Sunday, January 29, 2023


 1: The Black Joke

2: No, But Seriously

3: I Don't Wish To Know That

4: It's a Cracker

If you enjoy these articles it would be lovely if you joined by Patreon. If only to make up for all the people who will probably cancel their subscriptions because I broke the two-year vow of silence on Politics. Or you could drop a chocolate penny in the Ko-Fi box.

Join My Patreon

Make a one off donation to mu Kofi

It's a Cracker....

Ricky Gervais's material is nasty. Jimmy Carr's material is nasty but clever. I am inclined to say that comedy like Carr's is justified, or partly justified, by its wit; where there is no excuse at all for comedy like Gervais's. 

But I can find no sound argument to defend this position. A comedian's job is to be funny. A joke is a good joke if people laugh at it. People laugh at sick jokes. That's all the excuse the jokes need. 

I am free to say "It doesn't matter if it was funny: you ought not to laugh at that kind of thing." But that forbids me from laughing at the clever comedian as well as the crassly vulgar one. The Bishop of Oxford felt that Life of Brian was a fifth rate, undergraduate level comedy. But presumably his argument about not making fun of holy stories would have applied equally if it had been a first rate movie replete with post-graduate gags. 

I sincerely hope that you are not expecting me to sort this conundrum out in the next half hour or so. 

Comedy takes place in a designated space. To complain that a comedian has said a Bad Thing at a comedy show would be as absurd as to complain that someone had taken their clothes off in a male locker room. You knew the rules when you stepped through the door.

READER: Do you mean to say that a comedian can say anything he wants?
CARTOON RABBIT: No: not anything he wants. Only things which are funny.


When I say that I am a free speech absolutist, I mean that my side ought to be able to say exactly what it damn well likes without consequences, where your side ought to shut the hell up.

In the current polarised political climate we tend to assume that it is the left who want to police language, and conservatives who think people should be allowed to say whatever the hell they damn well like.

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s find this a little hard to get our heads round. I thought it was conservatives who wanted to ban books which mentioned homosexuality because they would turn children gay? I thought it was conservative clergymen who wanted to ban role-playing games because they would cause children to sacrifice goats to Satan? I thought it was Mr. Tony Blair who wanted to ban "video nasties" (and possibly videos) because they literally caused children to murder other children? I thought it was Mrs Mary Whitehouse who wanted to ban a particular silly Chuck Berry song because it would make children masturbate (and that it was the literal job of the BBC to prevent masturbation). It wasn't the left who were trying to stop the BBC from playing a show-tune from the Wizard of Oz after the death of Margaret Thatcher. It wasn't the woke purity police who were prowling around trying to cancel anyone who dissented from the politically correct position after the death of some pointless parasite named Betty Windsor.

Nothing is true apart from the fact that nothing is true. You can quote me as saying that I don't want to be quoted. 

For most grown-ups, the shape of men's bodies and the fact that humans expel waste from their bodies is neither very funny nor very taboo. Not having kids myself, I remain mildly uncomfortable when I hear parents telling cute stories about that time little Jimmy did a poo. And don't get me started on pet owners. No really, don't get me started. Say shit, say ordure, say poo-poo but for gods sake spare me the vile Americanism 'poop'. (I was brought up to call it "stinks".) But actually stinks and bums and sex and willies are not very surprising or shocking. So naturally you gravitate to the Great Big Unmentionables. If you make a joke about the fact that you aren't allowed to make a joke it's probably a very good joke. Except when it isn't.

Characters in Shakespeare say "a pox on it" all the time. Were people in the olden days really that casual about incurable STDs? Does "a pox on your throat" really mean "I disagree with what you just said so strongly that I hope your mouth catches AIDS?" Does "a plague on these pickled-herrings" mean "I hope this tin of tuna gets terminal prostate cancer?" I guess there was some quite dark humour in the gay community in the 1980s. 

In 1983, DJ/comedian Kenny Everett notoriously performed a comedy routine in front of a Young Conservative rally. In the persona of one of his stock characters (a hellfire preacher named Brother Lee Love) he shouted slogans along the lines of "Bomb the Russians!" and "Kick Michael Foot's stick away!" (The then leader of the opposition was an elderly man who used a walking cane.)

Everett himself subsequently claimed that he was being ironic: he had intended to make fun of the Young Conservatives by presenting them with an exaggerated caricature of themselves, and was disconcerted when they applauded with approval. Mrs Thatcher herself said that it was absurd to object to an entertainer having some fun before the serious business started, and if people wanted to object to something, they should object to her speech, which she would be happy to defend.

The Daily Mirror, who broke the story, ran a rather pompous editorial beginning "We should not blame Kenny Everett for what he said last night: he is a clown by profession": but went on to say that the audience's ecstatic applause revealed the true face of the Young Conservatives. This was, after all, the era when some Young Tories thought it was real funny to wear badges with the slogan "Hang Nelson Mandela" on them. The badges were joke --- a skit on lefties with Specials buttons. But quite a lot of respectable grown up Tories said openly that Mandela was a terrorist, which as the law stood at the time, amounted to much the same thing.

This seems to neatly encapsulate three or four approaches to comedy.

a: It must be taken at face value: there is no difference between a comedian saying "Nuke Russia"" in a comedy routine and a politician saying "Nuke Russia" in a conference speech.

b: It is cocooned from criticism by the fact of its being comedy: if the speaker is just a clown or just having fun then his words, however disgusting, are content free. Anyone who reads anything into them is being rather ridiculous.

c: Comedy has a dual context: what the words mean, and what the speaker intended them to mean. Comedians pretend to be stupid, or pompous, or bigoted or Scottish in order to make the audience laugh -- at stupidity, pomposity, bigotry or Scotland. 

d: Comedy has a triple context: what the words mean, what the speaker intended them to mean, and what the audience took them to mean. If the audience are approving the bigotry -- or getting sexual pleasure from the lewd references, or sadistically revelling in the cruelty -- then the show as a whole is bigoted, pornographic, or cruel even if the comedian or actor genuinely didn't intend it to be so.

Very few of us are so intellectually pure that the position we take is not influenced by our agreement or disagreement with the material. You are inclined to think that the bad taste jokes about the Queen were merely harmless clowning, but the racist jokes expressed genuinely abhorrent views. I think the racist material was ironic but the one about the Queen bordered on the treasonous.

The Bishop of Oxford could have said that Life of Brian was a wonderfully clever and funny film, but being wonderfully witty and clever is no excuse. But he didn't. It is very rare to find someone who thinks that the Satanic Verses is a terrible book, but not all that offensive; or that it is a work of literary genius, which should nevertheless be burned for its blasphemy.

Intention is a very slippery concept. It applies, not just to comedy, but to every kind of art. It may very well be that Peter Schaffer put the nude scene into Equus for a genuine artistic purpose: but it must also be the case that many people bought tickets for the 2008 revival because they were curious to see Daniel Radcliff with no clothes on. And the producer must have known this when he offered the Harry Potter star the role, and the actor must have known this when he accepted it.

The censorious will always tell your that the real motivation is the prurient one; and pornographers will always claim that their smut has an artistic purpose. Actual racists will always claim that they were just trying to be funny; but people without a sense of humour will always claim that edgy jokes are just a pretext for racism. If you ban hate speech, then some legitimate academic papers about race and gender and Nazi Germany will be banned. If you allow absolute academic freedom, then every racist, homophobe, TERF and holocaust denier will claim that his screed is an academic paper.

When someone told me that he regarded Game of Thrones as pornographic, I was tempted to reply "Do you mean it gave you an erection; or that you are afraid that it might give someone else an erection; or that the whole thing was consciously constructed with the soul purpose of giving men erections?"

Very good friends sometimes say very nasty things to each other without really meaning them. I am told that in some circles "motherfucker" is a term of macho endearment, carrying the connotation "We are such good friends that I can call you the worst thing possible, and you will understand I don't really mean it." This is one reason why black people are allowed to use a particular very mean word and white people are decidedly not. Devout Buddhists sometimes deliberately blaspheme in order to show that they are so enlightened that it doesn't matter. (This must be true: I heard it during a game of Bushido.) 

Ricky Gervais concludes the Supernature monologue with a routine in which he claims that saying dreadful things is the working class equivalent of hugging. He tells a sequence of stories about dreadful things that his loved ones have said to each other. His brother said "There's not much point in you going home" to a very old man at a funeral. (A venerable old joke, that.) I take it that he didn't really make an obscene joke about an old lady's genitalia after accidentally inhaling smoke from her body at a cremation. (That's not how crematoria work.) But I take the point that "saying something unexpectedly disgusting" might be a way of diffusing tension or normalising a situation. It may be true that middle class people hug each other (but do not banter) and working class people banter (but do not hug); so it follows that "insults are working class hugs".

Anyone who has ever been in an English comprehensive schoolyard can see the drawback of this line of reasoning. Friends sometimes playfully insult each other. Therefore all insults are friendly. Young men sometimes play-fight. Therefore all fighting is playful. Therefore I can insult you and hit you if I want to, and if you are upset or hurt by it, it is your own fault. If I am unwilling to let you bully me, I am by definition rebuffing your hugs.

I fear that when a comedian talks about irony, what they are sometimes talking about is banter. And what they are doing is erecting a protective cocoon around their jokes. Making them immune from criticism. I can say what I like, and if you call me out, I can immediately say "Only joking" "Only ironic" "Only banter." You aren't allowed to be hurt by me and if you are its your own fault.

I take it that this is what the nasty motor car man meant when he said his article about wanting to punish a member of the royal family in the same way the nasty priest in the fantasy TV show punished the wicked queen was only a joke. He didn't mean that there was a twist or an irony or a double meaning that some people hadn't picked up on. He meant "I thought I was free to say horrid things and I am rather shocked that some people find them horrid."

I myself, many years ago, tweeted that after the revolution "First thing we do, let's kill all the pavement cyclists" which rather fell flat if you haven't read Henry VI Part II. Which apparently, not everyone has. 

There really is such a thing as banter and teasing and joshing. We really don't have to all go about with po-faces at all times. But among civilised grown-ups, it is the banteree, not the banterer, who gets to decide where the line is drawn. If what you say hurts me, you don't get to tell me that it shouldn't. And you damn well stop when you are asked. 

This also applies, incidentally, to hugging.

Bad taste-comedians often claim that they are only saying what everyone else is thinking. Alarmingly, right-wing politicians often say the same thing. David Cameron based an election campaign on the premise. 

But "saying what everyone is thinking" is only a good thing if you think that your first thoughts, your lizard-brain, gut level reactions, have a purity and an authenticity and a truth about them; and if you think that applying a filter to those thoughts makes them less real. That may be what the nasty motor car man meant when he said he hated the Duchess of Sussex at a cellular level. It may be what lies behind madder conspiracy theories about Mobs and Brigades and Cultures. We all really think that we should torture criminals, beat children, deport asylum seekers and cook exclusively with gas. But the terrible Mob Brigade won't let us say what we really think. The gut-level feelings are frequently described as common sense. The filtering systems which censor those common-sense feelings are denounced as artificial and insincere: box ticking, performance, virtue signalling. Christians, rather unfairly, associate the Old Testament with law and rigidity and prohibition: interestingly, the people who Won't Let Us Say What We Think are frequently identified with the Cultural Marxists, who are the puppets of the Frankfurt Group who are a stand in for that old bogie-person, The Jews.

Hmm. Perhaps that doesn't work. But it's definitely what I was really thinking.

But perhaps comedy really is an exercise in romantic liberation, in satyric bacchanalianism. Perhaps Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais are a kind of shaman. Perhaps the fool in his coxcomb struts on the stage saying "I masturbate over images of the baby Hitler" and "The holocaust has a positive side" precisely in order to remind us that those are Bad Thoughts which you really shouldn't have. And perhaps, far from being a radical fuck-you to Authority this kind of thing is innately conservative. We joke about sex because society works better when we are all relatively demure. We joke about race and gender because we all agree that it's better to be a tolerant liberal. We watch the zany man breaking all the rules, but only as a safety valve. Tonight we'll merry, merry be. Tonight we'll merry, merry be. Tonight we'll merry, merry be. But tomorrow we'll be sober.

If a clown ceases to break taboos he will cease to be a clown. If "political correctness" is extended to the stage, clowns will cease to exist. If we banish the clowns we would forego a lot of laughter. And perhaps without that safety valve, society would explode. 

The trouble with political jokes is that they sometimes get elected. 

Nigel, Donald and Boris may have served useful functions as Fools and Shamans, saying Bad Things which everybody knows are Bad Things but do not say. But we live in a world where some clowns are political leaders and some political leaders are clowns. And such a world may have no place in it for actual clowns. 

If I take a photograph of a man sitting on the sea front eating battered fish and fried potatoes from a paper bag, I am recording an actual moment of time. But when I publish the picture, it is not just a picture: it's also a symbol. It doesn't just mean "At 6:15 last Tuesday in Weston Super Mare Mr Hugh Walker purchased a take-out." It represents Englishness. The Working Class. The Summer. Nostalgia. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. Fings ain't wot they used to be. If it had been a photograph of a teenager with a baseball cap eating a cheeseburger, it would have meant something quite different. Put the two pictures side by side, and new meanings start to happen. Whether I meant them to or not. I believe this is what M. Barthes had in mind when he talked about mythologies and second order signs. 

Suppose I see a mug with the word "Controls on Immigration" on the side of it. And suppose I photograph the mug and put the photo on my website. The photo of the mug means something different from the mug itself; and the words on the mug have a different meaning from the meaning they would have had if they had been in small print on page 53 of a political policy document. "Controls on immigration" is a relatively innocuous political aspiration. The act of putting the words on a mug symbolises something -- what kind of a party you are, what kind of voters you want to attract, what kind of voters you want to drive away. The act of putting a picture of the mug on a website symbolises something else entirely. "Sod you, Milliband, this time I'm giving the Greens a go." Ce n’est pas une tasse.

Comedians used to tell jokes about mothers-in-law. Working class couples often had to live with the wife's mother for the first few years of their marriage, which husbands found understandably irritating, so mother-in-law became a helpful short-hand for a certain kind of annoying older lady. I am not saying the mother in law hates me, but she is trying to find a loophole in my birth certificate. We're less willing to joke about size and appearance and age and gender now, and the social situation has changed, and that particular joke-format has dropped out of use. So if I stood on a stage in 2023 and said "I'm not saying the mother in law is a terrible cook, but..." I wouldn't be telling you anything about the mother of my wife. I wouldn't be signalling that I was going to tell you a funny story about an old lady. I'd be sending a message. "This is an old fashioned routine." "I'm a retro comedian." "Things were better in the olden days." "I'm dead politically incorrect, me." "The woke mob have ruined comedy." "We're all traditional working class blokes, and we don't give a damn."

The other week the BBC did an archive compilation about Les Dawson, and, right on cue an MP tweeted that that was the sort of thing the BBC wouldn't show nowadays.

And that's as far as I can get. Jokes are not just jokes: they are also mythologies and symbols and second order signs. A joke isn't just the words. It isn't just the performance. It isn't just the laugh. It's also the history and architecture of the London Palladium; and the split-second between the punch-line and the applause. It's the audience in the theatre watching the comedian; and it's the streaming audience on their sofas watching the audience watching the comedian; and it's Twitter talking about the streaming audience and the Guardian talking about Twitter talking it and and god forgive us it's this blog reacting to the Guardian's reaction to how Twitter reacted to the way Netflix reacted to the studio audience's reaction. 

There is a particular very mean word that some people use to describe people of a particular race. It is such a mean word, that you can't possibly say it without also saying "I am the sort of person who doesn't mind saying incredibly mean words". 

What was it Frank Carsen used to say? 

"It's not the jokes. It's the fact that I told them."


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Friday, January 27, 2023

I Don't Wish To Know That...

contains some very bad words and quotes some very bad taste jokes

Jimmy Carr also came in for a lot of criticism after a Netflix special called His Dark Material. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust described the routine as "abhorrent", Hope Not Hate said that he was actively celebrating the Holocaust, and some MP or other talked about him perpetuating and legitimising racism.

And again: his act is clearly in the most appalling taste. He jokes about penises, vaginas, sex, masturbation, funerals, child abuse, cancer, strokes, concentration camps and rape. He makes rather a thing of telling jokes about rape. In themselves, they are not particularly shocking: the shocking thing is that he tells them at all. He claims that, approached by a call-girl in Amsterdam, he replied "I don't need to pay for sex: I'm a rapist" and immediately eye-balls a female member of the audience. "You look like you really don't want to be laughing at that rape joke. But somewhat ironically, I'm forcing you." 

And that's very much the formula. Warn the audience that the next joke is going to be incredibly offensive. Make an incredibly offensive joke. Upbraid the audience for laughing at it. Point out that they knew what the act was going to be like when they bought the ticket. Rinse and repeat. It's not that from when Humphrey Lyttleton, of blessed memory, used to mouth "what?" and look bewildered after some filthy double entendre. Or indeed, Frankie Howard's trademark "Ooo...don't you dare!" 

Ricky Gervais justified his dreadful material because it was ironic. He was expressing terrible opinions, but he didn't really believe any of them. My contention is that he clearly did believe quite a lot of them, and the audience wouldn't be whooping and applauding if they didn't believe some of them too. Carr mostly doesn't do opinions. When he does take a stance, it is generally on the correct side of an argument. Early in the act, he talks about covid:

"Let's talk about the controversial thing: the vaccine. Who's not going to take the vaccine because they think it might be dangerous? Raise your hand. Now take that hand...and slap yourself in the fucking face."

And a bit later, about race:

"Black Lives Matter happened: clearly a good thing. And then people who didn't really understand it came along and started saying 'all lives matter'.... It's like someone saying 'save the whale' and someone saying 'save all animals'. Yes, but we don't have a problem with people harpooning pigeons, you daft cunt."

It was said of 70s Irish raconteur Dave Allen that he thought any old shaggy-dog yarn became twice as funny if he added the word "bloody" to the punchline. Jimmy Carr takes the same approach with rather ruder words.

Both remarks are recognisably jokes. The first involves a change of direction -- raise your hand to show assent / raise your hand in order to hit yourself. The second involves an absurd analogy. The point about the stupidity of the "all lives matter" slogan would be made equally well by pointing out that "all houses matter", but fire trucks don't generally speed to buildings that are not currently burning down; and that "all swimmers matter" but we don't generally throw life jackets to people who are not drowning. But the absurd image of people hunting pigeons like whales makes the political point with a belly laugh. If the object was merely to shock and court controversy, he could presumably have done a little rant about snowflakes wearing face pants and sheeple kneeling at the shrine of PC. The Ricky Gervais routine writes itself: if you won't kill Hitler in case it changes the colour of your hair, then obviously you won't wear an uncomfortable item on your face to stop someone else getting sick. Carr doesn't do this. Some people are even now writing essays accusing him of excessive wokeness. 

But he rarely expresses a point-of-view, ironic or otherwise. He certainly never says "Maybe rape is good, actually", even as a comic stance. What he says is "Rape is terrible. So terrible you shouldn't joke about it. So here is a joke about rape."

Jimmy Carr's defence of his terrible material is essentially that words don't matter and you can say whatever you like:

"Lets start with a trigger warning. Tonight's show contains jokes about terrible things. Terrible things that might have affected you, or the people you love. But these are just jokes: they're not the terrible things. There's a huge difference between doing a joke about rape, and doing a rape. I fucking hope. Or I'm going to jail forever."

Now this is an obvious straw man. No-one has ever claimed that joking about murder is just as bad as killing someone; no one has ever claimed that telling a joke about genocide is the moral equivalent of a war crime. Ricky Gervais says directly that "people nowadays" want you to believe that "words are actual violence", and demonstrates that this is not the case by pretending to beat up a disabled toddler.

But no-one does, in fact, say that words are actual physical violence. You can only get to "a comedian can say whatever he likes because words don't do actual physical harm" if you start from "people in general should be allowed to say whatever they like because words don't do actual physical harm". And some people, sadly, do say exactly that. They say that words don't have consequences. They say that words are so important that it doesn't matter whether they have consequences or not. They say that a romany gypsy who objects to Jimmy Carr's holocaust jokes and a traveller who objects to being called pikey in the playground are both equally pathetic effeminate millennial snowflakes who should suck it up. The real threat to civilisation is not racism, but laws against racism. Bullying is good, actually. 

If you want to draw political conclusions from this kind of act, that's the one you should draw. If you ban hate speech, you'd have to ban jokes; if you permit jokes, you have to allow hate speech. Every bad taste joke you laugh at strikes a small blow for free speech.

I think some campaigners are genuinely unable to perceive context, and I think some free speech campaigners are genuinely worried about them getting the upper hand. We all remember moral welfare campaigners who felt that Batman stopping a bank robbery was irreducibly a "crime comic" and Dennis the Menace getting spanked was nothing more or less than a "child abuse comic". Many of us lived through an era where stories about happy same-sex couples were (in some contexts) against the law because "talking about gay people" was the same as "promoting homosexuality." We all agree that this is pernicious nonsense. But fear of this kind of thing can lead to equal and opposite extremism. Rowan Atkinson affects to believe that the right to say whatever you like is the second most important right: not as important as the right to food, but more important than the right to shelter. It is better to be street homeless than to be prohibited from making jokes about silly vicars. It's the sort of thing that only a rich person with a big house could possibly say.

Jimmy Carr is not a free speech absolutist. He says (to his credit) that comedians ought not to "look round" before speaking: if you wouldn't tell a particular joke if you saw a black person or a disabled person in the room, then you shouldn't tell it at all. I rather think that the conclusion he draws is not "There are some jokes I wouldn't tell" but "I don't mind who I offend." Bernard Manning, of rather less blessed memory, used to claim that he was not a racist because he told jokes about every race; which is a little like saying that you are not a wife-beater because you beat up your kids and complete strangers as well. But the point (about not looking round before telling a joke) is well made.

Jimmy Carr tells jokes. Old fashioned jokes with set-ups, twists, verbal ambiguities and punch lines. Not all very clever, but delivered at a quick fire pace, so quantity overwhelms quality. Anyone who frequented Butlins Redcoat Shows or watched Seaside Special in the 1970s will encounter a number of very old friends, repurposed around eternal verities like mortality and self-abuse.

"Once, my mother walked in on me masturbating, and I said 'Mum, stop masturbating'"

That joke is pure Basil Brush-out-of-Groucho Marx:

"This morning I answered the door to the post-man in my dressing gown. I told him to take it off immediately and buy one of his own." 

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I don't know". 

It's also a meta joke, a joke against his own profession. It's a colossal cliche for alternative comedians to tell stories about awkward teenage sexuality. I once heard a guy literally opening his set with "Hey, wanking. Wanking! Wanking, eh? But sometimes your mum walks in. That's in my contract, now I can start the act." Carr's set-up says "I am going to tell an embarrassing story against myself": the punch line says "Fooled you -- it's just a daft wordplay." It's not a million miles from "A man walked into a bar, ouch, it was an iron bar".

Or, again: 

"My father died"

"What was it?"

"The big C"


"No, he drowned."

I tell precisely this joke to small children: 

"What's a pirate's favourite letter of the alphabet?" 


"You'd think it would be R, but they're really all about the C."

At some level, it's another joke about jokes, and a Jimmy Carr joke about Jimmy Carr jokes. It's rather outrageous to talk about The Taboo Illness through the medium of a Christmas Cracker gag. It doesn't occur to us to ask how Person B felt when he mistook drowning for cancer -- was he embarrassed at misunderstanding a tragic situation? or cross that Person A had deliberately misled hm? You might as well ask if my wife had a good time in Jamaica, and whether she was in the end pleased that I insisted she go. 

Probably a third of Carr's material involves this kind of change of register: introducing a serious subject and then talking about it trivially; or talking lightly about something and then revealing that he was really talking about something very serious indeed.

"So, I'm in a thirty mile per hour zone, built up area, middle of the day, so what am I doing? Thirty miles per hour. Driving along, minding my own business, come across a guy doing barely ten. So what do you do in that scenario? Flash your lights, toot the horn, let him know, either move over or speed up. He did neither.... And this is what I'm dealing with: he had one of those "novelty licence plates." Beloved Mum, in flowers..."

Ricky Gervais would like us to believe that he actually made an obscene remark about his friend's granny's clitoris at her funeral -- or that his fictional stage persona had done so, or that his stage persona wants us to believe he had done so. The friend's reaction to the utterly inappropriate remark is the point of the story. Carr definitely doesn't want us to imagine that he really doesn't know a wreath from a licence plate, or to consider how people on their way to a funeral would feel if the driver behind them started sounding his horn. Like the cancer gag it's a verbal construct that takes place in joke-land. 

I've sometimes been bothered by old Laurel & Hardy routines, because they seem to transpose slapstick situations into the real world. I find it harder to laugh at a pie-in-the-face routine if I am being told that the baker is sad because his nice cake has been destroyed and the bride is sad because her wedding cake has been ruined. I find it harder to laugh at wheels coming off a clown's car if I am supposed to pretend that it is a real car and the owner has lost a valuable asset and been put out of business. Perhaps this is what is meant when we say that joking about terrible things is not the same as actually doing terrible things. Jokes don't even hurt imaginary people: there are no characters in joke land. 

Some of Carr's more anecdotal material does have explicit consequences: and notably these stories are a lot less cruel, and sometimes directed against himself. His story about doing a comedy routine in a hospice depends on the reaction of terminally ill patients to his bad-taste jokes. He claims that when he said  "We don't have much time, well, I do..." the audience was pleased that he had mentioned the elephant in the room, but when he said "Anyone here from last year?" it fell flat. True or not, the sense that this is a real situation in which the comedian went too far and felt mortified is the point of the story. 

But of course, a lot of the act is pure smut, as smutty as possible, smut and nothing but, smut for the sake of being smutty. It's quite juvenile, generally directed at members of the audience and supposed hecklers. ("I'm going to go soft on you. Like every man who's ever seen you naked.") At one point he asks the women in the audience to shout out their names for their genitals. In some possible world, there could have been a feminist message behind this: it is both funny and uncomfortable to hear grown up women admitting to using terms like "flower", "minky" and "nunu".  There would be nothing particularly funny about getting men to shout out "cock", "prick" or "willy": that's just what the thing is called. Carr has some ad libs about the various euphemisms -- he is very quick witted indeed, although I do wonder if some of the heckles he responds to are purely imaginary. But it's mostly a build up to a daft punchline in which he portrays himself in a deliberately childish light. "My wife calls it her fu-fu; which to be honest makes mister dingle-dangle not want to do the humpy hump."

Well, yes. We tend not to talk about our thingybobs and etceteras. And because we don't talk about them, we don't know what to call them, and because we don't know what to call them, we only have silly names for them, which makes it harder to talk about them. I believe modern childcare manuals encourage parents to use Proper Words, but very few do so. The one time I was in hospital as an adult, I was uncomfortable with nurses using babyish expressions like "willy" and "number two" but I don't know what else they could have done.

When we mention things we aren't allowed to mention, some people are uncomfortable. Offended, even. Angry. But it makes other people laugh. And it's a comedian's job to make people laugh: so, naturally, he is going to mention things he isn't allowed to mention. The ruder the word, the more taboo the subject, the more people hollering that he isn't allowed to say that on the stage, the funnier the gag. If comedians ever stopped mentioning the unmentionable they would have stopped being comedians. I suppose that some comedians have a genuine fear that this is the end game that the various species of puritan are working towards. 

Or is there a kind of unspoken double-think? Is there a kind of cultural agreement that we will pretend that you aren't allowed to say "shit" or "cunt" even though we know you are? And therefore we pretend that when a comedian uses one of those words, we are very shocked indeed, even though we are no such thing? And this allows us to pretend that rude jokes are funny, even if, in the cold light of day, they aren't? (We used, after all, to have a tacit agreement that if anyone said "mother in law" we would all fall about.) On the other hand there are some words that you really aren't allowed to say: even in italics and quotation marks, even in the course of an essay about bad words, even if you use *st*r*sks to blot them out. Fuck me all the fucks you like but if I say "J*h*v*h" or "N*gg*r" god will strike me down with a gigantic boulder. I can't even say that I can't say it. 

Carr ends his routine with what he heavily signals will be very bad taste jokes indeed. He describes them as his Career Ending Gags. As usual, many of them are clever and polyvocal:

"I don't like being told to take off my shoes at airports. Really, Heathrow? Just got new carpets, have you? I wouldn't take off my shoes if I was visiting a Mosque. And that sort of cultural insensitivity towards Islam should tell you, I'm not the guy you're looking for."

It's an edgy, taboo subject: terrorism and religion. It takes place, again, in joke-land. If you actually refused to co-operate with Airport security, you'd end up in a cell. I find it very hard to parse it as anti-Muslim. There's a misdirect: wouldn't it be funny if security staff were worried about mud on the carpet. There's an ironic yoking together of two different things: take your shoes off to be searched by security / take your shoes off out of respect in a holy place. And there's a paradoxical pay off: the fact that I won't take off my shoes proves I don't need to. The joke teller doesn't have a clear position and I think our difficulty in processing what has just been said is what makes it funny. Are we laughing at the Islamaphobia of the narrative voice (who won't take his shoes off in a mosque)? or the Islamaphobia of the security man (for assuming that if he's not a Muslim, he can't be a terrorist)? or at ourselves (for momentarily seeing the security man's point)? 

oh but Andrew if you had dark skin and were hassled by security every time you went onto an aeroplane or for that matter if you'd lost loved ones to a terrorist attack which could have been prevented by sensible airport searches than I wonder if you'd be laughing I doubt if you'd laugh if you slipped up on a banana skin and hurt yourself you'd probably be quite annoyed there is absolutely no difference between playing my ding-a-ling on top of the pops and doing a blue peter makes table demonstration of masturbation techniques and incidentally no difference between talking about masturbation in an age appropriate sex education presentation and grooming kids on the internet dirty things are dirty islamaphobic things are islamophobic racist things are racist comedy is no excuse

Perhaps, then,  it is not particular subjects which are off limits. Perhaps particular subjects are off-limits for jokes. Perhaps the taboo is not "mentioning terrorism". Perhaps the taboo is "mentioning terrorism in a joke.

But which are the joke-free categories? 

The Scotsman says "For my last request, I would like to hear a bagpiper play the Bluebells of Scotland". 

The Irishman says "Before I die, I would like to hear an Irish tenor sing Croppy Boy." 

The Englishman thinks for a minute and says "Would you shoot me first?" 

If I am allowed to joke about firing squads, ship-wrecks, death-beds, suicide, and crucifixion who decided that I am not allowed to joke about gas chambers? And won't that create an infinite regress? If gas chamber jokes are taboo and taboo breaking is funny then aren't the kinds of jokes that comedians aren't allowed to tell precisely the kinds of jokes we'd expect comedians to start telling?

I'm not sure if I ought to quote Jimmy Carr's awful, terrible, very bad, not good joke. At first I wasn't going to, but you've heard it already and can easily google for it, so here it is.

"When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the tragedy and horror of six million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis. No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”

We can agree that this joke is in very, very, very, very, very, very, very poor taste. I think we can agree that the very, very, very, very poor taste is the point of it. Carr delivers it in a more than usually arch tone of voice; as if he is speaking in quotation marks. After delivering the punch line, he immediately starts talking about the joke, and why it is funny. ("Edgy, edgy as all hell, it's a joke about the worst thing that has ever happened in human history.") But it would be completely off the wall to infer that the joke is, on any level, actually celebrating the holocaust, or actually calling for the extermination of Roma.

Does the joke depend on anti-traveller racism? I'm not completely sure that it does. The Airport gag was about anti-Muslim prejudice. The train of thought goes: "Dang right, if he's anti-Muslim he can't be a terrorist, oh shit, what am I thinking, ha-ha". But I don't think the holocaust joke expects us to say "Yes! Killing gypsies was a positive -- fuck, no, of course it wasn't ha-ha." I think the laugh is merely about the incongruity of saying that a bad thing was a good thing, with a straight face. One can easily imagine how a comedian in the Ricky Gervais mould would treat the same material. Ironically, of course. Have you ever noticed how gypsies sometimes park their caravans inconveniently, leave lots of litter, and try to sell you craft items you don't really want? All I am saying is that Hitler had the right idea. No, honestly, of course I don't want to kill all the gypsies. Just the ones on my street. No, stop it, gassing minorities is totally abhorrent. You should shoot them. But seriously folks..."

but andrew that's not the point you don't make jokes about genocide you just don't you just don't

Miss Beale said that you mustn't make a joke about bums, because bums are not the sorts of things you should make jokes about. Mrs Whitehouse said you shouldn't make a joke about, er, ding-a-lings, because ding-a-lings are not the sorts of things you should make jokes about. And all right thinking people agree that you mustn't make jokes about genocide because genocide isn't the kind of thing you can make a joke about. 

You can make jokes about anything apart from the things which you can't make jokes about. And we all agree which those things are. Except where we don't. 

But a joke is a thing which makes you laugh, and a good joke is one that a lot of people laughed at, and everyone laughed at Jimmy Carr's awful terrible no good bad joke

Well, they shouldn't have done. 

Boom boom. I'll be here all week. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Friday, January 20, 2023

No, but seriously....

[Contains strong language]

I'm sorry if I have in the past said unpleasant things about dogs. I am personally not a dog person; but some of my dearest friends are, and I would not hear a word said against those very nice people who obviously get a lot of companionship and pleasure from owning furry shit factories that sniff your bollocks and masturbate on your leg. And I am quite sure that all you dog people would not say a word against me, either, just because I get a lot of happiness and enjoyment from drowning puppies. 

Of course I don't actually drown puppies. In fact I volunteer at the local vets....because I enjoy putting dogs to sleep. I enjoy it most when it's some kid's pet and I can make them cry. 

I actually have a private doggie abattoir in my flat. Every morning I round up dogs from the local dog park and slaughter them. Very humanely, of course. With a meat cleaver. And then I mince them up and serve them to my visitors. Don't look so shocked, it's all meat. No-one can tell the difference. Spaghetti bolognaise -- minced dog. Bacon butties -- sliced up dog. "Andrew, why is that Victoria sponge wagging its tail?" "Andrew, why do those Jaffa cakes smell of dog-shit?" "Why is the lasagne trying to shag my leg?" 

You know I don't mean any of this. I would never hurt a dog or any other of God's creatures. Not while anyone was looking, anyway.

No, but seriously...

How do you react to this kind of thing? You can basically go in one of five directions.

1: You know that, as a matter of fact, I am really not a dog person. You don't suspect me of actually slaughtering people's pets; but the riff is a ludicrously exaggerated statement of a genuine dislike of dogs.

2: You believe that as a matter of fact I am a dog person. What I am doing is presenting a grotesque parody of a dog-hater: what you are really laughing at is the ludicrous idea that anyone could possibly dislike something so obviously cuddly. At some level, we both think that non-dog people are cruel, foul mouthed monsters like the one I'm pretending to be.

3: It's not about dogs at all. It would be just as funny if I were talking about eating pigeons, gerbils or P.E teachers. What you are laughing at is the pompous cross man, and the whole idea that someone could treat grotesque cruelty as if it were a harmless hobby. (It's not against any religion to want to dispose of a pigeon.)

4: The content is irrelevant: the riff is merely a pretext for me to say "shit" and "masturbate" as often as possible, because (we are agreed) defecation and masturbation, or at any rate, talking about them, is just funny.

5: It's just not funny. At all.

Whatever direction you go in, you probably agree that talking about killing puppies is not the same as actually killing puppies. My comic riff is not going to cause anyone to actually dog-nap a pooch and serve him up in an Irish stew. 

So, that's all right then.

Isn't it?

Ricky Gervais came in for a lot of criticism after a comic monologue called Supernature appeared on Netflix. LGBTQ+ charities went so far as to say that some of his material was dehumanising and actually dangerous to transexual people.

And unquestionably, his comedy is in terrible taste: he jokes about penises (incessantly), masturbation, death, funerals, pedophilia, obesity, and at the beginning and the end of the act, trans people. (He mostly stays away from racism.)

At the beginning of the talk, he pre-emptively defends himself. His material, he says, is ironic.

Now, irony is a slippery word. If at breakfast I accidentally dip my clean tie in my fried egg, I might say "That was clever." You would understand me to be using irony: what I really meant was "That was stupid."

But when Jane Austen (who is a better writer than me) says "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" we understand her to be using irony as well. But she hasn't said the opposite of what she thinks. She isn't saying that everyone agrees that no rich singleton ever wants to get married. She isn't saying that the idea that well-off bachelors are often on the look-out for partners is so obviously false that it has never occurred to anyone.  I suppose it comes out as "When some of the characters in this story meet an unmarried man, they sometimes assume that he wants to get engaged, but this isn't necessarily the case." It takes us a little while to work out exactly what she does mean. That's why it's funny.

It is quite rare for someone writing ironically to find that their words have been taken at face value. We are told that some people in the eighteenth century thought that Jonathan Swift was seriously advocating cannibalism, but that is pretty hard to believe. Paul McCartney put nonsense lyrics to Get Back because he was afraid that people might not realise that his first version ("don't dig no Pakistanis taking all the people's jobs!") was not meant to be taken seriously. But that was because it was not very good or interesting satire, however well-meaning his intentions. 

Ricky Gervais defines irony thus: 

“That’s when I say something I don’t really mean, for comic effect, and you, as an audience, you laugh at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of satirising attitudes.”

Right thing. Wrong thing. Satire. You laugh at me saying "I like killing dogs" because you know that I don't like killing dogs. Killing dogs is a Wrong Thing. Being kind to dogs is a Right Thing. But by saying the Wrong Thing, I expose and criticise prevailing attitudes. 

It's like the story of Warren Mitchell being approached by a fan after a particularly pungent episode of Til Death Us Do Part. 

"I enjoyed you having a go at all the immigrants on TV last night" 

"I wasn't having a go at the immigrants. I was having a go at arseholes like you."

Let's test this theory against some of Gervais' actual material.

"I've got no problem with praying. I know loads of nice Christians and Moslems and Jews. And if one of my family is very ill, they always say 'I'll pray for them' and I say 'Thanks very much'; because it's a nice gesture. If they say 'We also cancelled the chemotherapy' I say 'Oh, don't do that'. Let's do the praying AND the chemotherapy. 'Cos that's the same result as just the chemotherapy. Let's definitely keep that one, shall we?"

I can think of four more or less plausible ways in which this could be read "ironically".

1: The speaker is a Christian. He is pretending to be a cynical atheist in order to expose and criticise the foolishness of atheism. The Wrong Thing is the idea that prayer does no good. The Right Thing is that the power of prayer is real. The audience laugh because they believe that praying for a cancer patient would do real, measurable good.

2: The comedian is a clever atheist, pretending to be a stupid one, in order to expose and criticise the wrong-headedness of the extreme New Atheist position. The Wrong Thing is his naive belief that Christians see prayer as an alternative to practical action. The Right Thing is that Christians are sensible pragmatic people with a sophisticated theological understanding of prayer and medical interventions going side by side.

3: The comedian is a nice atheist pretending to be a nasty one, in order to expose and criticise the cruelty of some anti-religious rhetoric. The Wrong Thing is to cynically mock people's sincere beliefs; the Right Thing would be to treat faith with respect, even if you don't share it. 

4: The speaker is an atheist, using situational irony to mock a contradiction in some Christian's behaviour. The Wrong Thing is the suggestion that Christians would even want to terminate a cancer patient's treatment because they had prayed for them. The Right Thing is that Christians want chemo as much as anyone else. This exposes and criticises the fact that Christians themselves don't really believe in the power of prayer.

He continues

"Do you remember a few years ago that terrible disaster in Oklahoma?...And I donated to the Red Cross, and I tweeted about it, with a link saying you can donate too. And one of those frivolous entertainment magazines from America tweeted 'Beyonce and Rhianna send prayers to Oklahoma.' And I tweeted back going 'Oh, I feel like a cunt now, I only sent money.'"

This is certainly ironic. He doesn't feel like a cunt. If anything he feels that the two singers are cunts. But what, in a more general sense, is the Wrong Thing in this case?

Is it Wrong to believe that money is more efficacious than prayer in the wake of a  disaster? In which case the Right Thing (which we agree on) is that spiritual help is sometimes just as good or better than practical action. You are troubled by many things, Ricky, but one thing is needful, and Beyonce has chosen the good part. 

Or is the Wrong Thing that he got annoyed by what someone said on Twitter? (The Right Thing would have been not to care.) 

Or is the Wrong Thing that he used the c-word? (The Right Thing would have been to send a politely worded e-mail.) 

I submit that there is no irony whatsoever in either passage. He is saying what he actually believes, and what he expects the audience to believe. "Christians say their prayers" is assumed to be just-funny, like flatulence, bottoms and the word "weasel".

Here is another, relatively harmless, section, about men's changing rooms.

"If I'm in a public place, I have a shower, one minute, towel, corner, pants on. But there's blokes walking around naked before the shower, talking to each other, after the shower, and there was one bloke, spent far too long in the shower, walked, no towel, dripping wet, up to the mirror, and started doing his hair..."

Right thing; wrong thing; irony, satire. If this were ironic, we would suppose that the comedian, who is relatively comfortable with nudity, is pretending to be very inhibited in order to hold prudish people up for ridicule. The Wrong Thing is his being bothered about a man brushing his hair with no underwear on, from which we can infer the Right Thing -- that gym showers are essentially nude spaces. 

I think there is probably a generational divide between men who are fairly relaxed about communal changing and men who are relatively embarrassed by it. It probably depends on what the practice at your old school was. This could certainly be the basis for situational comedy. (I could imagine a Mr Bean routine in which one guy does contortions to keep his towel around himself without noticing that none of the other chaps have anything on at all.) 

So far as I see, there is no irony here. He's saying what he actually thinks; insinuating that the uninhibited are actually exhibitionist. For the purposes of this kind of comedy, the whole idea of nakedness -- the mere brute fact that men have penises -- is Just Funny.

Look -- men's locker rooms. Ha-ha! 

A riff about Time Travel is more promising. People always imagine that if they had a time-machine, they would go back and kill Hitler. But this would be a bad choice for two reasons. No-one knows what the result of killing Hitler would really be. His death would necessarily change every other event in world history since 1889: we don't know what the end result would be. Gervais effects to be concerned that the death of Hitler would negatively impact on him personally.  "I wouldn't change anything even if I could" he explains "My life's too good!" And secondly, the infant Hitler looked the same as every other baby. ("Have you seen Hitler when he was a baby? Oh my god! Absolutely adorable.") So people who say they would kill Hitler are saying they would be prepared to strangled a beautiful baby. 

The Wrong Thing here is the suggestion that preserving your own comfortable life is more important than averting the holocaust. Gervais is presenting himself as meaner and more self-centred than he really is; with the implication that everyone else is mean and self-centred as well. And although he doesn't say so directly, there could be a slither of satire: even though time travel doesn't really exist, we all prioritise our own comfort over the possibility of a better future. Isn't "my life's too good" precisely the reason we don't take steps to avert climate disaster or abolish third world sweatshops?

If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that child would grow up totally evil, to become a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child? It's a good question: I seem to think I have heard it somewhere before. It's usually framed in the form of the Trolly Problem: there is a difference between wishing that someone was not alive and personally taking steps to kill them. Perhaps there shouldn't be, but there is. 

At any rate, there is no straightforward irony in the piece. "You wouldn't kill Hitler because he was cute" isn't quite being presented as a Wrong Thing; "Obviously you ought to kill Hitler" isn't self-evidently Right. 

It would be interesting to know if Gervais really did have had Genesis of the Daleks in mind when he talked about killing babies and wondered if some things might be better with Hitler than without him. He talks about the space-time continuum and worries that changing history might make him "a bit more ginger."

The "cute Hitler" observation is a set-up for a digression about the fact that he has a picture of the infant Hitler on his phone, and the conclusions that some people might draw from that. This turns into a grotesque excursion about pornography and pedophilia."What if I do masturbate over it? What if it's the only thing I masturbate over? There's no victim, no crime..." and so on, for several minutes.

No-one thinks that Ricky Gervais really uses historical photos pornographically. (SPOILER: I have never eaten a dog.) So is he engaging in social satire: exposing and criticising the gap between our laws and our values? Is he saying "There would be nothing wrong with masturbating over Hitler" because there obviously would be? Is he saying "It's a victimless crime" because the law takes the strongest possible view of any sexualisation of children? Is he pointing out that behaviour which most people would think of as completely depraved might, in fact, be technically legal; while actions which are in themselves pretty harmless might actually be against the law? Is he asking if there is any difference between the feelings of "yuck" which would make us hold back from smothering Hitler in his cradle and the feelings of "yuck" we get when a grown man starts going on and on about playing with himself?

No, of course he bloody isn't. It's mere low comedy. We laugh at the outrageousness, the taboo breaking, the bodily fluids. And the coining of the word "wankorium". 

I don't care for this kind of thing. I'm not bothered by the guy in the gym brushing his hair with no pants on. I've probably been that guy. But I am squicked out by jokes about "pictures dripping with forty years of cum". But some people evidently find it very funny indeed. 

The most troubling aspect of the show was the two routines about transexual people. You've almost certainly heard the lines quoted already:

"Oh, women. Women. Not all women. I mean the old fashioned women. You know, the ones with wombs. Those fucking dinosaurs. I love the new women we've been seeing lately. The new women. The ones with beards and cocks."

And then

"And now the old fashioned women are like 'Ooo, they want to use our toilets'.

'Why shouldn't they use your toilets?'


'They are ladies, look at their pronouns. What about this person isn't a lady?'

'His penis.'

'HER penis, you fucking bigot!'

You get the general idea.

To repeat myself, reiterate, and to say the same thing more than once: how is this ironic? Is the joke that Gervais is perfectly comfortable with transexual people and is pretending that he thinks anatomy determines gender in order to expose and criticise the attitudes of people who really do think that way? Are we to take it that "women don't have penises" and "trans women should not be allowed to use ladies' loos" are Wrong Things and everyone is laughing because  "trans women are women" is obviously Right?

That's not what's happening. The audience is not whooping and applauding a comedically wrong thing. They are whooping and applauding because they agree with the point being made. Gervais really thinks Christian prayer is a waste of time. He really thinks that men should cover themselves up in changing areas. And he really thinks that it is absurd that a person with a beard and penis might go by "she" and want access to a ladies' lavatory.

Satire involves distortion and exaggeration. But he is not satirising and distorting the so-called gender critical position. He is simply saying what they say, every day, in every newspaper and every social media outlet in the land, right before they complain about being silenced. It's the trans women, or their supporters, who are presented as grotesque, loud, sweary caricatures, screaming that anyone who doesn't see things their way is a fucking bigot. 

He knows that the material is problematic, because he goes back to it at the end of the act. He says that jokes are not a window to the comedians soul: a comedian might pretend to be right wing, left wing, clever, stupid -- whatever makes the joke funny. He says that when he jokes about famine and the holocaust, people know that he doesn't mean it: but when he jokes about "identity" they assume he does. This is all very fair comment. And then: 

"Full disclosure: in real life, of course, I support trans rights. I support all human rights, and trans rights are human rights. Live your best life. Use your preferred pronouns. Be the gender that you feel that you are. But meet me halfway, ladies: lose the cock."

I see what you did there. An amusing comic contradiction. I never swear: what the devil do you mean? The two things I hate most are racial prejudice and black people. Don't tell him, Pike!

That is the formula. Say something very reasonable and conciliatory. Slip in something very offensive at the end. Do an absurd improvisation on the offensive bit. Add that you don't really mean it. Rinse and repeat. 

It's okay, dog lovers, I didn't mean a word of it. 

I bloody well did! 

No, honestly, I'm kidding. 

No, I'm not. 

Refined practitioners can keep it up for weeks at a time.

If I tell a funny story about a bear who eats so much honey he gets stuck in the doorway of his house; or create a sketch about a man in a restaurant who shovels so much food into his mouth that he literally explodes, you might say that I was making fun of fat people. I would respond that the material is not merely laughing at people because of their size: I have used the idea of obesity as one component in a comedic situation. I'm not saying my mother-in-law is fat, but yesterday she went out in a green dress and a troop of Boy Scouts pitched camp on her. 

But what would I say if my act involved pointing at fat people, literally or metaphorically, and saying "Fat people are fat. Isn't it funny that fat people are fat. Ha ha, fatty lard arse."

I might say: fat people are Just Funny. People laughed. My duty is to make people laugh by any means necessary. All's fair in love and stand-up.

And I might be right. But I couldn't, in the same breath, deny that I was making fun of fat people. 

Of course the rapid changes to our understanding of gender could be the source of absurdity, incongruity, misunderstanding, embarrassment -- or, in short, jokes. Of course "Her penis" still sounds odd to many people. Of course we can make fun of trans people, and gender critical people when they do silly things. But this material isn't ironic or satirical. It relies on us agreeing that the proposition "Some people happen to be trans" is just funny. 

Which is pretty much the exact definition of transphobia. Voltaire me as many Voltaires as you like. You don't get to say "Isn't it funny that black people are black?" and then deny that your material is racist.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Black Joke

A joke is something which makes you laugh.

If something makes you laugh, it is a joke.

If something makes you laugh a lot, or makes a lot of people laugh, it is a good joke.

The question I wish to set before the class today is "Are sophisticated jokes better than simple jokes?"

The question I will turn to tomorrow will be "Are rude jokes ever okay?" with particular reference to the oeuvre of Mr Ricky Gervais and Mr Jimmy Carr. 

Here is the most sophisticated joke I know:

"I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day
To me it is palpable proof of God's existence a

It comes from a patter song by the legendary poet and chansonner Jake Thackray, in which a husband complains at very great and verbose length about the fact that his wife talks too much. ("She is one of those women who/will never use three or four words when a couple of thousand will easily do.") Jake's biographer and interpreter John Watterson (aka Fake Thackray) says that the first eight words constitute the best opening line of any song, ever. 

It's low comedy, of course. We laugh because the man has said a rude word -- the kind of rude word that little children laugh at in the playground. (Flanders and Swann's slightly priggish skit on the demise of censorship in the '60s was called "pee poo belly bum drawers". ) But the bawdy remark ("I like women's arses") is followed by a very serious one: the attractiveness of women's bottoms proves that God exists. The punchline combines the sexual remark and the theological remark into the only Latin pun known to have appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test. 

"There must be a God because of human kindness, humming birds and lady's bottoms" is certainly an a posteriori argument -- a deduction based on empirical data, not pure logical necessity. But a posteriori literally means "based on what comes behind", and posterior is a posh euphemism for, well, derrierre. We laugh at the vulgarity; we laugh at the fact that a schoolboy word and a donnish word occur in the same sentence. And we laugh at the speed of the delivery: we don't quite have time to see what he's done before we're onto the next bit. The line break creates a tiny pause: it takes a fraction of a second before you realise Latin is being talked at you. (You hear it as "palpable proof of God's existence ay....posteriori." It's a variation on the hoary old "implied rhyme" trick -- "when the fellow was right in the midst of his frolics / the innkeeper grabbed him quite hard by the jacket". )

Here is the least sophisticated joke I know

What is the difference between a weasel and a stoat?
A weasel is weaselly recognised and a stoat is stoatally different.

This joke won second prize in the Beaver Club Super Joker Competition at Clacton Butlins in 1975. It is a pun and nothing else. I suppose it is slightly funny that someone has given a silly answer to a sensible question. And the great James Thurber said that weasel is an intrinsically funny word. But the joke has no further point. The first syllables of two English words sound like the names of two animals. Ho-ho.

I like wordplay. I don't like old-fashioned word-play: I prefer current puns. I once included ten different word-plays in the same article, hoping that at least one would get a laugh, but sadly, no pun in ten did. But a decent pun generally has to involve something apart from the mere fact of one word sounding like another word. For example: 

a: Dramatic situation: One character plausibly misunderstands what the other has said. ("Four candles! 'Andles for forks!")

b: Outrageous contrivance: A hugely complicated set up, generating tension which is relieved by the punch line.  ("It's a nick-nack, Patty Jaques: give the frog a loan.")

c: Dissonance: the speaker says something which seems nonsensical for a second, but is de-coded once you understand the pun. ("The vicar told the bellringer, and the bellringer tolled the bell.")

d: Double entendre: ("I do declare the prince's balls get bigger every year!") If the speaker is a pompous individual who doesn't realise he has said something naughty, so much the better.

e: Sheer, breath-taking ingenuity. ("Kings Cross Station -- A royal lobster.")

But we're linguistic animals: even the most unsophisticated pun can raise a smile. Like it or not, it is just funny that some words sound like other words. And we're also sexual animals, and social animals. Like it or not, it is just funny that men and women do a particular thing in bed; and like it or not it is just funny that there are parts of the body and bodily functions that we are not supposed to talk about. And I am sorry to say we are cruel animals: it is just funny when someone slips over or steps on a rake. If laughter is the object of the exercise, Jake Thackray didn't need to bother with the Latin. He might just as well have said "I like women's bums, me." He could probably have raised a laugh by merely walking onto the stage and shouting "Bum!"

So: by low humour I mean laughing at farts, bums, swears, custard pies, and pratfalls. (Pratt is an old fashioned word for bottom. A pratfall means falling on your arse. Bottoms are an indispensable component of English comedy. Fundamental, even.) By sophisticated humour I mean jokes which involve some ingenuity, or which have some sort of point to them. 

If you don't get a sophisticated joke, there is a chance I can explain it to you. You might not laugh: but you will understand why other people did. But if you don't find it funny when the clown slips on the banana skin, there is nothing I can do for you.

Here is a joke I didn't get the first time I heard it.   

Sigmund Freud: In your professional opinion, what comes between fear and sex?
Carl Jung: Funf

There is an old story about a local council official charged with censoring the postcards in a little sea-side resort (which, in the 1950s, often contained risque jokes). He adopted the policy of showing them to the Mayor's wife. If she said they were too rude to be sold in a respectable town, he judged them to be harmless fun and approved them. But if she said "Well, I don't see anything funny in that" then he decided they were genuinely filthy and banned them.

Doubtless, quite a lot of prudes pretend not to find dirty jokes funny when they really mean that they don't approve of them. When the Slitheen appeared in the Sarah-Jane Adventures, Clyde had to explain to Luke (a super intelligent alien clone) that "Farts are funny. They just are". But, by the same token, if Queen Victoria is genuinely Not Amused by bodily functions, then she isn't.

So. Low comedy is basically cheating. The low comedian points to things which are just-funny and tells us to laugh at them. The wit or the raconteur, on the other hand, points to things which are not funny and enables us to laugh at them. You don't need to go to a Carry On film in order to laugh at the existence of lavatories: you probably have one in your own house. But an evening with a clever humorist will allow you to see the funny side of tax returns and terminal cancer. He creates a funniness where it did not exist before.

So: sophisticated comedy is cleverer than low comedy. But that isn't the same as saying it is better. It is certainly not the same as saying it is funnier. We can't argue that opera singing is better than pop singing merely because it is harder. We don't have to say that Jane Austen -- who is never indecent and almost never farcical -- is intrinsically superior to Charlie Chaplin (who is the king of the custard pie and the banana skin) and Geoffrey Chaucer (who, among other things, makes jokes about sex, farts, excrement and genitals.) Granted, Chaplin doesn't just fall over, and Chaucer doesn't just say "fart". They put a lot of effort into setting up their jokes. Someone once asked Chaplin how to get a laugh out of a fat lady falling on a banana skin. Chaplin said that you showed the lady. Then you showed the banana skin. Then you showed the lady walking towards the banana skin. Then you showed the lady seeing the banana skin, and stepping to one side to avoid it....and falling down a man hole. But however much set up there has been "Spek, sweete bryd, I noot nat where thou art" only works if we agree with Clyde that farts are intrinsically funny.

The only criterion on which we can judge a comedian is whether or not they are funny. So, if, as a general rule, we laugh more at wit than at bawdy, the argument is over. Excrement, penises, swear-words and people falling over are components from which jokes can sometimes be constructed; but it is just not funny to walk onto the stage wearing a fake phallus and talk about taboo subjects.

But unfortunately for us sophisticates, low comedy is funny. People laugh their posteriors off at the silliest, crudest, rudest material. That's every vaudevillian's defence of his blue material. People pay money to come and see me. You can't get a ticket. My show sells out weeks in advance. Listen to the laughter. 

So: it's just a matter of taste. I prefer the sophisticated joke-smith; you prefer the basic purveyor of smutty stories. And that's fine: I like opera and you like jazz. I'm a cat person and you're a dog person. What makes you laugh makes you laugh and what doesn't doesn't. Nothing is better than anything else.

Did you know that the reason comedians talk about "blue" jokes is that, in the days of censorship, unacceptable material was underlined in blue pencil? I certainly didn't. 

So: can I come up with any reason why it's better to tell a complicated joke with a set up, a punch line, and some word play that hadn't occurred to us before, than it is to walk onto the stage, drop your trousers and shout "Arseholes!" (granted that both get an equally big laugh)? 

Maybe we could say that high comedy does several things; where low comedy only does one. Satire is better than slapstick because it makes you laugh and also offers a critique of corrupt politicians. A clever pun is better than a simple one because it makes you laugh and also makes you think about the nature of language. This is not an argument that satire is funnier than slapstick. In fact, it's allowed to be less funny. Many of us forgive Private Eye and Newsthump for not making us laugh as much as they used to because we agree with their political points. The only justification for a custard-pie routine is if it makes you laugh an awful lot. If it doesn't, it's just boring. 

Not all satire is sophisticated. An alternative comic who walks onto the stage and says "That Rishi Sunak --- what a bastard!" is on exactly the same level as a clown who comes onto the stage and shows the audience his bum. If people laugh, then people laugh. 

This kind of argument is essentially puritanical. Pleasure is bad; or at any rate, not good. If people enjoy laughter, then laughter is probably bad. Since laughter is bad (or at any rate, not good) then the burden of proof is on the clown to demonstrate that in this particular instance the bad thing is justified by some higher purpose. But contrawise, if laughter is good (or at any rate not bad) then there is nothing in the world more harmless and innocent than a lot of people in a tent watching a man in a silly hat pulling down his pants and slipping on a banana skin. The burden of proof is on the puritan to prove that in this particular case there is some harm in it. 

Which makes comedy sound a lot like pornography.  If pleasure is bad in itself, then dirty books are bad unless they possess a quality called "artistic merit" which makes up for the sexual kicks people get from looking at them. But if sexual pleasure is good (or at any rate, not bad) then there is absolutely no objection to a room full of male persons watching a female person taking all her clothes off -- granted, obviously,  that everyone involved has given their informed consent.

Okay then. Let's not be puritans. Let's be Epicureans. Why read comic books when there's great literature out there? Why waste your time tittering at bum jokes when the great humorists and satirists are gathering dust in the public library. It's not wrong, exactly, to enjoy gassy larger and instant coffee, but if you'd only try real ale and artisan espresso, you'd enjoy it more. Give up Roy Chubby Brown for a month and work your way through Jonathan Swift and you won't ever go back. 

Is that pretentious and judgemental? Okay then, try this one. If you can watch a clown falling over and be transported into a state of hysterical ecstasy then you are less likely to spot all the things which are actually making you unhappy and do something about them. Circuses are good things. So is bread. But the government is very probably using both of them to keep us docile.

Laughter is the opium of the people. So is theatre and chocolate biscuits and folk music. And, indeed, opium. But if you are screaming in agony, opium may be precisely what you need. If the common people really have nothing else to do then it makes sense for them to sing and dance and screw. The poor invented music hall and clog dancing because the rich were hoarding all the champagne for themselves. The problem with capitalism is not that fun is bad, but that fun is unequally distributed. After the revolution, we'll all have the resources and spare time to go to as many comedy shows as we like. 

You can make the same argument from a more spiritual position. The only true pleasure and the only true happiness come from union with God. Bounty bars, romantic love; the Marriage of Figaro and the Marx Brothers are all equally focussed on giving us a quick fix in the here and now. Pascal's Wager says abstain from laughter today so you can spend eternity laughing with the angels up in heaven tomorrow. People living serious, spiritual lives are much happier than those living frivolous worldly ones. Too much laughter makes baby Jesus sad. It also makes you sad in the long and infinite term. 

But these are arguments again all comedy whatsoever. If we monks have taken a vow to abstain from laughter, then P.G Wodehouse is just as off-limit as fart-gags. But if we are allowed to tell jokes in the cloister, then why is a sophisticated story more holy than a playground joke? Might it not be that a good honest dick joke is a good deal holier than a Wildean paradox? Low comedy laughs at the actual facts of the human condition; the way in which God decided to put incorruptible souls in flesh suits which piss and shit and have oddly shaped bits dangling off them. Wits and raconteurs create cruel paradoxes to show off their own superiority. CS Lewis thought you could extrapolate the whole of Christian theology from the existence of rude jokes and ghost stories. 

"But we monks -- we Christians -- are supposed to be very pure. And what you call low humour is really just laughing about impurity. We don't talk about our private parts or bodily functions or sexual immorality; and we only speak of God with respect. And the proper response to cruelty or misfortune, real or imagined, is sympathy and empathy. We don't laugh if someone slips on his arse, we offer him a cup of tea and check he's all right. You are right to draw an analogy between comedy shows and strip clubs. Men ought not to be looking at ladies breasts for enjoyment. And they ought not to be laughing at indecent stories, either. Some things may be just funny. But some of the things which are just funny are just wrong."

And that brings us up against a brick wall. The only justification for coarse, rude, silly, or cruel comedy is that coarseness, rudeness, silliness and cruelty are just funny. But equally, the only objection to them is that they shouldn't be. You shouldn't joke about certain things, because there are certain things that you shouldn't joke about. And puritanism will sweep the clever and sophisticated away along with the simple and crude. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.