Tag Archives | Offence

The Hunt for the Joker

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?

Cyclin, C-terminal domain (not to be confused with Cyclin, N-terminal domain!)

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.

Hunting for the Joker

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.

Instant Meltdown

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?

Holy Writ

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Springtime For Pug Dogs

One of my favourite movies of all time is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps it’s because it was 1989 and I was 14. I’ve always loved Harrison Ford’s lone hero persona. Everything is up to him. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. This is encapsulated at the start of TheLast Crusadewhen the young Indy is separated from his troupe of scouts. He is all alone and concludes “Everybody’s lost but me.”

When Indy grows up, he has enemies: Nazis. When he sees them for them for the first time in The Last Crusade busying themselves pushing counters around maps with long poles, like they do in movies, Indy mutters to himself, “Nazis. I hate these guys.”

Nazis are the action movie’s greatest friend. They have fantastic, distinctive uniforms, some of which even have a skull and crossbones on them. (See the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this) They are fanatically devoted to their cause, and their Fuhrer. And they have really good, well-engineered kit. The most important thing is this: Your hero can kill as many of them as you like and still be a goodie. You would have to go a long way to invent better baddies than Nazis.

That Belongs In A Museum

Of course, at the time, Indiana Jones could not have known what the Nazis would be capable of. The first three films are set before the Second World War and so his actions against German soldiers are not entirely justified. The worst thing about the Nazis to Indy is that they were terrible archaeologists, plundering relics that ‘belong in a museum’ in a vain attempt to co-opt the power of God, in whom Indy scarcely believes in. But we take what we know now and superimpose it on the Nazis of the 1930s and cinematically, all is well.

That is significant. We don’t watch films rationally. We watch them emotionally. This is why common sense, assuming humanity possess such a thing, and cool-headedness are thrown out of the window when we get YouTube videos like the one made by Count Dankula. So what did he do?

A Dog Called Buddha

Count Dankula, the avatar of Mark Meechan from Lanarkshire in Scotland, decided to annoy his girlfriend by making a video about his girlfriend’s sweet little pug dog called Buddha. What’s the most offensive, least cute thing a pug dog called Buddha can do? A Nazi salute whenever someone says ‘Seig Heil’. So that’s what he did. He trained her dog to do that. He made a three-minute video of the fruits of his labour and put it on YouTube in 2016.

Now, we have to be very careful here and use speech precisely lest we merely respond emotionally. That will not suffice in a court of law, since that is where Meechan ended up. He was arrested for the video in 2017, appeared at Airdrie Sheriff Court to defend himself against the charge of perpetrating a hate crime under the Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. We’re not going to discuss here whether that is or is not at a good law. Adam Wagner makes a case here that it is dangerously vague and unnecessary law.

But what had Meechan/Dankula done? One could argue that he had only done what Steven Spielberg and hundreds of other movie directors have done. He co-opted Nazism for its extremity of wickedness in order to make a piece of entertainment. Spielberg grabbed the Nazis to make a movie about an archaeological hero. Dankula grabbed the Nazis to make a sick joke at the expense of the girlfriend and her dog, Buddha.

Indy Meets The Fuhrer

One could argue – and I’m not sure I would – that Spielberg is being a little disingenuous. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones finds himself a Nazi rally in which books are being burned. He himself is disguised a German soldier and is holding a book which will reveal the key secrets about the Holy Grail. There is a surge from the crowd and Jones is buffeted along until he ends up being face to face with Adolf Hitler himself. They both look at book in Indiana’s hand. Everything stops. Hitler holds out a hand and a flunky hands him a pencil. Hitler signs his autograph in the book and moves on.

If one was being obtuse, one could argue that this is making light of the most evil man of the 20thcentury. It’s not in the same category of the long-forgotten short-lived sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, commissioned by BSB in 1990 (before it merged with Sky) in which Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva live next door to the Goldensteins, who are obviously a Jewish couple. Again, the joke there was not really about Nazism. There was a caption card at the beginning explaining that Heil Honey I’m Home!was a long-lost US sitcom recently re-discovered in some archives in Burbank, California. The joke is that in the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were used to turning any domestic situation into a sitcom. Again, Hitler was used to create the worst possible domestic sitcom imaginable. The show was cancelled after one episode. Artistically this might have been a mercy since the ideas sounds more like a three minute sketch than six half-hour episodes when the joke might run a little thin.

The Producers

The makers of Heil Honey I’m Homemight have been mystified that they were cut so short given the lengthy career of Mel Brooks, who portrayed Hitler himself many times and wrote numerous sketches about him, such as Hitler on Ice, from the movie History of the World Part 1. His biggest hit, however, must surely be The Producers, originally a film from 1967 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was remade as stage musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, winning 12 Tony Awards. This musical was in turn shot as a new movie in 2005.

But what is the premise of the story? Thanks to a timid accountant, a dishonest, washed-up Broadway producer realises he can make more money with flop than that closes on the first night than he can with a hit. Therefore, he needs a show that will have to close immediately. They trawl though script after script before they find the perfect show called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The producer says that it’s virtually “a love letter to Hitler”. The play is written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. The play is given to the campest and worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, and it is rehearsed and presented to an audience who are initially opened mouthed. A few storm out saying it’s in bad taste. This is, of course, true. It is. But the remaining audience see the outlandish portrayal of Hitler and mistake it for a satire, finding it hilariously funny. The show is smash hit – and financial catastrophe for the producers who go to jail for fraud.

In short, the movies and musical of The Producers, Mel Brooks shows a character using Nazism as a convenient shorthand for something offensive that is guaranteed to produce a negative reaction. In his video, Count Dankula did essentially the same thing, except he was arrested, tried and prosecuted for a hate crime. Brooks won 12 Tony Awards. In one awards speech he publicly thanked Hitler. Even Dankula could not expect to get away with that. Why is that?

Who is Who

The joke is only part of the story. There is a wider context here which includes the identity of the joker. One cannot help but notice that Mel Brooks is at least two things that Dankula is not. Firstly, Brooks is a highly respected comedian with a long career and proven track record in comedy. Not only is The Producerson his CV, but also The Young Frankenstein, Space Balls, History of the World Part 1and Blazing Saddles (but let’s not get into that last one right now). Before that he was a writer for numerous hit TV shows.

Mel Brooks is a comedy institution. Dankula is not in that class and does not claim to be. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “Professional Shitposter.” This seems a fair description. He’s some kind of internet contrarian who pushes the limits of free speech and says anti-social things purely because he can.

With Friends Like These

Moreover, some people who rushed to his defence did are not held in high regard in polite company. High profile comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel were vocal in their criticism of the court’s decision, but it there more visual support from Tommy Robinson, formerly of the controversial English Defence League. He was always going to create certain associations in the minds of those looking at Dankula’s case. Regardless of the law and his credible supporters, Dankula was never going to look good in the media or in court.

The second pertinent different between Dankula and Brooks is that the latter is Jewish. Should that matter? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It matters because when Brooks portrays camp goose-stepping Nazis and comic versions of Hitler, it is not credible to say that he is secretly in sympathy with the Jew-murdering fascists. Some may find Brooks’ comedy to be in poor taste, as some friends of mine did when they went to see the Producers, partly on my recommendation. But they did not come away feeling they had been to a covert Nazi rally or recruitment drive.

An Odiuous Criminal Act

The prosecutors of Dankula, who is not Jewish, were able to suggest that perhaps Dankula’s video was “an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke.” His motives were mixed, they argued, or could credibly be construed as such. Therefore, he must be found guilty. The judge agreed. I do not.

The joke was misjudged, and abhorrent. If you watch the video, you see that Dankula is continually referring to what Nazis did to Jews in death camps. That’s really dark. Technically, it works as a joke, given the incongruity with the pug dog called Buddha. But it’s not a joke I would do. But that doesn’t mean that he should not have done it. I do think less of him for having done so.

I would have no problem with YouTube, as the host of the video, taking it down since they are a private company (although they are often unclear on their rules and apply them inconsistently). I do think the Communication Act of 2003 is a bad law that will already be having a chilling effect on free speech. I can testify to that as I’m wording this article extremely carefully. Many have applauded the prosecution of this nasty contrarian, but may yet live to see this law enacted against people they like and respect. That is a discussion for another time.

But the comedy writer in me would argue that in essence, all Dankula has done is the well-worn comedy trick of grabbing the Nazi trope that many have done before him and will continue to do in the future. Should that be a crime?

 

A longer version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book about how comedy goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion. To be kept informed about that, please sign up for my mailing list below. While we’re thinking about inappropriate comedy, consider buying A Monk’s Tale, an hilarious take on the Martin Luther and his Ninety Five These. You can also listen to me actual voice on my regular podcast with Barry Cooper on Cooper and Cary Have Words.



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