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Page last updated at 12:26 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Is swearing on TV and radio a laughing matter?

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Frank Skinner talks on BBC Breakfast about his Panorama programme Have I Got Bad Language For You?

Bad language is an everyday fact of life for many, but does that mean we should allow it into our homes through TV and radio?

To find out, Frank Skinner asked fellow comedians how they feel about swearing, for a Panorama programme about taste and decency on television.

He encountered a range of opinion not always consistent with the widely-held theory that older performers tend to be better mannered in front of an audience.


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Roy Chubby Brown on bad language in comedy and broadcasting

"I auditioned for Opportunity Knocks and the producer came to see me and he said 'I thought you were really funny but you spoilt yourself' because I said arse… and that was it, the end of that TV career", says Roy "Chubby" Brown.

The 63-year-old comedian, who is well known on the comedy circuit, believes if anyone is responsible for the coarsening of live comedy - bringing the language of a building site on to the stage - it is he.

"I started off doing clean material and people were saying to me 'you know you're funny mate but you should smut your act up a bit.'"

But he thinks after he became popular too many others started to jump on the bandwagon by swearing on stage.

"I just think that the whole thing's got completely out of hand and coming from me you know, Britain's most suggestive comedian, that's a bit of a kick in the teeth," he says.

And he sides with the majority of people who do not want any foul language on their televisions until late at night.

"When I was a young lad you could sit with your mum and dad and your sister and you could watch the BBC and there was no hint of suggestiveness. There was no blue humour at all," he says.

He believes there is a time and place for this type of humour.

Anyone choosing to go to one of his live shows, he says, gets plenty of warning to stay away if they are easily offended.

But comedians must be able to draw the line: "You've got to know when you're standing there what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."


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Al Murray on crossing the comedy line

"When comics are under pressure to be edgy, they're as likely to make mistakes as when they're under pressure to rein it in," says comedian Al Murray, 40.

When he first started doing TV work, he says he was given a note from someone asking him to make the show "more edgy". But he was given no explanation about what this might mean.

This grey area sums up the tight-rope comedians must walk when performing for a live and a television audience.

"I have suffered from an expectation of what I'm going to do is go on and swear because in my live act I do that. And in fact when I get on television I don't swear. It's possible to not," Mr Murray says.

He adds that the decision of what to talk about is being taken away from comedians by broadcasters.

In his view, the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand row over the broadcast of lewd phone calls "seems to have made comedians' jobs a lot more difficult".

"In order to deal with the problem of people who are supposed to be mavericks crossing a line up here, the line has been shoved down there for everybody else," he says.

However, he thinks the audience must be respected and loved, as they are the ones who actually set the boundaries.

"As the comic you exercise your taste in delivering what you think is funny, and then the audience exercise their taste in deciding whether they agree with you or not," says Murray.

When it comes to swearing on television, his decision to use colourful language is "very, very carefully weighed up. It's got to be worth it because you're in someone's home… and they've chosen to watch you. It's a situation of trust and you don't want to abuse that trust," he explains.

"I won't let my children watch my stage show. I'll let them watch my TV show because there's no bad language in it although it's full of sort of suppressed filth."


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Joan Rivers gives her take on censorship

When quizzed about protecting children from swearing on the TV, comedienne Joan Rivers answers with her own question: "Why doesn't everybody have responsibility and take care of their children?"

"If you are watching or listening to Russell Brand you should be expecting wild, outrageous humour. That's what he is about," she says.

The oldest of the three comedians whose views are represented here, Rivers, 75, nevertheless has the most liberal attitude. She believes audiences, rather than broadcasters, should take responsibility for choosing what is suitable to watch on TV.

According to Rivers, who began her career in comedy in the straitened 1960s, UK broadcasters are becoming even stricter about language than those in the US.

"I have been warned and warned and warned in the UK in the last three shows that I did, that I'd done, for ITV and BBC and Channel 4. I've been told be careful. [I was never] told this before," she explains.

The pressure by broadcasters to uphold standards of taste and decency is also making her feel restricted.

"It makes you so fearful that you're scared to do a step in any direction, that ordinarily I would have done to be funnier."

And she fears the audience watching at home are the ones actually "getting short changed".

"What you see on television is truly less and less what I really am in a concert, and that makes me terribly sad," she says.

She thinks comedians should have the right to "take people to the edge" but that the audience should not look to performers for "intelligent, serious answers and discussion".

"That's not what we're there for", she says "We are paid to make you laugh and to be silly, and that's why you are tuning in to watch us."

Panorama: Have I Got Bad Language For You? Monday 26 January at 8.30pm on BBC One

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