecent images of children, leading to his character initially being shuffled carefully off-screen as he stood trial, and then written out of the series altogether when he was found guilty.

This adds a fairly sombre undertone to the press conference his character attends in a school – we see none of the event itself, only his awkward rehearsal, followed by him leaving in a hurry mumbling ‘well, that was a fucking disaster’.


Terry Crews Courts Scandal In Arrested Development

arrested development terry crews jeffrey tambor

Season 4 of Arrested Development, the first of the series’ Netflix revival, was prescient in a couple of ways, most notably that a significant plot point was the building of a wall along the US-Mexican border – an idea which, as the show itself would later note in its fifth season, President Donald Trump lifted wholesale a couple of years later.

A key figure in this plotline was Terry Crews’s right-wing politician Herbert Love, who, despite running on a family values platform, liked to play away from home – and had been accused of being a groper. Curiously, nobody made much of the latter point, it was after all before the rise of #MeToo, and is a reminder of those halcyon days when the only thing guaranteed to sink a politician was, in the words of Edwin Edwards, being caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

Still, in retrospect, it seems a little coarse, as Crews would later become a victim of groping at the hands of one of those Hollywood high-ups for whom right and wrong no longer mean anything. When Crews went public with this (and was immediately dropped from The Expendables in response), it prompted many to ask why, since he’s built like the end of a house, he didn’t simply pull the guy’s head off – as Crews himself noted, if he had done that, the headline would likely be along the lines of ‘why didn’t the late Terry Crews simply cooperate with the nice policeman?’ instead.


O.J. Simpson Fights Crime In The Naked Gun

if i did it oj simpson comedy moments
The Goldmans insisted upon the addition of a foreword, entitled ‘He Did It’.

This one’s less a specific comedy moment than one long awkward presence. It made sense at the time – Naked Gun was parodying cop shows, and it was the golden era of interracial buddy-cop combos, as in Lethal Weapon and the better Die Hards. Who better to partner up with Leslie Nielsen and bring criminals to justice than that respected sports star turned actor, cuddly old O.J. Simpson?

Not three months after the release of the third Naked Gun, Simpson’s wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death outside her home. Simpson himself fled, with the subsequent police chase being televised nationwide – and the credits of Naked Gun, with Simpson’s name displayed prominently over shots of the LA streets and a wailing police siren, suddenly became deeply ironic.

Simpson was, controversially, found not guilty of murder – although he was subsequently found liable for the deaths in a civil trial. This more-or-less put a pin in his acting career, although it didn’t stop him stepping on comedy bits. In 1999, a typically near-the-knuckle Chris Rock skit made mention of Simpson’s (fictional) new video, entitled ‘I didn’t kill my wife! But if I DID, here’s how I’d do it’ – come 2007, Simpson basically stole Rock’s bit with the publication of his book ‘If I Did It’, which de-emphasised the ‘If’.

Despite the shamelessness of ‘If I Did It’, it could have been worse. In 1984, Simpson had narrowly missed out on the title role in The Terminator – because, per director James Cameron, ‘people wouldn’t have believed a nice guy like O.J. playing the part of a ruthless killer’.


Louis C.K.’s Wandering Penis

Louis CK

In a cut-and-dried example of ‘write what you know’, comedian Louis C.K., well-known for his jokes about masturbating in front of people, turned out to have masturbated in front of a number of female comics and writers. These revelations, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, caused entertainment company The Orchard to drop C.K.’s upcoming film I Love You, Daddy – surprisingly, not because the film’s content was now deeply regrettable. (Ironically, one of the first people to name C.K. as an offender was Roseanne Barr, who’s since suffered a scandal of her own.)

On its own, this wouldn’t be so remarkable – a disgraced celebrity had at some point passed reference to the cause of their disgrace, bit of a yawner. Robin Williams made many jokes about suicide before ultimately topping himself. C.K., though, stands out because of the brazen way he shoehorned the subject into skits which weren’t even vaguely related. His standup shows saw an endless stream of wanking-based gags – including, tellingly, the claim that ‘[men] just want to spray the world with their cum’ – with one compilation of them running just shy of half an hour.

In one live show, he brought up the old question of ‘if you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler’? And let’s be realistic with one another, Hitler may have been a monster but he’s also a guaranteed hooter. Jokes about Hitler are comedy easy street – true to form, I found this particular clip in a compilation of various comedians riffing on old Adolf. So, would C.K., given the chance, have killed Hitler? No, apparently he’d have raped him instead. Perhaps it gains something in the delivery, judge for yourself, but it seems as if it’s not so much about Hitler, as it is about Louis C.K. wanting to commit a sex offence.


The World Trade Center, In Basically Everything, But The Simpsons In Particular

the simpsons

It’s ironic that one of the main rallying cries of the War on Terror was ‘never forget’, because the entertainment industry’s immediate response to 9/11 was to immediately try and scrub the World Trade Center from the media’s collective memory – going back and crudely airbrushing it from near enough every film to feature the New York skyline. Which, as you can imagine, was a lot of them.

However, even in those works where the World Trade Center showed up – even in the comedies – it’s rare that the buildings themselves were the subject of the jokes. The climax of Robert Pattinson’s forgettable romanto-drama Remember Me, where it turned out Pattinson’s character was up on the 101st floor on September 11th, had the feel of a punchline to it, but only for those whose sense of humour is blackened and stained. It certainly wasn’t intended that way, or if it was the director understandably kept schtum. Most works, as it turns out, simply don’t have much funny to say about large boxy buildings.

Not so for a 1997 episode of The Simpsons, ‘The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson’, where the family car wound up parked illegally in World Trade Center plaza – which wasn’t just serving as a backdrop, either. The classic New York street scene of residents shouting down from windows, and washing strung between buildings, is transposed onto the towers in a way that could have gone down in history as a functional and innocuous gag – but ultimately didn’t.

After 9/11, the episode found itself removed from syndication for a good long time. When it finally returned, it was often as a severely filleted version, with the line ‘they stick all the jerks in Tower One’ even now usually spliced out – and particularly regretted by longtime Simpsons writer Bill Oakley. What’s more, it even attracted 9/11 conspiracy theorists, who focused on a magazine Lisa holds up advertising a bus to New York for 9 dollars, with the Twin Towers themselves representing the 11 (which proves…something).

Frankly, it’s a great loss. Not merely because ‘The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson’ was far and away the best-rated episode of The Simpsons’ ninth season, but as an element of the wider media’s retroactive censorship of the World Trade Center – which, if looked at in an unkind way, smacks of the kind of whitewashing usually associated with stuff like the Tiananmen Square protests.

Ironically, The Simpsons would later mock the Chinese government’s memory-holing of those protests in an episode set in Beijing, where a sign read ‘On this spot, in 1989, nothing happened’. Even the edgiest of comedians might balk at setting a sign like that at Ground Zero – yet the media have, for the past seventeen years, been engaging in the same tasteless rewriting of history, with scarcely a comment passed about it.

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