what, too soon?

I knew this would happen. You try and give up blogging, and then you realise that you still feel compelled to shout things into that endless opinion-hole we call the internet, and that those things will take more than forty characters.

So, here’s the thing. There were two very unhappy events in the news yesterday (for those reading this far into the future, I mean the terrorist bombing and shooting in Norway, and the death of the singer Amy Winehouse). And to comedians and comedy writers, unhappy news events mean jokes.

I’m in two minds about whether this makes us sick or healthy: sick because we think that making jokes will help somehow; or healthy because we understand that making jokes will help somehow.

Anyway, it’s a compulsion. You should have seen the comedians on facebook yesterday: everybody seemed to have something to say, and the people who didn’t say anything were conspicuous by their absence.

But there are two big pitfalls with this. The first is that you risk joking about something too soon. There’s a standard cliché of bad topical stand-up that involves doing a distasteful joke about a sad news event and then if it bombs, follow it with, “…What, too soon?” It says to the audience, ‘Look, wasn’t I being brave there? But I recognise it hasn’t worked – yet.’

In fact, it’s such a cliché that I’ve seen some very good stand-ups (I think I remember Ian Stone doing it best) make a joke about something that is really ancient history, like the extinction of the dinosaurs or the decline of the Roman Empire, and then follow it with, “…What, too soon?” And of course, that gets a very big laugh from comedy-literate audiences.

And then you also have the second pitfall, that if you are going to say something at all, it’s got to be well-judged. You have to be very acutely careful about who the butt of the joke is, the tone you’re taking, what people will interpret about you when they hear or read the joke.

Now, in this context, and bearing in mind that I didn’t have a gig last night, I posted two comments on facebook yesterday.

The first was not a joke. If anything, it was the retraction of a joke: an RIP to Amy Winehouse, with a somewhat belated apology for a bit I used to do about her. In fact it was a joke about the global economy being supported by her spending money on alcohol and drugs. I must have done it hundreds of times, because it used to get a really good laugh. It once got a twenty-second applause break at the Comedy Store gong show. It got such consistent laughs that it kind of became my favourite joke I’d written.

But in retrospect – and you don’t have to believe me, but it’s true – I would have given up every single one of those laughs for her not to have been tortured like she was. I just don’t think the papers or the public, or I, ever really got our heads around how big her problems were; not until it killed her. In fact I think it was only funny because I, and the audiences who laughed, thought that somehow she’d be okay really.

But now we know that’s not true. And so it doesn’t seem funny any more. It just seems frivolous and mean and I feel terrible about it. She had an incredible voice and the whole thing is, in its most literal Greek sense, a tragedy.

The second comment I posted was this:

i hope that the oslo terror suspect being a christian fundamentalist isn’t used by civilised countries like saudi arabia as a warrant to start invading innocent, if backward, christian nations like the usa

It’s not a great joke. It’s not really even a joke – it’s the use of a standard primary-colour joke-writing tool (commonly known as ‘the old switcheroo’) to make what I hoped was quite a serious point in a relatively subtle way. Also, without wanting to sound precious, I spent about twenty minutes writing and re-writing it before I posted it, to make sure that the butt of the joke was very clearly not the victims of that event. I’ve had jokes misunderstood before, and it’s no fun. But I always recognised afterwards why those jokes were misunderstood, and I accepted that it was my fault; I’d been lazy with my writing.

And then, in the continuing facebook opinion melee, the following conversation happened. Before you read it, I should add that I’m not quite sure who this Alan Sellars fellow is; he is somebody whose friend request I accepted because he and I had about 200 mutual friends, which gave me the impression he is probably a comedian. But whether he is funny or not is, as always, for you to judge (sorry if you have to blow this up to read it):

You’ll notice that I am the person who liked Mr. Tinman’s trademark sarcasm at the end there, because I was happy that it had stopped as well. So, anyway, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so keen to have a go at Alan. But the broader point is that joking about terrible things that happens runs the risk of trivialising them – unless the joke has some carefully targetted weight behind it. And the more I think about it, the more I agree with the theory (Tony Allen’s theory, I think) that every joke does have a target, a victim, a butt of the joke. And if it isn’t clear who that target is – say, in the case or wordplay gags, etc – then you can assume that whatever subject is being joked about is the butt of the joke.

In the absence of a clear butt to Alan’s joke, we have to assume that he was making fun of both Amy Winehouse’s death and the victims of the Oslo killing. And that’s why Rob Collins is quite right to call him a fucking idiot.

Although Rob is wrong to say you can make a joke too soon. Because joking helps. I’ve laughed a lot at funerals. Sometimes it’s the only thing that works. What counts is how you do it, and what you mean by it.

I’m not saying that my joke was particularly brilliant; in a comedy club it wouldn’t get a big laugh, because to be honest it’s more political than it is funny. But I think it’s quite clear, in a subtle kind of way, that the butt of the joke is not the victims of the killing. The butt of my joke was the kind of politician who uses clashes of religious ideology as a means to go to war. In fact you couldn’t possibly say it’s too soon, because it’s really no more than a straightforward anti-Bush jibe – ten years too late. Oh – plus a small, equally dated swipe at Americans, which I’d quite like to take out now.

But once you’ve made a joke, you can’t take it back.

Sometimes – today especially – I wish I could.


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