Our august parliamentarians leave the majestic home of democracy with the phrase ‘Stupid Woman’ ringing in our ears. Is it a vicious sexist slur, revealing the dark misogynistic heart of the Leader of the Opposition? Is it a Tory fabrication, mendaciously smearing the character of their political foe? Or is it merely a statement of fact?
As a voter, I don’t really care. But as a sitcom writer, I am interested.
In many ways, this tawdry political storm in a teacup is wonderfully apt end-of-act scene which neatly encapsulates so much about the last year in Westminster. As season finales go, it’s unexpected, bizarre and entirely in keeping with previous episodes.
For sitcom geeks like me, the phrases has another resonance. The chosen insult of the day is a catchphrase from another well-known and scarcely believable farce about European politics gone badly wrong, Allo Allo. The only difference is the addition of the word ‘You’.
Never a show to shy away from repetition, this phrases feature in one of those moments that was almost guaranteed to happen every week. (Computers are now intelligent enough that they could probably write an episode of Allo Allo with an algorithm) The hero of the show, Rene would be propositioned by one of his waitresses who were bafflingly in love with this overweight, aging café proprietor. Here is one such incident:
Others have probably noticed this link between Corbyn’s words and Rene’s, but have probably not been as geeky about it as I am going to be here. Why is it funny when Rene Artois says it?
On reading those very words, some may cry out that it wasn’t funny either then or now. That’s often a knee-jerk response that one has to deal with when talking about jokes. Comedy is a bit of a confidence trick and some people like to defend themselves against all such tricks by folding their arms and not playing that game. If that’s you, you can stop reading now and have a nice life. (It won’t be all that nice).
Have the killjoys now left the room? Good. We continue.
When Rene Artois says ‘You stupid woman’ it is funny. You can hear lots of people laughing. That laughter isn’t fake or canned. They thought it was funny. They did the joke week after week, so it was clearly effective and worth revisiting, which in turn made it even funnier. And up and down the UK (and Germany, I’m told), millions of people laughed along.
But why is it funny? It has good basic rhythm. That’s a start. What’s more, Edith, whose intellect is being impugned, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But then, in Allo Allo, no-one is. It’s a panto filled with buffoons and clowns. But that’s not really why the line is funny.
The line is funny because of the situation. Rene is trying to defend the indefensible. He is obviously making a pass at a sexy French waitress and been caught red-handed. He is about to cover his tracks with a scarcely plausible cock and bull story. The line ‘You stupid woman’ was often followed by another line like ‘Isn’t it perfectly obviously what I was doing?’ A lie is then spun, and Edith believes it. Because she is stupid. And a woman.
It does sound a bit sexist now, doesn’t it? No point in pretending otherwise, but times change. It didn’t seem quite so bad in the 1980s which was a more sexist time. And let us also bear in mind this is a 1980s depiction of France in the 1940s during wartime, which was more sexist again.
Complicated, isn’t it?
In some ways, it isn’t that complicated. You just need to understand the importance of context.
That’s the point I make in my forthcoming book, The Sacred Art of Joking. Context is crucial. It’s such an obvious point that it seems hardly worth making and yet jokes are now in the news virtually every week. Someone has said a word that is deemed unsayable ‘in any context’. They must be hounded from office or have their honorary professorship taken away. Someone did a comedy routine ten years ago and are not sufficiently ashamed of it. They must be prevented from hosting an awards ceremony. So perhaps this is a truth that is so obvious, we’ve forgotten that we actually know it.
In The Sacred Art of Joking, I make the point that the words used in a joke tell you virtually nothing about whether or not those words should have been said or not. We cannot isolate phrases and words. It just isn’t good enough.
I go on to discuss some examples in more detail, especially in the realm of religion since God-fearing can be especially humourless and prone to lose their minds at the use of certain words. Hopefully, readers will find them to be sane words, in a world that’s lost its mind.