Howard Jacobson: Make me laugh – even at an offensive joke – but just don't be so smug about it

Self-satisfaction is an unpardonable crime. Hence the need to keep a straight face

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'Say what you like about servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan..." You'll know the joke by now, even if you didn't hear Jimmy Carr deliver it in person. And you'll be aware of the hullabaloo. Yet another. Every time a comedian does what he's paid to do, there's a hullaballoo.

Why do we go on with this? Where did we get the idea from that there's such a thing as a joke-free zone? Have we not read Swift on solving Ireland's economic problems by eating the babies of the poor? How funny's that? Very. Though at the time it might not have seemed so to the Irish poor in question.

But that's the way of it with a joke. There's always somebody who doesn't get it.

I haven't seen Jimmy Carr live. I don't go to comedy clubs. Not any more. The one time I did go, which was in the course of writing an article about comedy clubs and why I don't go to them, I was heckled by the comedian. "Call yourself a comedian!" he suddenly and for no apparent reason shouted at me, and you can't in that situation start arguing with the injustice of the laughter, or stand up and say you defer to his ridicule only because he enjoys the tacit privileges of performance, otherwise you would have him for breakfast, because by that time he has had you for breakfast. So you perspire heavily, smile the shit-eating grin of the publicly humiliated and look forward to the time you will see him sitting in your audience, while knowing all along that that will never happen because he's an illiterate clown and won't be coming to hear you speak about Comedy, Anathema and the Limits of the Permissible.

I knew in my bones I was going have a hard time of it at the comedy club. People on stages pick on me. They always have. The first time my parents took me to a pantomime I was spotted by the Dame and made fun of. "Call yourself a little boy!" Since then I have given places of public entertainment a miss, or sit so far back I can't be seen. But still they find me. Only recently I was eyeballed during Swan Lake by a cygnet with a piercing stare who for a horrifying moment I feared was going to call me up on to the stage. A Tosca at Covent Garden once paused before throwing herself off the ramparts to look my way though I was hunched in an aisle seat on the back row of the Grand Circle. I knew what she was thinking. "Call yourself a tenor!"

But I have other, more specific arguments with comedy clubs. I don't like the audiences. They are too militarised. They laugh to a rhythm, not at what's funny. As though wound up. And they laugh as a body. And those who laugh as a body today will march as a body tomorrow.

Furthermore – because there is a furthermore – I am envious. I am one of those men who cannot see a platform, dais or any other raised construction without wondering why they're not on it. When it's the ballet – and leaving aside what's coming from the cygnet – I just about cope. I am not, after all, built for ballet. I leap fine but land badly. My centre of gravity is in the wrong place. But when it's comedy I want it to be me. I should have been a stand-up comedian. Should in the sense that it would have been a better long-term career decision than novelist in an age when no one reads, at least as I understand reading – ie to seek out a verbal challenge greater than Katie Price throws down.

So anything I have to say about Jimmy Carr does not come without context. Based on what I've seen of him on television he doesn't amuse me. His shtick is to be amused by himself. No great comedian is ever amused by himself. Billy Connolly could have been a great comedian had he not taken to collapsing hysterically during his own routines. The seal on David Brent's prattishness was his laughing at his own jokes. Then it turned out that Ricky Gervais, who created him, laughs at his own jokes too. Self-satisfaction is an unpardonable crime in a comedian because his role is to remind us that nothing is satisfactory. Hence the necessity of keeping a straight face. It affirms the seriousness of his calling. Which is to make people laugh, not because life is funny but because it isn't.

Amputee servicemen are desperately not funny. Which doesn't mean the joke isn't. It's easy to show people who took offence that the butt of it was not the amputated servicemen but those responsible for their injuries, the inefficient, the penny-pinching, war itself. But that's just the satire dealt with and satire is only a small part of comedy. Why we laugh is a more vexatious question. In a recent novel I recalled a sick joke from my youth. "How many Jews can you fit into a Volkswagen Beetle? A thousand: two in the front, two in the back, nine hundred and ninety-six in the ashtray." To readers who were stupid enough to be outraged by this I explained that the person making the joke was an anti-Semite. End of problem. The joke was, as they say, dramatically "placed". But that doesn't explain why I and my Jewish friends who weren't anti-Semitic enjoyed the joke when we first heard it.

Precisely because it was offensive is the answer. Precisely because it was off-colour, cruel, heartless, in the very worst of taste. We need relieving sometimes not just of propriety and discretion but of grief and horror. And comedy is the place we go to get that relief. It isn't that in comedy anything goes; in comedy anything must go. If you're not being offended you might as well stay home.

But that puts a heavy burden on the comedian. Anything goes morally, but aesthetically the rules could not be stricter. You don't do whimsy. You don't do self-satisfaction. And you don't do shocking just to enjoy shocking. Curb Your Enthusiasm has suddenly become unfunny because Larry David is trying too hard to be obnoxious. The sorts of comedy panel shows on which Jimmy Carr appears are tiresome for the same reason. What television executives call "edgy" has already had all the edges smoothed off it. Jimmy Carr – substitute any name you like – doesn't amuse me, not because he's offensive but because he is so pleased he is. It's a fine line. But then it's a fine business.

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