A joke too far for comedian desperate to shock at all costs

Frankie Boyle is not the kind of comedian who cares much for other people's opinions.

Since he first emerged from dingy comedy clubs on to television screens he quickly made a name for himself as the edgy panellist who said the kind of things no-one else dared.

It was funny for a while, but recently the joke began to wear a little thin. This week in his latest TV vehicle, Channel 4's Tramadol Nights, his once acerbic cheek seemed to have completely deserted him with a gag that had Katie Price's disabled son Harvey as the punchline.

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Price's lawyers have now written to Channel 4 to demand an apology, with Mark Bateman of Archerfield and Partners saying yesterday: "To ridicule disability in general is bad enough but to single out a young child as courageous and vulnerable as Harvey is cowardly. This attack is not an attack on a high-profile individual it is an attack on a disabled child.

"With free speech comes responsibility and Channel 4 have shown themselves to be plainly irresponsible. "

The broadcaster, no doubt hoping the controversy will boost ratings, was quick to jump to Boyle's defence, pointing out viewers were warned the show contained "uncompromising adult content".

"The joke aired in the context of a late-night comedy show," said a spokesman. "The joke itself has been performed by Frankie as part of his stage show and, as with much of his material, is an absurdist and satirical comment on high-profile individuals whose lives have been played out in the media."

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Price certainly is not adverse to using intimate details of her personal life or putting her family in front of the cameras for the good of the brand, but her apparent inability to exist outside the spotlight doesn't make her son fair game for a comedian desperate to regain his comic touch.

When Boyle first began to push the boundaries of taste on shows like Mock the Week, it was all done with a certain amount of wit. Now he's more like the naughty child who behaves badly because it craves attention.

Having quit the panel show following a series of derogatory remarks about the swimmer Rebecca Adlington, he has cut an increasingly desperate figure as the comic who mistook shock value for a sucker punchline

As ever with criticism levelled at comedians deemed too close to the bone, those who find their jokes offensive are easily dismissed as lacking a sense of humour. Certainly much of the outrage over Boyle's latest gag, like that which followed the infamous Ross and Brand "Sachsgate" affair, will be aired by those who didn't even watch the programme and, given his previous form, an apology from Boyle himself would seem unlikely.

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In April this year the comedian had a confrontation on tour after poking fun at those with Down's syndrome. Spotting a couple in the front row, clearly distracted, Boyle asked if there was a problem. There was. Sharon Smith's five-year-old daughter was born with the condition and her husband Keiron was checking she wasn't upset by the material.

When the story broke, Boyle remained conspicuously silent and it was left to Sharon to answer why she had paid good money to see a comedian known for an act which spares few feelings on a tour called I Would Happily Punch Every One of You In the Face.

"We had obviously heard him making fun of other people, but quite often his humour appeared to be clever humour or making a point about something," she said. "OK, he can be cutting, but he will often be using his humour to make a point, whereas the type of jokes he was making about people with Down's syndrome I don't see there was any point being made.

"Clever comedy should challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions that people hold of minority groups.

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"Sadly Frankie Boyle's routine was neither clever nor intellectually challenging."

Throughout history, stand-ups have trod the line between comedy and controversy and the best have proved the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

The difference with Boyle is that in his need to be shocking, to have headlines written about the latest taboo he's smashed wide open, he's become convinced that telling the vilest story is a substitute for being funny.

In the last two years, he has repeatedly said that he wants to quit the comedy circuit in order to spend more time with his children. On the evidence of his latest gags his wish may come true a little earlier than he planned.