Is child abuse ever a laughing matter?

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The Independent Culture
WHY DO you wrap hamsters in sellotape? How do they know Lord Mountbatten had dandruff? Paedophilia, eh? Pretty big word - for an eight-year-old. What does gay stand for? A Jew, a hunchback and a lesbian go into a taxidermist's...

You would think that no one would bother getting worked up about jokes in bad taste. They are probably as ancient as the world, and whether you don't mind listening to them or think them boringly puerile, it must be admitted that they serve some kind of deep psychic need. Maybe to exorcise the demons, maybe to deal with some terrible facts on a human scale; in any case, it's probably best to ignore them. They're not going to go away.

It was surprising to hear, then, that a humorous column in the medical press has created an outcry. If bad taste jokes are common in the world at large, they are more or less ubiquitous among doctors, who need to be robust about the macabre, and often do it by joking about the patient whose leprous finger dropped into the tea, or the one who pushed a milk bottle up his bottom ("You see, doctor, I slipped on the doorstep in my dressing gown..."). It is absurd to suggest that the quality of professional care is diminished by the callous talk in the pub after work; it would be nearer the mark to think that black humour makes it easier to do the job.

All the same, there are limits, and the column in the magazine Hospital Doctor may have discovered one. Supposedly the diary of a fictitious registrar, Dave Grout, it has caused a furore by going into the fraught area of child abuse. In one of Grout's adventures he gatecrashed a dinner party and gave an 11-year old girl - "a decent bit of totty, obviously fancies my pants off" - vodka and marijuana, failing to seduce her only because she started vomiting.

The column was quickly axed, and a line of people eagerly began giving their condemnations to the newspapers. Jenny Eclair gave a useful list of subjects she would never joke about, and expected no one else to joke about either - "cot death, drink driving, child abuse, Aids... dead babies, poorly babies, meningitis - anything like that." Her list seems unnecessarily austere, and everyone knows that Aids, in particular, breeds a sort of gallows humour which can hardly be condemned.

The conventional thing to say here is that it's all right to joke about your own condition - for blind people to talk about Guide Cats for the Blind, or for someone who is HIV positive to reminisce about that slimming biscuit in the 1970s called Ayds - but not for anyone else.

But I think it's rather less comfortable than that. The truth is that it's all right to make jokes about these horrible subjects if it's funny, and only distasteful and deplorable if the result doesn't work as comedy. Personally, I would say that the "Dave Grout" column is deplorable and offensive, not because its subject is an 11-year-old girl, but because it's no good. If the anecdote were about a girl twice the age, it would be no funnier, and no less offensive; conversely, if it were well done, the fact that it was a joke about child abuse would not really stop people laughing at it.

The test case, of course, is Bernard Manning, who many people quite rightly find extremely offensive. But it's easy to draw the wrong lesson from the grisly spectacle of Manning on stage; to assume that he's not funny because his subject matter is not and never could be funny. The truth is that Manning isn't funny because he isn't a particularly remarkable comedian, and, not being funny, he sounds like a demagogue.

There are certainly far more extreme comedians around than Manning. Howard Jacobson has written about a routine by Roy "Chubby" Brown of eye-popping tastelessness, including the appalling remark that "Someone told me to take a box of tissues when I went to see Schindler's List. Schindler's List? I couldn't find anything to wank over in Schindler's List."

The awful fact is that Brown, a much more technically adroit comedian than Manning, is genuinely extremely funny. Perhaps it's because he takes more careful aim than Manning, making a joke, here, not about the Holocaust, but about the multi-million dollar pieties of Hollywood. But I wouldn't bet on it; nor would I bet that he would be incapable of making his audience laugh with jokes even about "dead babies, poorly babies, meningitis".

The terrible fact is that, although we might hope always to turn away from jokes about child abuse, there is always the danger that, in the middle of saying "I just don't think that is at all amusing, to tell you the truth..." we may find ourselves at the hideous giggling mercy of what is, quite suddenly, a terribly funny joke.