Beyond a Joke: The limits of humour eds Sharon Lockyer & Michael Pickering

This academic goes into a bar...
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Is there anything more embarrassing than politicians getting involved in humour - either attempting to police it or practise it? Whether it's Ann Winterton's dodgy after-dinner jokes, Silvio Berlusconi's Fawlty-esque gags about concentration camp guards, or Jack Straw's hilarious attempts to legislate against "incitement to religious hatred" (for which read: upsetting Muslims), few things are more depressing than politicians meddling with a medium which most of us like to think of as an amoral solvent to our leaders' and moral guardians' viscous pomposity; the Draino in the U-bend of cloying self-importance.

More than that, being the sniggering pack animals we are, we tend to associate humour with popularity, and the last thing we want is for the people who lord it over us to think we actually like them, even if we voted for them. Humour is demotic, but not necessarily democratic. Much of the cringe factor in The Office came from creepy boss David Brent's unshakeable belief, regularly inflicted on his staff, that he had a "GSOH" - as people with poor personal hygiene like to put it in the personal ads. (Personally, I thought David Brent was creepy Ricky Gervais's GSOH personal ad, but that's another story.)

However, I'm sorry to inform you that there is something even more embarrassing and even more unfunny than politicians and bosses thinking they can "do" comedy. What could that possibly be? Well... academics thinking they can "do" comedy. Or as Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering, the editors of Beyond a Joke put it, academics "exploring the ethics as well as the aesthetics of humour". Academics as a species are famous for their aesthetic and humorous endowments.

Beyond a Joke sets out to examine when humour, an aesthetic concern, oversteps the line and becomes offensive, an ethical concern. Silvio Berlusconi's concentration camp remark and Ann Winterton's repeated faux pas (the "ten-a-penny" Pakistani joke and the sharks going to Morecombe Bay "for a Chinese") are presented as key examples of this: "We all make jokes, but most of us are at times uncertain about how to respond when a joke is taken as, or even suspected of being, offensive, either to ourselves or others. We are uncertain about how to register the offence without seeming to lack a sense of humour, or without inviting the accusation of being moralistic, intolerant or - in what is now an uninspected term of condemnation - "politically correct".

Well, having inspected this book I can confirm that it definitely lacks humour, wit and even much insight. The best gag in here - actually, the only gag in here - is in a reference to The Vicar of Dibley: "Rather than simply being the butt of the comedy, the fat female body represents a threat to patriarchy." Badaboom! (Though I suspect this was meant seriously.)

We are told that contributors examine "racist jokes and the comic celebration of racist violence"; "the relationship between laughter, embarrassment and power in the British TV sitcom", "Bakhtin and the ethics of comic parody", "the articulation of social anxieties about sexual morality and singlehood in popular film and television", and "humour competence and its relation to the social distribution of power". As if admitting that this list sounds like an academic manuscript drawer-sale, the editors state: "The menu is a rich one," but add optimistically: "and we hope it will sharpen people's appetite for the dialogue between the aesthetics and ethics of humour that is central to the book as a whole." Since when did dogs' dinners sharpen anyone's appetite?

I remember a time when Cultural Studies was, if not exactly the new rock and roll, perhaps the new rock and roll criticism. That time has long since passed. Cult Studs is now the new stand-up comedy: unfunny. Unloved. Unplugged.

The comical irrelevance of this kind of approach is only underlined by the extreme topicality of a book which claims to help "negotiate the perilous terrain that lies between humour and offensiveness, or free speech and cultural respect in a pluralist society". With consulates in flames and cartoonists going into hiding, the line between aesthetics and ethics - and politics - is suddenly extremely hot right now.

Whether you tut at the "insensitive and irresponsible provocation" of the cartoonists, like our Home Secretary, or regard this as a transparent pretext for thuggery by "Islamofascism", it's certainly clear that some people will take great offence whatever the intention, whatever the context, whatever the facts. But should their determination to take offence be the deciding factor? Should the "victim" of a joke or satire always be able to decide whether it is offensive or not, and hence whether it is funny or not?

In one of the few essays actually to address the stated theme of this collection, "Race and ethnicity in popular humour", Dennis Howitt and Kwame Owusu-Bempah, are commendably clear: Yes. The "victim" is always right. So long as they're not white and the person making the joke is.

They tell us, "Caucasians claim the right to treat other 'races' in whatever manner they see fit, including disparagement in the form of jokes." Are you pulling my leg? All Caucasians? At all times? Exclusively? That sounds like a "racist" and "patronising" generalisation to me.

They then recount an example: "A few years ago a black person was inside a local shop when a man covered in coal dust entered and placed his hand next to the black person's. He then chanted "I wanna be like you, black like you..." This was objected to on the grounds that, unlike the "joker", he was black and not dirty. Those in the shop joined in the denial of racism: "It's only a joke," they said... One actually counselled him (the victim) to cultivate a sense of humour in order to 'get on in this world'."

And here is the clincher: "This is not a hypothetical example. The incident involved one of the authors of this chapter." How can anyone answer that? The real, authentic experience of a real authentic black victim of Caucasian racist murdering slave-owning oppression dressed up as humour?

Well, I for one don't buy it. Leaving aside the question of the year of this outrage (when was the last time you saw a man covered in coal-dust?), this seems to me like a - crass, crude, rather unfunny, pre-PC - working-class attempt at good-humoured banter rather than evidence of a great desire to force him at gunpoint to cut sugar-cane until he dropped.

Yes, even good-humoured banter has a sadistic side, but that's the nature of humour itself. If humour could be always as unambiguously "affirmative" as some PC academics appear to want it to be then, well, PC academics would have their own talk shows. And that would definitely be no laughing matter.