I am sitting in a bar on the Champs Elysees with an American I met on the ferry to Calais that day. This is just after the US election that sees Jimmy Carter ousted from the White House and the end of the Iranian hostage crisis. My new friend tells a joke. “Hey, “ he asks, “What is very flat and glows at night?” I shake my head. “Iran, five minutes after Reagan becomes president.” We laugh.
The joke glides calmly over nuclear conflagration and the deaths of thousands of men, women and children. Would we have laughed at a joke about Hiroshima? What if a Japanese person told it?
Friends visit for dinner. They bring their first child, aged about two. We always drink too much, talk, argue, cross boundaries. She is particularly iconoclastic. “There is nothing you can’t make a joke about,” she says. “OK,” I say. “What about child abuse?” Her demeanour changes immediately, she is genuinely unsettled and uncomfortable. “What is the worst thing about being a paedophile?” I ask. She shakes her head. “I don’t want to go there.” I persist, “You have to be in bed by 7 o’clock.” No one laughs.
This second joke, about the rape of children, crosses into territory that is universally decried and represents perhaps the cruellest form of human behaviour. Can there ever be a time when it is funny?
As the film Borat shows, we may be entering into a post politically-correct period when all subjects are presented to us as humour. Some of these topics – e.g. Islam, the Jewish Holocaust, the lynching of slaves, abortion – will deeply offend and even hurt many people.
Is this just an expression of the age-old role that humour has in revealing hypocrisy, exposing lies, challenging beliefs? Or are such jokes simply in bad taste irrespective of their “funniness?”
And how will we know the difference?