No Joke

"Lawyers, doctors, stewardesses, rabbis, rabbits, long-faced horses, Jewish nymphomaniacs . . . you name it, I insulted it"

How can you tell if a politician is lying? Answer: If he touches his chin, he’s telling the truth. If he adjusts his cuffs, he’s telling the truth. If he looks up to heaven, he’s telling the truth. But if he opens his mouth . . .

These days, political correctness decrees that only politicians, Alzheimer’s sufferers, animals and blondes are allowed to be the subject of jokes. I can tell Jewish jokes but not Irish ones, and Ardal O’Hanlon vice-versa. Neither of us can tell black or gay jokes. In the wake of the viral online abuse provoked by Benedict Cumberbatch’s “coloured” (not “people of colour”) slip of the tongue, one must be vigilant. I can’t cheerfully ask, “Why is it better to be black than gay?” (“Because if you’re black you don’t have to tell your mother”) without fearing a fatwa from both Lenny Henry and Peter Tatchell.

I guess the thinking behind today’s unspoken rule is that politicians have no feelings to hurt, Alzheimer’s sufferers won’t remember the slur, and blondes and animals are too dumb to notice. Isn’t progress wonderful? My brain is now so full of jokes I mustn’t tell, covering ground beyond the remits of my own experience, that sometimes I have to bite my own gums to stop myself lurching, puppylike, into “there’s a rabbi, a priest and a vicar” at the first mention of inter-faith.

My late mother encouraged me from an early age to entertain her friends and would invariably introduce my “turn” by saying, “Ooh, Maureen, tell them the one about ‘you don’t have a vase?’”

“You don’t have a vase?” was the punch-line. At school, no term ended without the whole school piling onto the playing field to watch my “woman with the over-developed right breast” routine, which I rendered scream-worthy by stumbling and tripping over said mammary for increasingly long periods each year. Thus, I built up an armoury of amusements, suitable and unsuitable for all occasions, and my memory for jokes, unlike my memory for anything else, is legendary.

Nowadays, though, the only outlet for this unusual feat of retention is the “Joke Lunch” held annually for the charity JMI, which promotes and protects Jewish music. For several years, Michael Grade, Don Black, the late Lynsey de Paul and I have been selling jokes at a hundred pounds a throw for this excellent cause. The comedian David Schneider is the compère and over a nice lunch we always raise a substantial sum of money. This year, Lord Grade was recovering from a small operation, Don Black was in the US and dear Lynsey had passed away — which reminds me of the one about St Peter and the actor at the gates of Heaven — no, stop. Lynsey herself would laugh, but how many thespians and Christian fundamentalists do I actually want to offend?

So it was with trepidation that I turned to David Schneider across the smoked salmon and asked, “How many jokes have you got? Because between us, we’ve got to fill all the slots between hors d’oeuvres, main course, dessert and coffee. We’re going to need a lot more than last year . . .” I petered out. Something in his expression told me I was barking up the wrong Dutch elm. “I don’t do jokes,” he confessed. “I mean, I do funny stuff but not, er . . . jokes, as such. Sorry. I can never remember them.”

“So, it’s just me then?” The question was rhetorical. Me, it was. I, alone, without an angel or a seraph or the notebooks of the late, great Bob Monkhouse. Just me and 150 people, all wiping their mouths with their napkins and beaming at me in merry anticipation. And oh, how my misspent youth yielded its fruit. Jokes I’d told on the Tube on my way to drama school in Earl’s Court sprang like a kid on a pogo stick from the dusty recesses of my brain to my burbling lips. Lawyers, doctors, stewardesses, rabbis, rabbits, long-faced horses, Jewish nymphomaniacs . . . you name it, I insulted it. Because, simple as it sounds, without a superior and an inferior, a top dog and an underdog, there is no humour — from Aristophanes to Rowlandson to Lenny Bruce to Trevor Noah. There has to be someone to throw the pie and someone to receive it, and if every tribe loses its sense of its own ridiculousness, the outcome is Charlie Hebdo and the hypermarket.

Which brings me back to politics, as does everything. Where does all this place George Grosz and cartoons of the Third Reich? Is it possible to separate the intent to satirise from the intent to dehumanise? Where precisely should comics and cartoonists draw the line? Furthermore, in subjecting our political leaders to 24-hour scrutiny, waiting for them to slip up, cartoon-like, themselves, have we created a brief that is impossible to fill?

The candidate must be attractive, well-groomed, well-modulated, intelligent, nerveless under pressure, able to take a long view and think on their feet, have a classless and totally blameless background and an aesthetically-pleasing, supportive, not-too-opinionated spouse. Where is this superhuman? And do they have any desire to work for fairly low pay in a job with irregular hours, high responsibility, wrath, pain, vulnerability to hatred and the ever-present danger of putting your foot in your mouth in front of the world’s press? What chance Winston Churchill today — a public school toff with a speech defect and a tendency to lurch about, rat-arsed, in a boiler suit?

As I watched the debaters touching their chins, adjusting their cuffs and looking up to heaven in the run-up to May 7, my overwhelming emotion was sympathy. My overriding opinion was, “The joke’s on us.”

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