There’s a new application you can get for your iPhone called Baby Shaker, where a baby cries and cries until eventually you get so sick of it you shake your mobile so that large red Xs appear over the baby’s eyes and the crying stops for good. Or rather there isn’t, because someone took offence and complained to Apple and now, annoyingly, it has been withdrawn.
Would I have acquired a copy myself? Well the graphics looked pretty rubbish but I still think it was probably worth the 99 cents, just on the off chance one might have found someone to offend. Sicko, child-related jokes are very useful in this respect, I find. One of my favourites when I was about 14 was:
Q. What’s the difference between a truckload of babies and a truckload of marbles?
A. You can’t unload marbles with a pitchfork.
More recently, when my kids were about six and eight, I tried enlivening dull supermarket trips by training them to pipe up as we passed down the wine and spirits aisle: ‘Oh please don’t buy these drinks, Daddy. You know how it makes you angry and you hit us and we don’t like it, Daddy, we don’t!’ Problem was, it was too long a speech for them to learn and they could never get the intonation right. Could have been fab if we’d pulled it off, though, eh, readers?
I mention this by way of a preamble towards the beginnings of a thesis I’ve been working on, viz. why left-liberals have no sense of humour. Tough one, I know, for of course it provokes the obvious response: ‘What about Polly Toynbee? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? Naomi Klein? George Monbiot? You saying, what, that they’re not funny?’ Yes, all right. Point taken. But I still believe there is a basic underlying truth to my theory that the funniest jokes are a phenomenon of the right, not the left.
This struck me again just the other night while watching a cabaret artiste called Frank Sanazi, who wears a Hitler moustache and croons in the style of Frank Sinatra, makes jokes about his friends in bands such as SS Club 7, and sings songs like ‘Strangers On My Flight’ (‘they make me nervous’) about fear of flying with suicide bombers. OK, so you probably had to be there and not all of it worked. But when you did laugh it was laughter of an altogether different quality to the kind of smugly consensual, Radio 4-sanctioned, one-eyebrow-raised-in-sly-mirth laughter which, say, Jeremy Hardy elicits from the studio audience when he says something wry about Margaret Thatcher on the News Quiz. It was the kind of wild, abandoned, naughty laughter where you exchange delighted glances with the friends who are watching with you, as if to say: ‘Wow! Did he really just say what I think he said?’
Modern stand-ups don’t go in for this kind of humour, as a rule. There are exceptions, such as Jimmy Carr (he of the infamous joke: ‘The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth from up to seven miles away — and that fact also works if you remove the word moth’ — for which the BBC later issued not just an ordinary apology but an ‘unreserved’ one, to show just how offensive it was). Generally, though, they opt for less dangerous genres like surreal flight-of- fancy comedy (Ross Noble, Eddie Izzard, Paul Merton), or broken-sketch catchphrase comedy (The Fast Show; Harry and Paul) or organic, wholewheat, stone-ground, guaranteed-free-of-all-humorous- content-but-by-gum-it’s-good-for-you comedy (Mark Thomas, Jeremy Hardy, Marcus Brigstocke).
And I’ve nothing against most of these genres. There have been lots of TV shows over the years that have been really jolly funny, from Friends and Frasier to Men Behaving Badly and Spaced and Peep Show, most of them written, acted, directed and produced by card-carrying left-liberals (with the odd exception like Kelsey Grammer who is a registered, honest-to-God libertarian).
What they’re mostly missing, though, is that edge of darkness, danger and sheer tastelessness which provide the cathartic release so many of us so sorely need in this dismal oppressive world where idiots rule and at the end we all die. You’re never going to hear Marcus Brigstocke tell a drowning baby polar bear joke — but we need drowning baby polar bear jokes. We also need racist jokes and gay jokes and baby jokes and disabled jokes and the really toe-curling ones that tend to filter out of the City a few days after there has been a major disaster such as the Challenger or Hillsborough tragedies.
Of course, these jokes aren’t funny if you’re personally connected. (The main complainant about that iPhone app was a father whose baby had been shaken and badly injured by a nurse, and now runs a New York-based campaigning group.) That doesn’t mean though that these offended minority groups should be allowed to dictate what the rest of us can laugh at. It would be like asking the mothers of children killed in speeding accidents to frame our driving laws; or the parents of kids murdered randomly in a freak incident by a nutcase with a pistol to decide our firearms laws: understandable from their point of view, but thoroughly unconducive to the interests of the broader majority.
The reason we need tasteless, offensive jokes is because, as Rod Liddle has argued, ‘The stuff that makes us laugh is never neutral; it involves poking that part of us which, for most of the time, remains unpoked. The part of us which civilised behaviour insists should remain below the surface.’ In other words, it’s our way of constantly testing our society’s current notions of taboo, both questioning them (‘Aren’t we going a little over the top about this whole anti-racism thing?’) and acting as a valve to release the pressure we often secretly feel from being so bullied and constricted by the mores of the day.
Why is this an essentially right-wing phenomenon? Because to be on the right is to accept that the world, au fond, is a bowl of toenails: life is nasty, brutish and short, happens, but with a bit of luck and hard work we can make it bearable enough, and at least we can cheer ourselves on the way to the grave by having a good old laugh about whatever we fancy. To be on the liberal-left is to live in a constant state of denial: disabled people aren’t really handicapped but special; Muslims are no more likely to blow us up on public transport than people of any other race or creed; gypsies are fragrant.
What left-liberals don’t quite appreciate is that their well-meaning attempts at thought control have quite the opposite effect to the one they intend. The Commission for Racial Equality did more to keep alive the racist joke than Bernard Manning managed in his entire career.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 2, 2009