No one should be the butt of a joke

Mab Jones says too many gags are rooted in hate

My comedy partner, Kevin Coleman, is big, and fat, and bald. He always starts his set by pointing these things out – before somebody else does. And they have done. ‘Oi, fatty!’ is the usual sort of thing. Other people in the audience laugh. They share a joke at the expense of the obvious target – big bones up there.

People with weight issues, people with red hair ('gingers'), people (especially women) with blonde hair, people who are 'posh' or 'chavs' – these are the targets that make up a general group of people It's Okay To Make Fun Of.

People with black or brown skin are out. People with severe disabilities – let's not. Rape and child abuse are (usually) no-no's. Self ha-ha-harm is still sort of funny, but take it too far and people won't be splitting their (sui)cides – let's just laugh at emos, shall we?

Before I became a comic poet, I trained as a counsellor –more interested who people who cried than people who laughed . My personal view is that making at joke of the expense of anyone based on their physical attributes could be construed as prejudice. It's all of a sliding scale. In the infamous 'Pyramid of Hate': at the bottom, we have 'acts of subtle bias' – this includes jokes and stereotyping. Just above this, is 'acts of prejudice and bigotry' – this includes scapegoating and ridicule.

It's only a small step up, then, to 'acts of discrimination', which includes social exclusion and obvious discrimination. To my mind, it's ginger jokes at the bottom, the more subtle racist jokes above that, and the out-and-out nasty stuff at the top. No matter whether you're laughing at poshos or Pakis, the root of that laughter is still the same emotion: hate.

Not that I am against touching on topics such as sexism or racism in comedy – no, not at all. Laughter is a release of tension, and it's a good thing if the 'untouchable' topics are touched upon in our sphere - people go to comedy gigs to get away from the rules that are forced upon them, including what they can or can't talk about. 'Political correctness', as one set of rules, is a good thing, in that it is forcing a social change towards better rights for some excluded groups.

However, while you can influence how people think, it's more difficult to tell people how to feel. People get angry and frustrated – scapegoating can be so easy when you are unhappy in your personal circumstances. It's a rare comedian who, without falling into earnestness, points out that the goat is actually a fellow human and still manages to make the audience laugh. In fact, laughter can often help break down people's defences and help them take a closer look at their own views, without feeling as if they are being judged at all.

Both Kevin and I write about division. 'Isms' are our thing – the ones we've been subjected to, the ones our friends have been subjected to, as well. In the show we are taking to the Leicester Comedy Festival on Saturday, we discuss some of the bigger 'isms', the merest mention of will quite often have people shouting out shrieks of disapproval.

But, we only write about our own experiences. Kevin was once beaten up by a group of drunken youths because, to them, he looked like he might be a neo-Nazi (it's the shaved head that does it). Ironically, at the time, he was on his way to meet his black girlfriend. Is this more acceptable than beating up a black person because of the colour of their skin? We would argue that prejudice is prejudice, whoever it's leveled against. It's the irony and the way this incident is related, however, that makes it funny – the serious point it makes can be taken, or left, but it's there for anyone wanting to think about it.

Similarly, I once performed a song about a man who likes to hang around in parks, is friendly with the children... The implication was that he was a pedophile, and the ditty ended with the revelation that he was a teacher at a local school.

Child abuse is not a topic I like thinking or writing about, but the song was inspired by some creative writing workshops I had recently led at a large prison in Wales. The group I was working with there were all lovely and charming, extremely literate and very much unlike the prisoners in other places who sometimes didn't even possess basic English skills. We penned sonorous sonnets, sweet cinquains, and happy little haikus. Some of the students had been teachers on the outside, I learned – great! Only later did I find out that this prison was well-known for its high number of convicted pedophiles.

Humour of this sort can be heavy in too many ways – heavy-handed, as well as heavy-going. Satire/social commentary should never forget its main aim, which is to make people laugh.

Kevin and I would rather chuck custard pies in each others' faces than risk anyone leaving our show with a downward, depressive feeling. Fortunately, we've both had a couple of years in which to learn how many toes we can twinkle over the line of peoples' personal boundaries, and we do also discuss lighter and far more frivolous topics in our acts. All we ask is that you listen to the end before you make up your mind about what we do – just because we talk about racism, doesn't mean we're racist ourselves.

And, while we agree that some things are just no joke, we consider it our right, as modern day court jesters, to turn the world on its head and have a look at some unfunny things in a manner that will hopefully be thoughtful, insightful – and very funny indeed.

  • Mab Jones and Kevin Coleman: Working Class Zeros is on at the Midas bar at the Leicester Comedy Festival at 8.30pm on Saturday.

Published: 18 Feb 2010

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