Imagine you’re a Nobel prize-winning scientist.
You’re really good at science. So good, you were knighted and made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. You’d think you’d be most known for your big breakthrough, wouldn’t you?
In your case, you discovered a family of proteins called cyclins. Nice one! (You called them ‘cyclins’ as a joke, because you were into cycling at the time. Ha ha.)
You might hope that the vast majority of your Wikipedia page would contain a lengthy explanation of your discovery and how it teaches us a lot about the mysteries of cell division.
But no. You made a joke.
And it wasn’t a joke about cycling. It was a joke in 2015. About girls. In an improvised speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, you said that the trouble with having girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
People decided that it wasn’t funny. They either didn’t know about the context, in which you framed your comments by saying self-effacing things like “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists” and that “Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” Or, more likely, they didn’t care.
The next day, it was decided that what you said wasn’t just unfunny but grossly offensive to anyone who wasn’t there and isn’t interested in the context. And that’s pretty much everyone.
So you were forced to resign from your position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. You were reinstated to that committee a while later, but let’s face facts. You won’t be known as Sir Tim Hunt FRS, FRSE, FMedSci, MAE but ‘that guy who made that sexist joke’ for a long time.
And here’s the real kicker, and perhaps why it was so offensive. What you said is factually and scientifically true. People do fall in love with each other in the workplace, and women are much more likely to cry at criticism than men. You might think scientists and science journalists would be able to process those facts rationally and understand the joke. Apparently, they can’t.
None of this should be a surprise. It is possible to set fire to your career and reputation in the blink of an eye, or the refresh of an app. It just takes a few words and a hitting ‘send’. Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Barack Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett caused her successful comeback sitcom to be cancelled. That one lousy joke might have cost her tens of millions of dollars.
You don’t even have to be famous to be disembowelled by the twitchfork mob. Justine Stacco only had 170 followers when she tweeted a very dubious AIDS joke before getting on a plane to Cape Town. She thought she was among friends, but apparently not. Unaware, high in the air, she became a global sensation. Nothing could have prepared her for the whirlwind of rage that greeted her when she landed. There was even a hashtag for that moment: #HasJustineLandedYet Jon Ronson wrote about her in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
And here’s the kicker for Justine Stacco. Her joke wasn’t nice, but it was considerably nicer than similar AIDS jokes in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed, Broadway smash-hit show, The Book of Mormon. But that was written by the creators of South Park and Team America: World Police, so everyone was expecting jokes in poor taste. So that makes it okay, right?
The Book of Mormon is an interesting case of how to take a joke well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could have had a serious sense of humour failure over this commercially-successful broadside attack on their faith. Instead, they smiled (Mormons are good at that), took it on the chin and suggested people read the real book for themselves. That was the suggestion in the adverts the church took out in the official show programme. Nice move.
This pragmatic and gracious reaction of the Mormon church is surprising because it’s so rare. Religious people are not known for their sense of humour. One immediately thinks of Mary Whitehouse counting swear words in TV sitcoms, or the painful discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark about The Life of Brian in 1979.
More recently, consider the reaction of mainstream Christians to Jerry Springer: the Opera, which attracted over 50,000 complaints for its BBC broadcast in January 2005. Most of these were received by the Corporation before the performance was even transmitted. There was legal action and a private prosecution for blasphemy. This is not a surprise. Christians often fail to see the funny side.
All of the above is nothing compared to the reaction to cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. The deaths of 12 people and the injury of 11 others in broad daylight on 7th January 2015 was a distressing reminder that jokes can have very serious consequences.
The Sacred Art of Joking
I’m a comedy writer. And a Christian. And I love jokes. What’s more, I think Jesus was funny. The Bible is full of comic moments, images, stories as well as a talking donkeys and bushes. Christians should be laughing more, both at themselves and the idiocy of the world around them. After all, God laughs at us (Psalm 2:4), so we might as well join in and see the funny side. (It’s pretty basic advice: When the boss laughs, you laugh.)
All this is why I’ve written a book called The Sacred Art of Joking. In it, I explain how jokes work, how they can go horribly wrong, especially in the realm of religion, and what Christians can do about it. You can pre-order a signed copy from me HERE (UK Only), or Amazon if you’d rather.
But this is the internet, so I have to write a list.
Here’s one about extreme measures you can take when navigating the potentially fatal waters of making a joke anywhere other than inside your head.
- Before you make any joke on Facebook or Twitter, assume everything you write publicly online will be available to all people across the universe for all of eternity. Seriously.
- Before you send a mean-spirited joke on a private message or email, read it back to yourself. And then imagine how it would sound when read aloud in court.
- When making an off-the-cuff speech, remember it might be recorded on someone’s phone. So think about what you’re saying and imagine how it will sound when a Newsnight presenter reads a transcript back to you in the least funny way possible, in front of a member of a lobby group who is professionally offended. How’s that speech looking now?
- If you go ahead with the joke, and it causes wide-spread offence, and your motives were good, consider not apologising. An apology will never be enough for the twitchfork mob. They don’t really care about the joke. They are lonely keyboard warriors looking for someone to bully. And the pundits are using you to virtue-signal for their own ends. It’s not about you. It never was.
- If you’re a celeb or a politician and you torch your career with a joke, there’s always I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
This list sounds drastic. But it’s actually excellent advice.
But you won’t follow it. And nor will I, because we instinctively know how important jokes are. They are too precious to be handed to the shrieking mob and the Thought Police. We were made for jokes. We were made for joy. We were made for laughter by the God who laughs. So Keep Joking, Carry On and Buy My Book.
I will also be performing part of the one-man show based on the book at The Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, alongside Paul Kerensa and Simon Jenkins, on 19th October at 6.30pm. Come on down! You can hear a sample of The Sacred Art of Joking show here.