Top Gear: The TV equivalent of the Duke of Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images
The trouble with racist, sexist and homophobic humour is that it's hard to please everyone at once. Just ask the blokes at Top Gear. They've pinged the Mexicans, the Romanians and the gays. Muslims and disabled folks too.
Of course, it's all just a bit of old fun - come on, where's your funny bone? - but the difference between a joke which makes you laugh and a joke which makes your blood run cold is the sometimes the distance between a split hair.
Top Gear, the BBC's venerable motoring franchise, which has turned from a forum for test-driving cars into a multimillion-dollar global business spanning the internet, DVD and live events, has spent a lot of its life dancing in the grey space in-between.
In the hands of a skilled comedian, that space is risky to navigate. In the hands of three ageing white guys, it's a powder keg of problems. And in 2013, going into its 19th season, Top Gear has become TV's own Duke of Edinburgh: trailing two steps behind and hopelessly out of touch.
Author and publisher Mia Freedman was a fan. ''But you've probably identified why I drifted away years ago as a viewer,'' she says. ''Jeremy Clarkson has always been a bit of a knob - arrogance is his brand - but like so many successful TV personalities, high ratings have given him much more creative freedom.
''Sadly, that's translated to dialling up the sexism under the guise of 'aren't we being naughty boys'. They've become caricatures of men of a certain age. Like the modern day Benny Hill show.''
The most common defence of the program is that it isn't intended to offend, and that the insensitive remarks - irrespective of their targets - are merely the hosts engaging in the sort of scripted japery which is expected in a light entertainment program.
In its ruling on the Mexican incident, the British broadcast regulator Ofcom said the program is well known for its ''irreverent style and sometimes outspoken humour, as well as the regular format of the studio banter between the three presenters''. The ruling, in the end, was that the material was ''justified by the context''.
Top Gear's ratings would seem to indicate the audience's appetite for that ''context'' is waning. The BBC claims the show is seen by 350 million viewers in 170 countries every week but those numbers are largely smoke and mirrors. In real terms its total global audience is probably closer to 35 million than 350 million.
In Australia, which is considered one of its most buoyant markets, the show was watched on SBS by roughly one million people weekly. In a calculated move, the BBC allowed the show to be taken by Nine for a larger fee, but the show foundered. Nine cut episodes and aired them out of sequence, dislocating the fan base, ultimately halving its numbers. Neither the British show nor its Australian adaptation achieved the numbers it reached on SBS.
In truth, however, the BBC's business is not in weekly broadcasts of the show, either in Britain or abroad. Top Gear has been slowly massaged into a global business, in particular a series of franchised local versions of the show, and a touring live show, the latest iteration of which is the Top Gear Festival, which is currently in Australia. In that sense, the TV show is just a front door to a much bigger business. To the show's credit, it understands the criticism levelled at it. But executive producer Andy Wilman noted in a 2009 blog entry that they were ''not wedding DJs taking requests. It's fair to say this incarnation of Top Gear is nearer the end than the beginning, and our job is to land this plane with its dignity still intact''.
In 2011, after the Mexican racism row, comedian Steve Coogan weighed in. Coogan was a fan, but blew a gasket at what he saw as the Top Gear hosts ''wear[ing] this offensive behaviour as a badge of pride, pleased that they have annoyed those whom they regard, in another lazy stereotype, as sandal-wearing vegans with beards and no sense of humour''.
Coogan said there were no hard and fast rules with comedy, and what was funny often depended on a judgment call. ''It's safe to say, though, that you can get away with saying unsayable things if it's done with some sense of culpability,'' he wrote. ''There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them.''
Unsurprisingly, the Top Gear boys saw themselves as victims. In 2011, Clarkson referred to the issue as punishment for ''heresy by thought''. And he added: ''We try very hard on Top Gear not to be sexist.''
Well, they did, until 2013. Last month the show's 19th season launched. The promotional campaign to launch it featured women tasked with washing Clarkson, May and Hammond's clothes. ''The message?'' declared British Elle editor Lorraine Candy, ''Men do the dangerous stunts, women repair their clothes.'' Candy called it ''moronic sexism.''
Social commentator and brand expert Jane Caro says ultimately the Top Gear boys are getting a little long in the tooth to still be playing naughty little boys. ''Television is a ruthless place; if it is rating, clearly it's going to keep being made,'' she says.
''But it all looks to be striving to be naughty and they're a bit old for it, really.
''You tolerate it in young men, you think they'll grow out it, but it's a bit sad when they're Jeremy Clarkson's age and they haven't grown out of it.
I'm assuming they're getting very little sex and it's making them grumpy.''
Opinions have little traction in the real world
Top Gear is the supercar of motoring media. It looks great, it's fast and it's entertaining.
But the acerbic wit of its hosts, clear patriotism for Britain's prestige car makers and loathing of practical, family-friendly vehicles also makes it unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to matching the real-world opinions of car buyers, auto industry experts claim.
''There's no denying the sheer strength of the Top Gear brand and the global reach it has,'' an industry insider said. ''But it is primarily an entertainment program centred around cars, and not the genuine consumer-based format it started as in the 1970s.''
Led by its outspoken figurehead, Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear's love affair with tyre-smoking performance vehicles has helped revive the boutique end of the industry as low-volume supercar makers such as Pagani, Koenigsegg and Bugatti thrive on the back of millions of dollars worth of global exposure.
It has even helped Australia's Holden Special Vehicles division establish a small export market to Britain after a series of glowing reviews of its V8 Commodores. Clarkson said the HSV R8 - badged in Britain as a Vauxhall VXR8 - was ''completely bonkers'' and ''about as feminine as a burst sausage, but I love it''.
It's the enthusiasm for fast cars that has its audience hanging off every word. But even those welded to it still take the comments with a grain of salt.
''It's my first reference to what's good and bad in cars,'' Top Gear fan Matthew Oldham said.
''I know it's all about entertainment, and I apply a slight discount to everything Clarkson says. But I bought my Ford Focus RS because they loved it.''
At the other end of the scale, Top Gear and Clarkson have also been accused of a pivotal role in the death of the last mainstream British manufacturer, Rover. His review of the Rover 75 - launched in 1998 after the company was bailed out by BMW - included comments such as ''never in the field of human endeavour has so much been done, so badly, by so many'' and prompted workers to hang anti-Clarkson banners at the Longbridge plant when it was closed down.
Then there are makes such as Porsche's classic 911 that are immune to Top Gear's opinions. Clarkson's constant jibes at the German sports car - claiming it is just a grown-up Volkswagen Beetle - are seen as more a personal attack on co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond, who both own one.
''Top Gear has zero relevance for us,'' Porsche Cars Australia spokesman Paul Ellis said. ''Some of the disparaging, tongue-in-cheek comments made by one of the presenters about our products are obviously aimed at generating reactions from the other two hosts. It is clearly all about giggles and entertainment.''