What if someone told you that Jesus Christ was originally supposed to be named Gary, but then Mary stubbed her toe? Would you laugh?
Let’s face it: the joke is funny, and there is no reason for a non-Christian not to laugh. But what about a Christian?
To find out I’ve conducted a poll with one respondent, Penelope, and 100 per cent of my sample laughed quite sonorously. But afterwards the same 100 per cent regretted they – well, she – laughed at such a blasphemous quip.
Actually, the protagonist of that joke didn’t seem to mind such humour: “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”*
Since the joke doesn’t mention the Holy Ghost, both I who told it and Penelope who laughed at it seem to be off the hook in that instance – ecclesiastically speaking. But forgetting eglesia for the time being, let’s return to the original question.
Is there anything that should be off-limits for humour? What shouldn’t be a joking matter? Anything?
Had you asked me this question 50 years ago, immediately after I left the Soviet Union for pastures free, I would have said no without thinking twice.
Growing up in constant need of protecting oneself against history’s most awful tyranny made one rely on humour as the only defensive bulwark. Since I left Moscow, I have never again witnessed such a profusion of jokes, both stock and impromptu.
Most conversations among Muscovites started with the words “Have you heard the one about…”. The joke to be unveiled could have been about anything, from Lenin and Stalin to the Holocaust or God.
The picaresque novels Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf (commissioned by the GPU from two very talented writers) were by far the most read – or certainly the most quoted – books. If a thesaurus of quotations existed in Russia, then those two titles would figure in it more densely than Shakespeare does in the English-language version.
The novels’ main character was an inexhaustible font of funny lines. At a guess, at least one of them appeared in any conversation between two Muscovites within the first minute.
Add to this their original waggery, and one could be forgiven for believing that Muscovites were incapable of taking anything seriously. This though one could easily lose one’s career (in the previous generation, one’s life) for a political joke told within earshot of a KGB informer.
The line “it’s not a joking matter” was hardly ever heard (unless a known KGB informer was present), and I certainly never uttered it. So yes, my answer to the question in the title would have been a resounding “nothing”. There are no jokes, I would have explained, that are too rude, too blasphemous or too offensive. Jokes can only be either funny or unfunny. That’s all.
Would I give the same reply today? Probably. But with so many qualifications that the enquirer would regret he ever asked. So let me play devil’s advocate and argue against myself, as I was 50 years ago and even to some extent still am.
We may not show it, but every one of us has at least one sore point that could hurt if touched by a mocking line. Notice I said ‘could’, not ‘would’. Yes, some people wear such impenetrable armour at all times that they can’t be hurt by a joke.
Thus someone, say, whose daughter has died of anorexia may still laugh at a joke about anorexics (there exist plenty of those). Yet I’d suggest that beneath the laughter there would be some real pain that the man tried to mask with his mirth.
Even jokes at one’s own expense could hurt others. For example, when I was treated for a rather advanced cancer years ago, I said in mixed company that I was “trying to win the oncological argument”. However, there was a chap present who was going through the same ordeal, and he found the pun offensive. He called me a callous cynic, which I don’t think I am. (Both of us survived, by the way.)
Indeed, each of us does have at least one sore point we’d prefer to keep beyond the reach of humour. The problem is that this point is different for all of us.
Thus I could joke about cancer, even – especially – my own, but my interlocutor was hurt by such jokes. So perhaps I was wrong to apply my own standards to others.
This brings into question the Golden Rule, the one about doing unto others as you’d have others do unto you. Yes, but what if your tastes differ?
“A gentleman is a man who never gives offence unintentionally,” as Oscar Wilde could have said, but didn’t. If you accept this definition, then hardly anyone I know, especially myself, is a gentleman. My friends and I crack jokes all the time, thereby running the risk of offending someone unintentionally.
Moreover, my writing friends and I are perfectly capable of levity when broaching extremely serious subjects, such as first principles and last things. We assume that levity works better than gravity to make serious subjects palatable, yet I am sure that some unsmiling tight-arsed puritans may feel upset.
How, how often and when to joke are questions that should make us ponder the nature of art, in this case that of conversation and writing. Like all other arts, these rely heavily on a proper sense of balance.
Wax all ponderous, and you’ll bore people, especially when you are already taxing their mental resources by tackling highly involved subjects. Overdo humour and, even if no one is offended, you won’t be taken seriously. People won’t take a profound message from a clown.
If you accept that both conversationalists and writers are artists, then, just like in any other genre, there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones have an intuitive sense of balance, the bad ones don’t. Yet both should offend other people’s feelings only if they really mean to.
I’d suggest that, as one grows older, wiser and kinder, the legitimate targets for humour ought to get fewer and narrower. But God help us all if they disappear altogether – this world would become intolerable.
Alas, Britain is beginning to resemble the Soviet Union in that one can get into serious trouble over an inopportune joke.
For example, Russell Brand is the greatest problem the world seems to face today – so great it is that I was tempted to write a piece about him. I desisted though, feeling unable to add anything to the millions of words being disgorged every minute, both pro and mostly con.
Though Brand (one of the slimiest sleazebags I’ve ever had the misfortune to clap my eyes on) has never been convicted of any crime, nor even charged with one, he has already been tried and found guilty by ‘public opinion’, meaning social and other media.
The charges vary from sexual assault to out and out rape, and that revolting creature strikes me as capable of both. Still, I’ll withhold my judgement until he has been found guilty in a court of law.
But, germane to my subject today is one of the accusations that involves variously idiotic jokes with which Brand is supposed to have offended some especially sensitive individuals.
One would think that accusing a supposed rapist of a lousy sense of humour is like charging a murderer with jaywalking. Yet this is par for the modern course.
A rape is a crime committed against individuals or, if one listens to Brand’s detractors, several of them. On the other hand, a joke about, say, homosexuals strikes at the core of the modern ethos. Hence it stands to reason that it should claim pride of place next to seemingly more serious indictments – hell has no fury like the modern ethos scorned.
Oh well, enough of that. Have you heard the one about an Irishman, a Jew and a Pole walking into a bar…
* You may have noticed that all my scriptural quotes come from the King James Version, which is after all Protestant and I am not. It’s just that I think that, if we can’t read the Bible in the original, we should read it in the most beautiful English we can find – and never mind denominational squabbles.