The Lay-By Debris of Jokes

Robin Ince's Blog

I wrote something about the comedian’s holocaust joke on a journey to Wolverhampton, a way of using my time and ordering my mind.

Then, I thought I would leave it at that and do nothing with it, but today I saw the headlines about Jimmy Carr “going down swinging” and “Comedy is dying”. On top of that, there is the sideshow of watching a government led by someone who has not been shy of demonising the marginalised trying to mould some morality for themselves out of this issue.  

I’ve probably written this all before, so please feel free to leave the page as soon as the deja vu becomes insufferable.

Jokes can be like littering. Chucking rubbish out of a car window is not the worst thing someone can do, but it may say quite a lot about your attitude to the world. It’s a mixture of “who cares” and “that’s someone else’s problem”

When I look back over a lot of my stand up, I don’t enjoy it.  

I played the part of a stand up comedian.

A joke was just a joke. 

On Radio’s Loose Ends, an old Broadway producer pal of Ned Sherrin’s told me that there was no “me” in the jokes. I left the pub full of umbrage, but now I know how right he was. 

When I toured with Ricky Gervais, Ian Shuttleworth was the only critic who found the time in his review to stray from the main act and assassinate me. It hurt.

I think it hurt even more then, and I am sure as a critic he will be glad that his words stung, because by then what I was as the warm act was not what I was becoming when I was in my own space. 

I was beginning to change, but the jokes on that tour were still just jokes to me. I don’t think they expressed what I believed about society and the people in it, but later I found out that some people thought they did. 

After wasting over a decade trying to play a part that might get me on telly or bigger audiences, I started to kill what I was by punching a melon on a nightly basis. The show I performed that year in Edinburgh, though I hadn’t realised at the time, was me taking head on this twelve wasted years. Over a period of time, jokes were no longer just jokes and I realised the increasing importance of creating connections through shows like The Book Club and then the variety of shows where I started mixing comedy, science and music. 

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I think the Linda Smith lecture I delivered at the end of the year, punching melons again, is another step towards becoming the performer I am meant to be. Comedy was something that I hid behind, even though I didn’t know what I was necessarily hiding from, over time it became an act of exposure. When John Dowie saw me at Southport a few years back, he told me the bits to keep were not the bits that were so performed, the bits without the extraneous mimes and caterwauling voices, but the stories. It’s taken a long time before I think I have almost reached the starting point.

Robin delivering the 2021 Linda Smith Lecture, out on The Cosmic Shambles Network and Go Faster Stripe soon.

I have been thinking of all these things over the weekend as the most recent joke outrage played out.

It is a debate which will be monetised and weaponised by people using “free speech” as a tool to discredit progressive thinking and action, to discredit young activists, to pretend that everyone is equal now so we should all just take a joke, to elevate themselves to a superposition of victimhood and dominance, to mock empathy. There are loads voices who shout for free speech when that fee speech fits their ideology, but stay silent over government legislation to severely hinder the right to protest. Funny that.

I disagree with those who discredit others’ offence as easily dismissible, “you’re offended, so what”.

Not all offence is equal.

Being offended can be a pearl clutching performative gesture, a moment of self serving emotional melodrama, or it can be something that, if explored, can lead us to see injustice, to walk in others shoes, to confront hidden or not so hidden bigotries.

Offence can create the flames that cast light on what we try to hide in the shadows.

Very often a joke’s just a joke until it’s about you.

Right wing populists consider jokes to be just jokes when defending a racist comedian, but jokes are no longer just jokes if they are said by left wing female comedians on Radio 4.

People who tell others to grow thicker skin are often those who rarely get anything sharp waved in their direction and might also be able to retreat behind wealth and power.

Bioethicist Tom Shakespeare wrote a piece about how dwarfism affects his life in the book Others. If he wants to go out on a Friday night, he might expect to be picked up, to be laughed at, to be pointed at, to be treated as a novelty toy. He writes that he has been walking down the street and someone has topped their car, leapt out, pointed and laughed, and then driven off.

Tom Shakespeare

In the end, it is safest to stay in rather than spend a night as a punchline

Reading that, casually delivered “dwarf jokes” just don’t seem so funny.

Looking through a book of portraits of LGBT pioneers, activists and celebrities, one lesbian author remarked that when she and her wife are on the train, there will be a point on their journey when they know it is best to stop holding hands as the odds of confrontation rise.

The older I have become, the more I have become bored of comedy that is shocking for no other reason than to be shocking.

One of the angles is to say that comedy is about being dangerous, but just how dangerous are these millionaire comedians being when so many people are laughing.

As politicians have increasingly gone down the route of playing the part of shock jocks, the novelty of comedians doing it wore even thinner for me.

I would read people saying that edgy comedians were doing what fool is meant to do, that forbidden voice of the id, but these things were now being said by Presidents and Prime Ministers too.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette was a truly confrontational piece of work, I saw the people leaving that show and they weren’t just chuckling their way to the nearest pizza joint, they had new things on and in  their mind.

Hannah Gadsby (Nanette on Netflix)

I can’t deny that I was deeply uneasy when I heard the joke about travellers.

I know it was all in the context of “aren’t I a naughty boy, how naughty will you let me be?” But, for me, there was a toxic nastiness about it. I don’t think it represents a belief of the comedian, because I think the comedian cares about nothing more than “is it in the shape of a joke? Will it be shocking?” It is about the punchline fitting the brand  But the moment it is delivered to an audience, something as incendiary as this cannot just passively bask in the amorality of the performer.

Onstage this comedian is like the Universe, he is neither cruel nor kind, merely indifferent.

The author Kit De Waal wrote of her experience when a town invited her to help with working out how to deal with racism in the area. While dealing with the problems of racism, she brought up travellers and, after being looked at aghast for a time, was told that that was different, they brought it on themselves, this was none of their concern.

Kit De Waal

The comedian also uses the increasingly popular device of getting the edgy laugh and then giving a brief lecture of justification to elevate the nastiness to a philosophy module

I do not think the comedian should be prosecuted. This was not about inciting racial hatred, it was about toying with callousness for profit and reputation.

It is disingenuous to see a deeply immoral government wishing to flirt with a fig leaf of ethics and a donkey painted as a high horse, but I also think the defence “a joke’s a joke” is just not enough.

I have said this many times, but I return to one of my comedy heroes, Barry Crimmins.

The late Barry Crimmins. Pic by Helen Crimmins.

A man who experienced terrible abuse as a child and spent his life taking down bullies.

He reminded me that words are shrapnel and you have to think hard about where you aim them.

You can’t say anything nowadays?

Actually, some people can and get paid handsomely for it too.

And the moment their material is brought into question, they are the real victims. Unlike the victims of some of their jokes, they have the wrought iron gates of their luxury house to drive through and then lock those gates behind them.

This joke will now be used as a moral plinth on both sides.

It will be a moral position to defend it.

It will be a moral position to attack it.

The comedian will be painted as a moral gladiator.

The comedian will be drawn as an inciter of racial hatred.

For all that, the joke just started as part of a business plan, a sentence to say to bolster a brand, just part of a game.

It is the lack of empathy, the casualness of it all, just like chucking your burger box out of the BMW window.

I love language and revel in the possibility of words.

Complex language and its possibilities appear to be unique to our species.

It has created wonders and horrors, is it really good enough to just say,

“Bah, it’s only words”.

Robin’s Linda Smith Lecture will be available to purchase as a digital download from The Cosmic Shambles Network and Go Faster Stripe on February 20th. Watch a preview here.


Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book, The Importance of Being Interested, is out now. Get signed copies here.

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