There’s a word for countries in which you might get collared by the police because someone took offence to your jokes. And it isn’t a nice one. It’s the sort of thing you read about going on in Erdogan’s Turkey or Putin’s Russia. But it is also the sort of thing that now happens in allegedly liberal Britain. As Joe Lycett has found out.
The stand-up comic and former Great British Sewing Bee host says he was contacted by the cops over a joke in his new show, referring to a donkey’s genitalia. ‘Someone came to my tour show a few weeks back and was offended by one of the jokes. And their perfectly understandable response to this was… to call the police’, he posted on Instagram yesterday.
It seems like the officers knew this was all ridiculous, but had to go through the motions:
‘To be fair to them, the fuzz were very nice about it all but felt they had a duty to investigate. This involved me writing a statement explaining the context of the joke for them; I particularly enjoyed putting the words 'giant donkey d***' into a message to a police detective. Charmed, and hopefully amused, the rozzers have since closed the matter.’
Now, Lycett is a noted wind-up merchant: he recently ‘caused chaos’ in Westminster by ‘leaking’ an obviously and comically fake summary of the Sue Gray report. We can only hope this is all a big joke and promotional stunt. But regrettably it seems to be genuine. And it is hardly out of character for the cops, who seem to have taken the phrase PC police far too literally in recent years.
It’s unclear what law or protocol Lycett was investigated under, but police today have many to choose from. Perhaps he’d been accused of committing a so-called non-crime hate incident. More than 120,000 people have had these black marks put against their name on the basis of an allegation alone. This Orwellian practice still hasn’t been fully overhauled despite the courts declaring the current process an unlawful interference in free speech.
In a sense, Lycett got off lightly. In recent years, the British state has routinely arrested, fined and even jailed people for telling offensive jokes. Granted, these were often less-than-amateur comedians – often drunk, idiotic students mouthing off and saying disgusting things on the internet. But just because their jokes weren’t always funny, and some were genuinely offensive, the principle of the thing should still chill us.
Back in 2012, 19-year-old Matthew Woods from Lancashire was jailed for 12 weeks for making jokes online about April Jones and Madeleine McCann. He pleaded guilty at Chorley magistrates court to ‘sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive’. The chairman of the bench told Woods he deserved the longest sentence the court could hand down.
In 2020, a group of 18 and 19-year-olds from Gateshead were arrested by police on suspicion of committing a hate crime. They had filmed a video of themselves mockingly re-enacting the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The video showed them swigging beer and laughing. They posted it on Snapchat and it later went viral, causing outrage. Some demanded the police get involved, which they dutifully did.
Then of course there is the infamous case of the Nazi pug. In 2018, Scottish YouTuber Mark Meechan was fined £800 for uploading a ‘grossly offensive’ comedy skit of him teaching a dog to do a Hitler salute – the joke being that he was trying to annoy his girlfriend by turning her cute pug into the worst thing imaginable. The humour was apparently lost on the Scottish authorities.
Now, to many people’s ears, a sick joke about Madeleine McCann or George Floyd will be infinitely more distasteful than Lycett’s more mainstream material. But humour is entirely subjective. And we should make no distinction between censoring one and censoring the other. Such censorship is always wrong and infantilising, regardless of whether the joke in question is funny, satirical or indeed a thinly veiled bit of bigotry.
We also risk sleepwalking into a situation where only professional comedians are given the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, the sort of offensive jokes teenagers have been locked up for are not that far away from what Frankie Boyle’s material used to be like before he went woke. Feted alternative comic Jerry Sadowitz – whose act is wilfully, disgustingly and brilliantly offensive – continues to tell Madeleine McCann jokes with impunity. And rightfully so.
Unless we want a world in which you’re asked to produce a licence for your edgy joke, we need to kick the cops out of comedy. No one should be arrested, investigated or prosecuted for saying something offensive, whether or not it has a punchline at the end of it. The authorities should not be in the business of telling us what is and isn’t appropriate or funny – whether we’re joking about Nazis or a giant donkey d***.