Nothing should be ‘no laughing matter’

Guests on The World’s Most Offensive Jokes recoiled with a squirm from tasteless gags. Clearly they don’t get the importance of black humour.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Back in the 1960s and 70s there used to be sung at football matches, to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down, ‘Harry Roberts is our friend / is our friend / is our friend / Harry Roberts is our friend / He kills coppers.’ It was a tribute to the eponymous Mr Roberts, who in the summer of 1966 murdered three policemen in West London. The song itself was designed to taunt fellow serving officers at football games. It was a ludicrous ditty, typical of the vacuous bravura one still sees among certain types at football grounds.

A pal of mine called Mike, whom I go to games with, finds the chant hilarious on account of its sheer imbecility. Now Mike is possibly the most offensive person I know, and thus in turn, the funniest person I know, because he employs black humour to be subversive. (At least that’s my interpretation; maybe he really is just sick in the head.) A few years ago we were travelling on a coach to watch Brentford play up in Grimsby, when we passed through Soham. We had had a few ales by this time, and in Mike’s case, a few spliffs to boot. Upon passing through the Cambridgeshire village he suddenly burst into song. ‘Ian Huntley is our friend / is our friend / is our friend / Ian Huntley is our friend / He kills children’ he boomed, clapping his hands rhythmically and with gusto.

Naturally, the rest of the passengers failed to join him in this chant. Those who didn’t know Mike regarded him with horror; those who did, just sighed or ignored him, for this was the kind of behaviour they had long come to expect from Mike – a man who freely employs the word ‘spastic’ as an insult, and who used to do an impression of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, the 11-year-old who lost his arms in a Baghdad bomb attack. Myself, I hadn’t laughed so hard for years.

From my point of view, Mike was mocking and subverting the ridiculous Harry Roberts song, while likewise expressing exasperation at the reaction to the murder of two girls in Soham in 2002, for which a school caretaker, Ian Huntley, was found guilty. Newspapers and television had turned this tragedy into a drama, had helped to whip up an hysterical anti-paedophile panic, while giving members of the public an excuse to indulge in now customary displays of hollow, conspicuous compassion. Mike was exactly the opposite to those grief tourists who poured into the Cambridgeshire village after the tragedy. He was kicking against the pricks.

This was black humour at its best: deeply offensive but actually quite clever. And it was this that was addressed this week on Channel 4’s The World’s Most Offensive Jokes. Now, I know television reviewers have a tendency to excoriate everything they watch, and I really wanted to enjoy this programme, but it was all too predictable. First of all, the concept was all wrong. Basically, jokes aren’t funny. Satire can be, as with wit, sarcasm, imitation and parody, but when was the last time you laughed at a joke? You will also notice that people who tell jokes and people you don’t like tend to be the same people. And in the show, we had regurgitated all those hackneyed playground jokes of yesteryear – ‘Why did Hitler commit suicide? Because he got his gas bill’; ‘What do you call an all-black abortion clinic? Crime Stoppers’ – told to talking heads who consequently recoiled with a feigned squirm. Didn’t these people ever go to school?

The talking heads were themselves part of the problem. The likes of Darcus Howe, Johann Hari and Paul Morley gave reasonably cogent explanations for the appeal of black humour, but some of the observations were trite. The audience discovered that while gentiles can’t make jokes about Jews, Jews themselves can. Then came the observation that email is now a vehicle through which black humour is transmitted only minutes after tragedies such as 9/11 occur. Again, nothing new here. The talking head format is so tired anyway. Obviously Channel 4, BBC 2 and Sky One think it’s a good thing, what with it long being standard in programmes such as Football Years, Pop Years, I Love 1841, The Top 50 Best Apples, Britain’s Fucking Right Hard Bastard Hooligans and so on – but I’d rather hear the opinion of clever people, not newspaper and telly people.

One of the highlights of The World’s Most Offensive Jokes was hearing the opinions of the behavioural expert Judi James. The programme would have been improved immensely with more of her insights. Why, for example, in Britain, were there jokes after 9/11 but not after 7/7? Too close to home, perhaps? Additionally, I would have preferred more investigation and explanation as to the attraction of black humour, and whether it is something to be encouraged or disapproved of. Sure, offensive humour can often be the weapon of the powerful to mock and degrade the powerless, such as jokes made at the expense of blacks, women, disabled people, the Irish, Poles, and so on. But often dark humour serves to question the consensus, to break taboos that need breaking, such as the mawkish reaction to Soham or the death of Diana, or the risible assumption that the country is riddled with paedophiles – and after this week’s events – that you must never take children out of your sight or indeed abroad.

The paedo-panic is having a seriously deleterious effect on our children, a generation who as future adults will be utterly incapable of looking after themselves. This is why we need people like Chris Morris, and indeed my friend Mike, to shock people into making them realise that they are acting like idiots.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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