The Topical Barometer: Acid Jokes


There has never been a better time to take offence! The twenty-first century will see more people offended than at any other time in history.

We’re all at it! Sajid Javid is offended by Michael Gove’s cocaine use. Hundreds of Amy Schumer’s Instagram followers are offended by the photo she posted of her caesarian scar,  and Nigel Fararge is offended by a joke made on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show!

Jo Brand, in a comedy panel show called Heresy (the clue is in the title, right?), made a joke about throwing battery acid over Nigel Farage.

It was a stock comic formula: trade one benign ingredient – milkshake – for another, unexpected one – battery acid. The resulting shock is where the comedy lies. The audience laughed. Bingo – you made a joke.

She followed the joke up with a clarification that she wouldn’t ever do that; it was fantasy.

When I was studying for my degree, one of the early lessons I was taught is that there is no meaning without context.

The context in which this joke was made is very clear – a comedian on a panel show is telling a joke to an audience which has agreed it is there to hear jokes. Her intent (i.e. to not ever do it) was also clear.

Nonetheless, Nigel Farage, a man who, at a meeting in Southampton suggested unironically and uncomedically that, if Brexit is not delivered, he would ‘don khaki, pick up a rifle and hit the front lines,’ took to Twitter to denounce Jo Brand and to call on the police to investigate what he described as her incitement of violence.

You’ve got to hand it to him. It takes some balls to champion free speech on the one hand and actively take offence at a joke on the other. But that is where we’re at as a society. Full of obvious contradictions and tangled up in our own virtue signalling.

Jo Brand made a joke. It may or may not have been funny. It certainly got a laugh from the audience. You might think that, had you been in that audience, you wouldn’t have laughed. Who knows?

I’m going to hold my hands up here, I reckon I would have laughed. That guilty laugh, the one that comes with the unthinkable. Because that’s how the joke is set up to work.

In laughing at that joke, I am in no way condoning acid attacks, nor am I lacking in empathy for anyone who has suffered an acid attack. In just the same way, listening to the music of Michael Jackson does not make you an advocate of paedophilia or unsympathetic to victims of sexual abuse.

I often talk in my own stand-up about the many ways in which I fantasise violence toward my husband when he leaves wet laundry in the washing machine. Do people really believe I’m going to stab him through the heart with a wooden handled steak knife from John Lewis (guarantee in place if the handle breaks)? Or that I would drive a pickle fork through his eye?

If they did, I’d surely have been arrested on the way out of the gig.

Context is all.

The phrase ‘to take offence’ helps us to understand the psychology at play. Taking offence is an active choice.

It’s easy to see why a politician would choose to take offence in this instance. To wilfully misunderstand a joke in order to make oneself a victim of the perceived opposition must be at the top of the play list.

But the more the offence card is played (especially by the socially powerful) the less value and meaning it has. The current state of politics surely demonstrates that.

Trump is likely to be re-elected next year and our next PM looks set to be Boris Johnson. Two powerful leaders of western democracy about whom the word ‘offence’ has been used endlessly.

God forbid we lose our sense of humour; it’s the only thing that will help us through.



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