We are all aware that Jo Brand saying battery acid would be a more appropriate liquid than milkshakes to throw at people was a joke. It was a bad joke, but it was a joke.
We are all aware that the chances of a Radio 4 listener hearing the joke and being inspired to hurl battery acid at a right-wing politician are slim to none. It remains such a morbid and mean-spirited jest that it should not be made, let alone by people whose jokes are being funded by the taxpayer, but it is foolish to classify it as incitement.
What rankles is the pungent hypocrisy of Brand’s liberal and left-wing defenders. If the joke had been by a right-wing Twitter troll of Jess Phillips or Jeremy Corbyn the demands to deplatform them would have been ear-splitting. Few of them defended Mark Meechan when he was dragged to court for jokily teaching his girlfriend’s pug the Nazi salute. Few of them defended Danny Baker when he was sacked, by the BBC no less, for posting a photograph of a monkey in a suit and joking that it was the newborn child of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Making jokes with arguable racist connotations? Sack, if not arrest, the bastard. Making jokes about assaulting British citizens in a manner that happens sometimes on London streets? All fun and games.
Perhaps Brand’s most obnoxious defender has been Nish Kumar. Kumar hosts the satirical news programme The Mash Report, which is so miserably and relentlessly unfunny that it makes The World at War look like a bundle of laughs. Jacob Rees-Mogg is posh. Donald Trump is stupid. Brexit is bad. The only comedy garnish is a form of convoluted whimsy along the lines of, ‘He’s stupid that not only would he fail his exams but he wouldn’t even remember how to get to school.’ You get the picture.
Kumar was outraged by Brand’s critics. ‘Jo Brand is great,’ he tweeted, ‘and Nigel Farage is a sack of shit.’ For such a blunt-seeming tweet it is oddly evasive. Does he mean that Brand is so good and Farage so malign that she is right to make jokes about attacking politicians? If so, come out and say it man! If not – what are you saying?
Ironically, given this blatant side-step, Kumar went on to criticise his peers for not being direct enough with their opinions. He posted:
‘I think it is vital that we as comedians remember that one of the reasons why the public feels alienated now from us all as a breed is because we are muffling and veiling our language.’
A cheap response is that Kumar says ‘we as comedians’ with the same validity that your author might say ‘we as public intellectuals’. Yes, he makes jokes (in a sense) and I write essays (of a kind) but do these terms not denote some kind of quality?
Whatever. I think Kumar has at least something of a point. It is true that comedians often indulge in smug point-scoring of the ‘how is Nigel Farage a man of the people when he went to a private school’ variety. This kind of John Oliverian patting of their viewers’ already handprint-covered backs for being smarter than the right-wing rabble is a boring, lazy exercise in self-indulgence and perhaps comedy would be more interesting if people unleashed their id a little more.
But would it be funny? I am unconvinced that Kumar wants to be a comedian even half as much as he wants to be a commentator. Sure, comedy is not an abstract art form that it can or should transcend the realm of opinions. But there is a difference between a fresh, elegant joke that flies a political course and a weighty idea with comedic packaging.
The biggest reason I dislike most political comedians, which include most right-wingers as well as left-wingers, is the same reason I dislike advertisements that masquerade as art: the dishonesty of presenting one’s commitment to a cause as commitment to a craft.
The problem is that if one puts humour, like the truth, before activism, jokes can take a course of their own, defying one’s policy ambitions with their flights among the absurd, and the obscene, and the insightful.
As pretentious as it sounds to say – trust me, I’m almost fetching as I type this – good jokes take us to unexpected places of observation and understanding. This is why the best comedians, like Nathan Fielder and Norm MacDonald, are incidentally but insightfully political while the worst have no higher ambitions than restating their belief that Nigel Farage is a ‘sack of shit’.
The author would like to acknowledge that Mr Kumar’s tweet was repurposing a quote by Boris Johnson (which he had not known when he wrote the piece), but also to suggest that the joke only makes sense if Mr Kumar believes it does apply to comedians or if he thinks Mr Johnson’s comments are applicable to jokes about inflicting GBH.