Why it's never JUST a joke | Douglas Walker wants comics to abandon the disclaimer

Why it's never JUST a joke

Douglas Walker wants comics to abandon the disclaimer

At one time or another we have all made a joke that upset someone. And a common response in circumstances such as these is to invoke the absolving phrase: ‘It was just a joke.’

But what do we mean by just a joke? What are we suggesting about our jokes that the phrase is meant to make things better? After all, if an engineer designs a bridge, and that bridge collapses. people are going to get upset. Not many will find solace in the response, ‘It was just a bridge.’ So what's the difference?

Well it's obvious, isn't it? Bridges have a function, and when they don't work not only do they not achieve their function, but they also cause real damage. You wouldn't say ‘just a bridge’ because that minimises the importance of bridges and the damage that bad bridges can cause.

But if that's what is going on, why would a comedian ever use the phrase ‘just a joke’? Why would they minimise the importance and effect of their work? Non-comedians might say it; perhaps the engineer, rebuked for an inelegant workplace quip, can get away with it, just as I might shrug it off if my matchstick replica of the Forth Rail Bridge had subsidence.

 But do I really want to dismiss my chosen profession so easily? Are these jokes, into which comedians pour their heart, soul, time and energy, really so insignificant?

No. The answer is no. Of course jokes are important, and have an effect, and the effect they have can be both helpful and harmful. 

We just need to look at the world around us to know that this is true. I've never been to a funeral where people didn't make jokes during the eulogies. This isn't because jokes are immaterial, but precisely because they have the power to help and heal. On the other hand, comedians are well aware of their ability to challenge and subvert authority. Isn't that precisely why we loved Spitting Image and Brass Eye?

And comedy can change the world on the grandest scale. Italy has recently elected a government headed by the Five Star Movement, a political party founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo. His blog was so popular that it became a political movement, that then became a government, which then closed its ports to stranded migrants in the Mediterranean and one day might take Italy out of the EU. But Beppe's blog? Just jokes, of course.

But you might think that's not what people mean when they say ‘just a joke.’ Perhaps when we respond that way to those who seem upset, it is not because we think they shouldn't find jokes upsetting, but rather that they haven't realised that that's what this is: just a joke. If they took what we said literally, then sure, good reason to be upset, but jokes are not meant to be taken literally. So once we clear that confusion up, all will be well.

While this is sometimes what is going on when people take offence at a joke, more often than not it is that people have correctly identified something as a joke, and are upset precisely for that reason. You've made a joke, and jokes are important. 

Too often we mistake the fact that jokes do not mean what they seem to literally say, with the notion that they don't mean anything at all. And because the meaning of a joke is often unsaid, the ambiguity leaves plenty of space for misinterpretation.

Is it possible that us comics sometimes get lost in the layers of irony, reference, sarcasm and recontextualisation, and fail to appreciate the true meaning of some of the jokes we tell?  

Now I'm not saying that everyone who is upset by a joke has a right to be. Far from it. People who claim that some topics shouldn't be joked about are forgetting that jokes have the power to help and heal, and also to question the status quo in legitimate ways. And people are often terrible at interpreting the meaning or intention behind a joke.

But I do think that, ‘it’s just a joke’ is  an odd and misleading defence. It diminishes the comic's art and denies the significance of what we are doing.

Instead of dismissing our jokes as insignificant, we should be prepared to defend them, or admit if we can't. Perhaps we are worried that if we acknowledge that jokes can be important, powerful, even dangerous, we'll have to take more care how we use them.

• Douglas Walker Presents: Of Christmas Past will be at Underbelly Bristo Square at 22:50 during the Edinburgh Fringe.

Published: 12 Jul 2018

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.