October 19, 2018
As anybody who likes comedy will tell you, you’re in for an interesting night when the comedian starts doing their ‘blue’ material. A blue joke is referred to when the comedian says something a little risqué or dirty, but where does the term come from? We’ve been investigating!
So far as we can tell, the term originated in the 20th century, so it hasn’t been on people’s lips for too long. As with so much of entertainment, we can be justly proud that the phrase originated in the UK, primarily under the performances of Max Miller, a comedian that was widely known as ‘The Cheeky Chappie’ and revered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation.
Brighton born and bred, Miller made films, toured music halls and sang and recorded his own original comic songs. Known for his charm and flamboyance, he was often in trouble with the censors of the time for his controversial risqué material, which is where the blue joke comes from!
The laws on censorship were strict during the years that Miller was performing; he was hugely famous in the 30s and 40s and died in 1963, so his material could only be approved by the Lord Chamberlain in London and local watch committees in other parts of the UK. However, if he left out the last work in a naughty rhyme or used innuendo, he could get away with much more saucy material than he otherwise would have been allowed. Impressively, he proudly announced during his career that he had never once told a dirty joke onstage, presumably believing that if you leave out the last word, it’s all in your head (in fact he’d often say "I know exactly what you are saying to yourself, you’re wrong, I know what you’re saying. You wicked lot. You’re the sort of people that get me a bad name!"
So where does the ‘blue’ joke phrase come from? In one of Miller’s acts, he’d take out a white book and a blue book, asking the audience to pick which one he should use for jokes that evening. The white was full of pure jokes with an innocence to them. Conversely, the blue jokes were full of risqué material. As one might expect, they most often voted for the blue material.
Miller enjoyed a fruitful career and his legacy endures to this day, not only thanks to his creation of ‘blue jokes’. A statue of Miller can be found in the Royal Pavilion Gardens in Brighton and he is featured on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
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By Henry Fosdike