Nothing kills a joke like having to justify it. Which is why I feel sorry for Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary whose recent quip in the Daily Telegraph about women in burkas’ resembling letterboxes turned into a national joke-analyzing competition. The Muslim Council of Britain and members of the Labour party said that the joke was Islamophobic. A Guardian writer deemed it misogynist. The prime minister, like many in her party, urged Johnson to apologize. Who knows, perhaps even the queen, reading her morning papers, raised a royal eyebrow. As for the court jester: When journalists showed up outside his house in Oxfordshire, Johnson emerged smirking, “solely on a humanitarian mission,” offering cups of tea to all. (Americans may wonder, “What’s a letterbox?” But answering that question risks killing the joke, so I defer to Google Images.)
The rage against humor exists in America, too. Three years ago on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jerry Seinfeld, in conversation with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, recalled sensing unease in his audience after he told his “gay French king” joke. “I can imagine a time when people say, Well, that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing motion and you now need to apologize.” But no need to imagine, Mr. Seinfeld. Welcome to 2018, when sitcoms like yours are under severe scrutiny.
Take the slew of articles from Vice, Buzzfeed, and Slate with titles such as “21 Times Friends Was Actually Really Problematic” and “Millennials Watching Friends on Netflix Shocked by Storylines.” Apparently, woke viewers are combing through old episodes and being scandalized by “homophobia,” “transphobia,” “slut shaming,” and jokes about fat people. Contemporary progressives are more bothered by Friends than are social conservatives, who oftentimes begrudge the show’s normalization of promiscuity.
Sometimes the rage against humor seeks to use the force of law. Take the case of the amateur YouTube comedian (a generous introduction) Mark Meechan, a.k.a. “Count Dankula,” in Scotland. Count Dankula does not, I’ll admit, have the sharpest wit. In one of his videos he explained that he wasn’t a Nazi but, rather, he wanted to convince his girlfriend that her pug was capable of resembling one. Dankula trained the pug to salute at the prompt of “Do you want to gas the Jews?” He was prosecuted, found guilty of a hate crime, and fined £800.
Needless to say, no religion or ideology likes to be mocked. But in comedy, all religions, ideologies, and public figures are fair game. This was true for disgruntled Christians during the Monty Python era. And it’s true for progressives now. Naturally, offended parties are free to boycott, criticize, and counter joke-tellers as they please. But they are not entitled to silence or punish apostates. As the British comedian Rowan Atkinson (a.k.a. “Mr. Bean”) has put it, “we need to build our immunity to taking offense so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise.” Atkinson was among those to defend Boris Johnson.
Deciding when one has gone too far is in part individual and subjective, but it is also clear that the cultural consensus on decency has lurched left. On Late Night, for instance, Seinfeld asked Remnick and Meyers to explain why they preferred not to joke about Vanity Fair’s cover of Caitlyn Jenner (Bruce Jenner, post–sex change). The two squirmed: Remnick explained that The New Yorker had considered running a satirical cover with Caitlyn Jenner on it but eventually decided it “didn’t work.” “I thought that was a wonderful moment and that wasn’t a time to make a joke,” Meyers added in agreement.
Without a doubt, American comedy has been in a bad way ever since Trump took office. It has become increasingly ad hominem, predictable, and stale. Part of that is frustration, I’m sure. Trump is the caricature that can’t be caricatured. As The Spectator’s Freddy Gray points out, there is something wildly entertaining about the 45th president. He’s more comical than any of his impersonators.
To save comedy from itself, and from politics, comedians will have to appeal to whatever is left of both common sense and decency. I recommend the Gridiron dinner’s motto: “Singe, don’t burn.” A good joke ought to rock the boat of etiquette without capsizing it; it ought to flirt with taboo but stay faithful to decency. So permit me to end with such a joke.
An American nurse finds herself in a Scottish hospital and is having real difficulty with the accents. She’s instructed to go check on a patient who’s looking “a wee bit peely-wally.” When she arrives at his bed, the pale, elderly gentleman grabs her arm and says, “Nurse, nurse, are my testicles black?” She looks around, but no other staff are in sight. Clinging to her arm, he persists. “Are my testicles black? Are my testicles black?” Without further ado, the nurse does as she’s trained: She puts on gloves, lifts up the patient’s blanket, and checks each testicle in turn. “They look fine,” she reassures him. The patient stares at her, with eyes wide open. He clears his throat. “Thanks, nurse. That was, um, very nice. But please tell me — are my test results back?”