[Originally posted on 26 August, 2008]
Okay, let’s start with a joke.
A man goes to the doctor, doctor tells him he has cancer. The man is obviously quite miffed about this, but goes on to take the usual treatment; chemo, radio etc. After months and months of therapy he finally is given the all clear and goes out to celebrate. He does what any man would do and goes down his local for a few pints with his mates.
At the end of the night he walks home and gets run over by a car. Life’s a bitch, ain’t it?
That is a fairly basic example of an ironic joke, or of black humour. Not uproariously funny, but you get the idea. It could quite easily be used in a rather edgy sketch show.
Now, what if I told you that’s a real story?
The man was called Barrie Neville, he was 59, a father of one and he died last year.
Not so funny now.
Or is it? I read this in the papers today and it still raised a smirk around the office. It seems the sheer irony of this man’s appalling luck overrides any sense of tragedy and compassion, and that got me thinking about the nature of laughter.
Quite a lot of the time, laughter is cruel. I spent a good amount of last weekend telling some pretty sick jokes at Reading Festival.
I think this one from Jimmy Carr gets the tone across best:
Q: What is worse than finding a worm in your apple?
So often the funniest jokes are the cruellest, we skirt around topics that are taboo and have to judge what is funny and what is just plain offensive. It’s the best way to get people to laugh: by challenging their standards or making them confront the scariest things in the world and conquer them by laughing about them. Jokes just aren’t as potent when you play it safe. What’s the funniest inoffensive joke you can tell? I bet it’s not that great…
Henri Bergson once said that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion” and I think that is spot on. The story above is less funny when you can attach a name to it; give it a face, and a grieving family. The details make it all the more real, all the more painful.
The same works with celebrity jokes, we laugh about them because we disassociate ourselves from the victim. They lead a privileged life, so they are fair game for cruel jokes. To quote a friend of mine:
“Apparently Jade Goody’s got cancer. All I need now is for Amy Winehouse to catch AIDS and my life is complete!”
Now, I find that funny. If my friend was talking about someone I know, then I’d probably hit him, but since we are so distanced from Jade Goody, we smirk and think: “That’s what you get for getting rich and famous without having any talent, you pig-faced bitch.”
Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but you see where I’m coming from.
But take our man with cancer – there is no moral to his story. The car that hit him wasn’t speeding; the driver wasn’t drunk, so there’s no scope for The Daily Mail to have a rant about how Britain is full of binge-drinkers and hooligans who need to be rounded up and shot. The simple truth is that the car’s brakes failed. It was just, quite simply, a very unfortunate accident.
The irony could not be more acute here, so part of us laughs, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. These things have a way of coming round and biting you in the arse, though. One day the joke will be on us, to some extent, and when it is, the best thing to do is to see the funny side and take solace in the fact that someone else is laughing just a little bit.
Now Playing: The Smiths – That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
UPDATE – 26/11/08
Today I spotted a joke that made my jaw drop.
I’m not going to try and moralise, this is the kind of ‘edgy’ joke which many would secretly find funny without considering themselves to be racist. If someone told this joke down the pub, would you criticise them for it?
118 118 took a risk by putting this in their joke text system, and it backfired spectacularly. In this case the context of a joke is crucial, and you have to admit they have crossed the line. I hardly think the two young Asians who read it found it funny at all.
There is a place for racism in humour; when it serves to ridicule the mindset which brings about such judgements. But 118 118’s gaffe simply perpetuates an existing mindset and further entrenches the imperialist idea that Britain is only for white Caucasians.