Friday, 10 September 2010

Why sick jokes matter

Over at the Guardian there’s one of those predictably contentious blogs about language and its uses. Kira Cochrane’s article – eloquent and well-written, if too anecdotal to really prove her thesis – charts the supposed rise in the use of rape allusions, metaphors and jokes, citing boxers, gym members and comedians as evidence of this pernicious linguistic trend. You probably don’t have to bother reading the comments below the line to imagine the kind of responses it’s generating: handwringers on one side, oh-just-get-over-its on the other; misogynistic comments followed by men-hating responses, both providing pretty good reasons to hate men and women with true equality. The one thing that did surprise me, however, was this reaction to it from Virago books’ twitter stream: “Sexual violence needs our attention, it's NOT to be made light of, thus detracting from its horrifying true nature”

Yesterday I met my friend Nikesh Shukla for a quick, post-work beer. I’d recently read his smart and funny debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, and we quickly got down to talking about humour and jokes and why they were important. Nikesh’s writing brims with gags, with puns word play and self-deprecation, and in the book he lets his inner 14-year-old run riot over invented rap lyrics that are both hilarious and also full of gangsta violence cliché. I can’t recall any rape gags in there, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of place if there were, considering there are references to Fred West and various other types of violence. As a satire both of teenage exuberance and rap's strut and posture, these sections of the book are spot on: according to those that share Virago’s midset however, they should not be allowed.

What this standpoint seems to ignore is that humour is one of the very most important parts of being human. Laughter, whether in the dark or not, is vital for successful human interaction; the ability to see the funny side a pre-requisite for surviving the modern world (just as it was for the ancient). Watch any group of people for long enough and sooner rather than later there will be laughter. Observe a bunch of strangers gathered together for the first time and wait as they lurch towards their first joke or humorous anecdote. It is the absolute default position: laughter is a facilitator of communication, a shared experience that can create a bond almost instantly. Without it, our basic humanity is incomplete.

The attempt to limit the palate of what is acceptable to joke about and what isn’t is doomed to failure because of this. The need, the compulsion to laugh means that the only real limitation is what others consider to be funny. To this current generation, weaned on Little Britain and Catherine Tate and not party to the political correctness that necessarily informed my childhood in the mid-eighties, words simply don’t have the same power. In Coconut Unlimited, the narrator Amit can’t bring himself to use the ‘N-bomb’ when rapping along to a Nas record; I can’t imagine a 14-year-old having the same reticence these days. Lenny Bruce has got his wish, but whether he’d be pleased at devolving the meaning of every word rather than just that one racial epithet is rather moot.

We seem to like our jokes cancer black. This is a relatively recent sea-change, and one that will no doubt move on in time. Mock the Week is probably the biggest British comedy show on television and exists solely to give a light studio ambience to nasty, mean-spirited jokes about any given subject. Frankie Boyle can sell out stadia across the country with jokes about Downs Syndrome and alcoholism and haunted vaginas; Jimmy Carr with his rapid fire, Bob-Monkhouse’s-evil-twin schtick does likewise. They have an audience who wants to be shocked, who wants to be able to laugh at anything and everything. The sense that they can go too far at any one point is what makes their acts tick.

Neil Hamburger, whom I saw recently, takes this to an even further extreme. Drink soused, greasy haired and hiding behind thick spectacles, he appears as a relic from a bygone age: the old-fashioned comedian, the middle act on a bill of several. But through a subtle and initially imperceptible sleight of hand, he shows you a man on the edge of serious breakdown. His delivery is a perfect shouted drawl, his one liners crude and surreal. But though the jokes are funny in their own right (assuming that you find his brand of savagery funny, which is by no means assured) it is the between-gag tics that become increasingly interesting. Hamburger seems to weep as he lurches from one celebrity baiting quip to another, checks the note-cards in his pocket and grimaces as he reads the next joke he has queued up, sometimes even saying ‘oh my god’ as he reads them. The inference is clear; Hamburger’s only way of surviving is to adapt to what the audiences want – and what they want is his sickest, most depraved imaginings. He is sickened by himself, but he is more sickened by a culture that actually wants to listen to this stuff.

Pushing the boundaries of taste is hardly a new thing, and neither is it a problem. The very fact that we shouldn’t be joking about rape is what gives it the ability to be funny. There is a great moment in the film The Aristocrats where the comedian Gilbert Gottfried attempts to do a routine about 9/11 a few weeks after the towers fell. The audience shout him down with the immortal line: ‘Too soon’. The reaction is interesting. They are not saying never, but quickly proving Woody Allen’s equation, Tragedy + Time = Comedy. If an audience of New Yorkers can reach a consensus that there is a point in which jokes about the biggest terrorist attack on their shores becomes acceptable, it surely proves that jokes about rape – or anything else for that matter – should only be censored internally, based on the reaction of those to whom you are trying to make laugh.

This can lead to misunderstandings, however. You could use this, for example, to explain away the telling of racists gags to bigots. Except there is a big difference between rape or child abuse jokes and that of a systematic put down of a race of people based on their skin colour. No one who tells a joke that actively encourages rape or sexual abuse of children is ever going to get a laugh. It’s not possible to raise a smile from that, there is no point in telling it. It’s almost as if these jokes come with their own in-built parameters: this far and no further. Racist or homophobic jokes, however, play into a more deep seated line of behaviour. There are enough people in this country who are casually racist, or even vocationally so, to laugh along and be on the side of the comedian. A racist joke plays on stereotypes and on the innate suspicion of the other; a sick joke like Jimmy Carr’s 'I bought a rape alarm because I kept on forgetting when to rape people’ is based around taking a taboo subject and making it sound ridiculous.

Confining comedy to subjects fit for jokes is an act of both societal and cultural vandalism. What would Macbeth be without the dark jokes about brewers droop? Philip Roth’s finest hour, Sabbath’s Theater, would be a limp dick without the brutality of his humour; American Psycho would run to about fifty pages of brand names and soft rock tributes. Like life, truly great works of fiction need humour; not necessarily belly laughs, but an understanding that humour underpins our existence. Beckett understood this; Orwell, despite all his many gifts, did not.

The critical nature of humour is underplayed both in life and in fiction; but most especially in fiction. There are always laughs, no matter how bleak the situation and it’s the novelist’s responsibility to recreate life in its entirety. To ignore the human need for laughter is to present a purely partial view of human life – and to ringfence aspects of life from this process, as Virago suggests, is both wrong-headed and hugely restrictive.