The BBC’s national treasure, Jo Brand, recently joked that battery acid would be a better liquid to throw into Nigel Farage’s face, than a milkshake. The Radio 4 audience found this hilarious, which proves that it was clearly a joke. Nigel Farage didn’t think it was funny. The BBC didn’t think that Danny Baker was funny when he posted a photograph of a monkey in a suit to represent the royal baby; he was given the sack. So, what is an acceptable joke nowadays? How do we know when to laugh?
In the olden days, laughter was an involuntary response to something funny. In our more enlightened times, we must consider the effect of a joke before we decide whether or not to engage in spontaneous laughter.
Humour is intuitive
Try explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t get it and you will see that fun cannot be logically de-constructed. Before making a wisecrack, it is important to consider the feelings of somebody who may not find you very funny.
When considering telling a joke, check that the people around you share your assumptions. A quick survey works well, as does a show of hands. Perhaps make a brief inquiry into a person’s voting history before they sit down with you for a drink. This will avoid the risk of causing offence.
Laughter may be a spontaneous and involuntary response but people should consider the potential impact of humour on those who may interpret the joke as a personal attack.
Consider the perceived vulnerability of those around you. If necessary, discuss the subject and gain their approval before laughing. Co-ordinate your response so that you can all laugh together.
In the olden days, it was assumed that comedians played with ideas and adopted personas for comedic effect. They often used stereotypes and caricatures to make people laugh. From Monty Python and Spike Milligan to The Young Ones and The Fast Show, comedy writers felt free to exaggerate, be absurd and to mock. We now understand that there is no such thing as ‘pure comedy’. Academics, who specialise in post-modern comedic de-construction, have demonstrated that oppressive forces use humour to project a malignant world-view in order to sustain unequal power relationships. When an audience laughs at a joke which addresses a sensitive subject, they are being wilfully de-sensitised. Mockery is thus normalised.
Assess the sensitivity of the subject and use of stereotypes before considering laughter. If necessary, call out the prejudice within the comedic structure.
The right type of butt
It is always acceptable to mock those in power. This is known as ‘punching up’. However, you may feel that you want to mock those whom you consider to be beneath you. For example, working-class people or Brexit voters. There are two ways to ‘punch down’ when appearing to ‘punch up’. In certain social circles, it is widely understood that your position in society is determined by your sex, race and sexuality. Simply by declaring that the butt of your joke is ‘privileged’, you are free to make fun of them to the point of humiliation. Alternatively, follow Jo Brand’s example and find a proxy for your target group. For example, if you want to lampoon Brexit voters, attack Nigel Farage personally. If you want to look down on the lower middle-classes direct your invective at ‘Daily Mail readers’. In this way, you are free to laugh at those beneath you and feel good about yourself.
Ensure that the declared target of your joke is ‘privileged’.
Comedy can act as a unifying force in society. When we all laugh together, we feel part of a community. However, our society is deeply divided, and the BBC plays an important role healing the divisions within the part of our community that wants to stay part of the European Community, now known as the European Union. Comedians that make jokes about the stupidity of those who want to leave the EU are nurtured to create a sense of collective spirit. Mocking people ‘outside the room’ may intensify the divide across the nation, but it unifies those within it. This creates a community of shared interests and raises morale.
Make sure your joke endears you to the right community. Ask yourself the question: will this joke help or hinder the European project? If in doubt, fly it by someone in Brussels for approval.
Jo Brand has a history of making dark jokes and some of them are quite funny. She once said that she had “a soft spot for Nick Clegg. Face down on Hackney Marshes”. But let’s move beyond murderous wisecracks. We must all play our part in eschewing the spontaneous laughter of an unthinking fool and view it instead as the conscious action of an informed individual, aware of the perceived consequences of our reaction to each joke. Involuntary laughter isn’t funny. It’s dangerous.