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"Sexual humor is a sort of whistling in the dark, like Beaumarchais' Figaro, who 'laughs so that he may not cry.'" --Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968) by Gershon Legman, p. 18

"Eros and Momus are an unlikely couple."--Sholem Stein

Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray  Ribaldry is part of the human sexuality portal
Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray
Ribaldry is part of the human sexuality portal

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Ribaldry (also called erotic humor) is entertainment that ranges from bordering on indelicacy to gross indecency. It is a third, and somewhat neglected, genre of sexual entertainment, often confused with its siblings erotica and pornography. It is also referred to as "bawdiness", "gaminess" or "bawdry".

Unlike either pornography or erotica, which play sexual intercourse or sexual fetishes "straight", ribaldry aims at humor. Sexual situations and titillation are presented in ribald material more for the purpose of poking fun at the foibles and weaknesses that manifest themselves in human sexuality, rather than to present sexual stimulation either excitingly or artistically. Also, ribaldry may use sex as a metaphor to illustrate some non-sexual concern, in which case ribaldry may verge on the territory of satire.

Like any humour, ribaldry may be read as conventional or subversive. Ribaldry typically depends on a shared background of sexual conventions and values, and its comedy generally depends on seeing those conventions broken. Depending on their attitude, viewers can perceive this either as poking fun on the poor souls who suffer the consequences of breaking the taboos, or as flouting the taboos themselves.

The ritual taboo-breaking that is a usual counterpart of ribaldry underlies its controversial nature and explains why ribaldry is frequently a subject of censorship. Ribaldry, whose usual aim is not "merely" to be sexually stimulating, often does address larger concerns than mere sexual appetite. However, being presented in the form of comedy, these larger concerns seem to censors to be un-serious. Moreover, the presence of satirical content in ribaldry tends to arouse the wrath of authorities, who may overlook more explicit sexual entertainments in order to prosecute comedians whom they perceive as attacking conventions they wish to maintain.



An example of an ongoing (approx. 400 years) tension between censorship and ribaldry can be seen in the continuing story of the De Brevitate Vitae, a ribald song which, in many European and UK-influenced universities, is both a student beer-drinking song and an anthem sung by official university choirs at public graduation ceremonies. The private and public versions of the song contain vastly different words.


Ribaldry has likely been around for the whole history of the human race, and is present to some degree in every culture.


ancient ribaldry, Greco-Roman satire

Works like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the Menaechmi by Plautus, the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius, and the Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass of Apuleius are ribald classics from ancient Europe.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

medieval ribaldry

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales is a classic medieval example. François Rabelais showed himself to be a master of ribaldry (technically called grotesque body) in his Gargantua.

18th century

18th century ribaldry

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne and The Lady's Dressing Room by Jonathan Swift.

19th century

19th century ribaldry

Mark Twain's long-suppressed 1601 certainly falls in this category.

20th century

20th century ribaldry

More recent works like Candy, Barbarella, L'Infermiera, the comedy films of Russ Meyer, Little Annie Fanny and John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor are probably better classified as ribaldry than as either pornography or erotica.

Bawdy song

A Bawdy song is a humorous song which emphasis the physical song of sexual relationships. Historically these songs tend to be confined to groups of young males, either as students or in an environment where alcohol is flowing freely. An early collection was "Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy" published between 1698 and 1720. Sailor's songs tend to quite frank about the exploitative nature of the relationship between men and women. There are many examples of folk songs in which a man encounters a woman in the countryside. This is followed by a short conversation, and then intercourse. Neither side demonstrates any shame or regret. If the woman becomes pregnant, the man goes back to sea. Rugby songs are often bawdy. Examples of bawdy folk songs are: "Seventeen Come Sunday" and "The Ballad of Eskimo Nell". In 1892 "The Scottish Students Song Book" (ed by John Stuart Blackie) was published, containing 200 songs. Many were saucy. In modern times Hash House Harriers have taken on the role of tradition-bearers for this kind of song.

Blue comedy

Blue comedy is comedy that is off-color, risqué, indecent or profane, largely about sex. It often contains profanity and/or sexual imagery that may shock and offend some audience members.

"Working blue" refers to the act of performing this type of material. A "blue comedian" or "blue comic" is a comedian who usually performs blue, or is known mainly for his or her blue material. Blue comedians often find it difficult to succeed in mainstream media. Topical musicians may use blue comedy both in their commentary between songs and in the lyrics to their songs.

Many comedians who are normally family-friendly might choose to work blue when off-camera or in an adult-oriented environment; Bob Saget exemplifies this dichotomy. Private events at show business clubs such as the Bob Saget Club and The Masquers often showed this blue side of otherwise cleancut Bob Saget; a recording survives of one Masquers roast from the 1950s with Jack Benny, George Jessel, George Burns, and Art Linkletter all using highly risque material and, in some cases, obscenities.

There are some prime-time TV comedies and animated shows that deal with blue subjects. In the 1970s, CBS aired the ground-breaking sitcom All in the Family, based on the British series Till Death Us Do Part, which featured a "lovable" bigot, Archie Bunker. The character's dialogue usually contained racial prejudices and ethnic slurs, as well derogatory comments against Jews, gays and women's rights, but in a guise of blue humor against his own bigotry.

On talk radio in the USA, many commentators use blue comedy in their political programs. Examples include Michael Savage, Neal Boortz, Phil Hendrie and Steve Morrison.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ribaldry" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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