Thursday, 5 November 2009


“99% of women kiss with their eyes closed, which is why it’s so difficult to identify a rapist.”

In today’s Guardian, Jimmy Carr defends this and other similar jokes he’s made. “It’s not a discourse on rape. I do jokes to get laughs. I happen to think the construct... is funny. It’s not really about the act of a serious sexual assault... I’m just an entertainer.”

Of course a lot of people, hearing that joke, will say “it’s not funny.” Of course it’s true that rape itself isn’t funny, except to the quite seriously disturbed, as Carr concedes himself. But as to whether the joke is funny... that’s really missing the point.

Part of the problem is our double use of the term ‘good’. In one sense, the Berlin Wall was a good wall. When it was finally knocked down, it took a large group of people quite a while to do it.  But that’s an entirely separate question from whether building it was a good idea, and I don’t think many people would confuse the two.

So why then should it become part of the equation that Carr’s joke was well constructed? (Which may well in itself be true.) Isn’t that like the defence “yes I did shoot him, but I used a nice gun?” Surely a good, well-made joke can be put to a bad end, just as a wall can.

But there’s a worse element to Carr’s defence, it’s the sound of something being lost. Once he’s said “I’m just an entertainer” in this context, he can’t then take it back in another. Once you have decided comedy is powerless, there it must remain.

In his book ‘Comics, Ideology, Power and the Critics’ Martin Barker noted that most writing about comics was structured around an axis of ‘harmful’ vs. ‘harmless’. To him, it was not that one end of this axis was more convincing than the other, but that to see comics in those reductive terms was inherently disempowering. It was like driving your car along a road made up of two cul-de-sacs. Barker was writing about comics the medium not comedy, but the point transfers perfectly well.

Ironically, only last night I went to see Cristian Mungiu’s new film ‘Tales of The Golden Age’, a portmanteau of funny stories told surreptitiously during Ceaucescu’s dictatorship of Romania. As one of the episodes demonstrates, Ceaucescu’s hold over the media was obsessively overbearing, to the point where word-of-mouth stories and urban myths became one of the means of keeping a contrary viewpoint alive. Of course there are obvious limits to this levelling power of humour. A gag can’t get you out of a gulag. But if humour is powerless, mere “entertainment”, why did this and so many other totalitarian regimes put so much effort into keeping it suppressed? Humour can act as a corrosive to power. You can’t be feared and a laughing stock.

But if this works, it has to work the other way round. Isn’t this why a racist or sexist joke always sounds worse than a straightforward insult, because we recognise that it intrinsically has more power? Hence the reaction “that’s not funny”. A reaction we often have not because it isn’t but because we don’t want it to be funny.

Well done, Jimmy. That was a good joke.

That’s why you should stop telling it.


  1. Great post, Gavin. I would say more but I could end up writing for hours. I pretty much agree with you, though.

  2. Thanks for the comments Paul.

    This may be one of the few times I managed not to write for hours!

  3. The thing about writing something timely (for once) is that you do it in a rush and overlook stuff. So for the record...

    This isn’t a Politically Correct point. I certainly don’t want comedy that is safe and worthy, like a sort of Government Safety Film with a laugh track. Comedy should be edgy and challenging. But women-enjoy-rape jokes don’t fit into that category in the slightest. Watch any one of a thousand old films to see that crap come up, and realise that this notion is simply the oldest shit in the crapper. It’s not transgressive, it’s conservative. It’s an edge that was worn down by overuse many years ago.

    Nor do I imagine that someone is going to come out of a Carr performance and rape some woman. But jokes like that are like littering. If everyone thinks “my little choccie wrapper won’t do any harm” then the cumulative effect will do harm. We should live like our actions make a difference, even if that difference isn't itself immense.