TO use the old stand-up line, “has anyone ever noticed this?” – meaning, do you find yourself, in the depths of Covid obscenity, seeking out humorous clips that punch you in the gut? The algorithms in my social media have noticed: every time I wearily fire up Facebook or TikTok it’s like a comedy festival of two-minute-long (and shorter) routines.

Favourites even recur. I am always pleased to see the infamous Chewin’ The Fat sketch where two wee boys ask a young woman selling ice creams in her van to show them a part of her anatomy. She suddenly obliges them – and they are frozen to the spot for the rest of the day, saucer-eyed, their cones melting down their arms.

Yet might this fall foul of modern-day censors? We heard this week from Karen Dunbar, one of the Chewin’ The Fat originals. In the course of making her own show on TV censorship, Karen had witnessed the BBC “taking out bits that would have been in the original comedy show 20 years before”. She’s holding back on exactly what bits, until her documentary The Comedy Of Offence comes out later this year.

But surely not the ice cream sketch? Which I have always taken as a declaration of sheer female power and the stupidity of wee men? On transmission it had received the most complaints from the wider public.

As Ford Kiernan recalled last year: “We did get letters at the time and somebody wrote in and said: ‘As funny as the nation thought that sketch was, would it work if it was two wee lassies at the van and it was a man?’. Me and Greg went ‘No, it wouldn’t be as funny’. So the point was made, ‘don’t write any more sketches like that’. So we didn’t.”

There’s much to explore here generally, so I managed to track down the other co-luminary of Chewin’ The Fat, Still Game and much else, Greg Hemphill, for a Zoom chat yesterday. What would he think about sketches being clipped out of 20-year-old shows, respectful of changing mores?

“It doesn’t bother me in the least. In the early 90s when Ford and I started our act in Glasgow, we were consciously against ‘end of the pier’ humour. We decided then not to do a comedy of hate or exclusion or othering people. So it’s natural progress for me.

“I accept that young people teach the old. I used to sit with my grandfather and he’d say something off-colour, about the Asian guy who ran the corner shop. I’d been sitting there for two hours, with him making me laugh and then saying something stupid. I was a young student, I knew more about these matters than he did, so I’d roll my eyes and say, ‘you can’t say that, grandad… .’

“If a young person was to come up to me and say, ‘you know, you’ve got this sketch, I found some of the language in it a little bit lazy’, I wouldn’t ever be of a mind to put my hand up and say, ‘I’m not interested in your fucking opinion!’ I’d want to have that conversation.”

The National: Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan in Chewin' the FatGreg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan in Chewin' the Fat

So what goalposts do you think have clearly shifted? What are you prepared to respond to?

“In the original Still Game, one old straight guy would occasionally call another old straight guy a poof – or the P-word. When the show came back seven years later there was a conversation about that. We just stopped doing it, it wasn’t acceptable. Some people might start to say, ‘oh you can’t say anything nowadays’… but I think they may be falling into the Jim Davidson camp there – they’re not wanting to learn and progress. Like a stick in the mud that doesn’t bend.”

“If a young gay person came up to me and said, ‘I was watching Still Game and I was thoroughly enjoying it until that word came on’, I would feed bad about that. If being an artist means replying, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about, you gotta roll with the punches’, then I guess I’m not an artist. A comedy show is there to make people feel good, feel warmth. I don’t think it’s there to make people feel bad. And that’s my general feeling about it.”

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Greg recalled another Chewin’ The Fat sketch which might well make the cutting floor in the future, for its use of the term “Jap’s eye” (slang, if you’re not aware, for the tip of a penis). “If you’re a young Japanese person living in Scotland watching this show, you’d react, WTF?!

“My eyes and ears are open to people to say that some sketches might be exclusionary.”

Can there be “woke” comedy? “Woke tends to be used as a pejorative by people who want things to be like they used to be … I’m sure the first time I heard ‘snowflake’ used was in a Trump speech. There’s a lot of comedians won’t play college circuits because the students don’t want to be offended – that’s on them, that’s their decision. But we’re not getting to the stage where you can’t tell a joke.”

I wondered with Greg how much transgression was a crucial element of humour – indeed part of its basic mechanism, ripping involuntary laughter out of you, as the joke turns the world upside down (or inside out). Excess is also part of comedy – especially Chewin’ The Fat’s procession of extremely angry older white men. I’d always taken these characters (Big Jock, the Big Man, the man who loses it and destroys rooms) as part of a critique of Scottish masculinity. But viscerally, it can’t be denied, they are scary…

“When you’re writing comedy, it’s like threading a needle. You’re trying to find something funny in a particular kind of person. But sometimes … we originally ran a sketch in Chewin’ The Fat where a guy sat with his wife and a friend – him berating his wife, the friend getting increasingly embarrassed.

“I watched that recently, and I felt uncomfortable – and I wrote it! You’re in your mid-20s and that’s what you’re on about. But if people said ‘this has aged badly’, now I’d shrug my shoulders and say fair enough.”

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Would you bring back Chewin’ The Fat? “No. I think it’s the kind of thing you do as a young person, and I would want new waves to come through.” Greg hopes that some TV channel in Scotland will pick up an act called The Dolls, comprising of Gayle Telford Stevens and Louise McCarthy, which he describes as “two cleaners, the filthiest and the funniest, both very modern and very retro at the same time”.

I’m glad to find out that Greg Hemphill – a truly lovely bloke – is also rooting for the ice cream van clip to avoid the digital waste bins in the bowels of the BBC network in London. “It’s a 40-second morality play. Two young boys committing a wrong they know is unacceptable, with justice being instantly meted out. Be careful what you wish for.” As the tears fly from your eyes and you struggle to breathe, there’s much wisdom in a joke. Chewin’ the fat, indeed.