Sex is 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.
The ritual taboo-breaking that is a usual counterpart of ribaldry underlies its controversial nature and explains why ribaldry is sometimes 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 may be overlooked by censors.
An example of ribaldry is "De Brevitate Vitae", a song which in many European-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 is present to some degree in every culture and has likely been around for all of human history. Works like Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Menaechmi by Plautus, Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius, and The Golden Ass of Apuleius are ribald classics from ancient Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales and The Crabfish, one of the oldest English traditional ballads, are classic examples. François Rabelais showed himself to be a master of ribaldry (technically called grotesque body) in his Gargantua. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne and The Lady's Dressing Room by Jonathan Swift. Mark Twain's long-suppressed 1601 also falls in this category.
More recent works like Candy, Barbarella, L'Infermiera, the comedic works 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.
A Bawdy song is a humorous song which emphasises sexual themes and is often rich with innuendo. 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 be 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" (edited by John Stuart Blackie) was published, containing 200 ribald songs. In modern times Hash House Harriers have taken on the role of tradition-bearers for this kind of song.
"Working blue" refers to the act of using curse words and discussing things that people do not discuss in "polite society". A "blue comedian" or "blue comic" is a comedian who usually performs risqué routines layered with curse words. Topical musicians may use blue comedy both in their commentary between songs and in the lyrics to their songs. Comedian Max Miller coined the phrase, after his stage act which involved telling jokes from either a white book or a blue book, chosen by audience preference (the blue book contained ribald jokes).
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 risqué material and obscenities. 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.
- The dictionary definition of ribaldry at Wiktionary