Opinion: it's not sexist, it's innuendo

In defense of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and Samantha's right to sexual appetite

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This article is from 2014.

Opinion: If sexism falls in a sexist forest, is it still sexism?

Earlier this year, Australian researchers announced that we had hit 'peak beard'. From this, ran a storm of peaks, from 'peak Beyonce', to 'peak oil' and even, thanks Guardian, 'peak peak'. Trivialities aside however, not all peaks are created equal and one slow burner seems to be hitting its zenith: sexism in comedy.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to hideous misogyny-peddlar Dapper Laughs – which saw his TV show cancelled and his tour mysteriously disappear – was a triumph for level-headed normal thinkers, and it looks like this could be the slow but sure beginning of the end for lad humour and all the bantersaurs rexes, banter clauses and bantergasms that come with it.

However, certain recent events could mean that we've gone one further than 'peak sexism': we have now hit the previously uncharted 'peak peak sexism' with the bizarre new claim rocking the cosy world of BBC Radio 4's comedy programmes: Are the men of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue sexist?

It goes like this: a listener – a woman – lodged a complaint with the BBC claiming that the way the handful of regular male contestants talk about a female character, Samantha, is 'highly sexist, offensive and harmful.'

The first problem lies with the fact that, and I'm sorry to break this to you but, unlike the rules to 'Mornington Crescent', Samantha doesn't exist.

This throws listeners into somewhat of a dilemma: is sexism still sexism if it is directed at an imaginary woman? Of course it is, but, taking a look at the 'offensive' jokes in question, there could be a different way of looking at it than immediately assuming the buzzword.

It's dreary to have to break down a decades-old in-joke, but the format is thus: upon introducing the panellists, the host (previously Humphrey Lyttleton, now Jack Dee) has to apologise for the non-attendance of Samantha for a variety of reasons:

'Samantha has to nip out now with her new gentleman friend. Apparently they've been working on the restoration of an old chest of drawers. Samantha is in charge of polishing, while he scrapes the varnish and wax off next to her.'

'Samantha nearly made it – she's been detained at the last minute in the city's Latin quarter. An Italian gentleman friend has promised to take her out for an ice cream, and she likes nothing better than to spend an evening licking the nuts off a large Neapolitan.'

'Samantha tells me she has to nip out to help an old man next door who has trouble using his stairlift. She goes in every night to put him on downstairs, and then she pulls him off on the landing.'

Sexism is serious and it is rife in the still male-dominated world of comedy and there is no suggestion that it should be ignored. I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue has come under fire before with accusations of a Boy's Club mentality and side-eyed glances at the distinct lack of women on the panel – something they have been making up for recently with the likes of Sandi Toksvig, Victoria Wood and Susan Calman.

If anything, however, the Samantha jokes are anti-sexist. The Samantha character is clearly a young woman – juxtaposed against all the older male panellists – with a healthy sexual appetite. The humour lies in innuendo: instead of sex shaming Samantha, the focus is on laborious double entendre and barely-there puns. Flowing far easier when spoken than read – Humphrey Lyttelton's dry tones were the perfect vessel – they are far from derogatory. In fact, they celebrate a lady who is comfortable with her sexuality, so much so that her exploits keep her from taking her place among the staid older men of the show. Between the chance to 'nip over to Prague for a quick check-up' and appearing on a panel show, tell me you wouldn't choose the former.

There are more important matters of misogyny in comedy today, from Dapper Laughs to – more worryingly – Bill Cosby. Misunderstanding a series of innuendo might say more about your attitude towards women than the show's. If Humph were still around, I'm sure he'd suggest you think long and hard on this bone of contention. It's what Samantha would want.

Kirstyn Smith is The List's Around Town Editor

This article is from 2014.

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue

The BBC Radio panel show, featuring Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Jeremy Hardy and host Jack Dee bringing puns, innuendo and swannee whistles to the world for nigh on 40 years.

The Anvil, Basingstoke

Fri 20 Jan 2017

£28 / 01256 844244

Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

Sun 26 Feb 2017

£26 / 01892 530613

Chichester Festival Theatre

Wed 18 Jan 2017

£29 / 01243 781312

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