The best jokes are double-barrelled. You take aim, pull the trigger, and, with luck, a split second later you hear the intended laughter. But if you are really lucky, the bushes wide of your intended aim burst apart and out comes a purple-faced stranger clutching a tattered trouser seat and mouthing obscenities. A palpable hit!
And so it was for Jeremy Paxman when he essayed a pleasantry on his website. Now you might not think that Paxo was much of a funster, his singular pleasure being to distend the rectums of politicians with a broken bottle, but there it was on the computer screens of his followers – a gag. It went something like this: Two blondes, facing each other across a river; Blonde A: “How do I get to the other side?” Blonde B: “You are on the other side.”
Okay, Max Beerbohm it isn’t. Or Max Miller come to that. But if it lets a little sunshine into the cobwebbed corner of someone’s life, no harm done. Or so you might imagine. But you would reckon without the awful, quivering indignation of Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray. Somehow Paxman’s jest had come to the attention of the great she-bear of the airwaves and at the earliest opportunity retribution fell about his ears.
“I bumped into Jenni Murray in Broadcasting House,” he said. “She gave me one of those over-the-spectacles looks and then announced ‘I hear you’re sending viewers blonde jokes’, as if I was passing on some terminal disease.”
Just as pleasing in its way was the collateral damage caused by the No campaign’s cinema ad featuring Rik Mayall dressed as Hitler and haranguing the masses with cries of, “Ein volk! Ein reich! Ein euro!” Again, it’s not Voltaire or Swift, but it makes a point in a comical way. Who can deny that to modern eyes a ranting Hitler is a ludicrous figure, a ghost from the past best exorcised through laughter? And if you are opposed to the euro it seems fair to mock the overbearing pretensions of politicians determined to impose a single currency on all of Europe because, at heart, they are jealous and resentful of the mighty dollar?
But, as Paxo discovered to his cost, make a joke and you rouse from their slumbers the legions of the po-faced and the indignant. Here comes a spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “We are surprised,” he says, “that the celebrity figures involved [in the cinema ad] would endorse such disrespect to the victims of the Holocaust and their families.” Oh, come on. To impersonate Hitler, to parody his fanaticism, is not to show disrespect for his victims. Sometimes one gets the impression that all over Britain there are wellsprings of offence yearning to be tapped.
Here comes Bob Morgan, secretary of Veterans for Europe. “Many veterans who have seen at first hand the horrors of the Third Reich will be appalled that the No campaign is seeking to present the euro as a Nazi plot,” he blusters. “It is in appalling taste.”
I wouldn’t mind betting that a good few veterans who imagined they were fighting to preserve the independence and sovereignty of this country are uneasy at the prospect of our economy being managed by a cabal of European bankers based in, ahem, Germany.
Oh good, at last, here comes Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, former Conservative Home Secretary and so Europhile that he must yearn to wake up in the morning, fling open the shutters and find himself in all 15 member states at once. “This tasteless ad shows the underlying nastiness behind much of the No campaign as well as an element of desperation,” he thunders. “It can only boomerang.”
Priceless. It makes you want to hug yourself with delight. To see smug certainty, not to mention amour-propre, poked in the backside with a sharp stick is to experience a kind of epiphany, a revelatory certainty that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
If humour is God-given – and I cannot imagine from where else it came – part of the deal is that a joke has the propensity not only to amuse but to offend. Which explains why political correctness is so humourless. (In an attempt to assuage the wrath of his granite-featured critics Paxman posted a countervailing, feminist joke on his website. “Life with men is like a deck of cards. You need a heart to love them, a diamond to marry them, a club to batter them, and a spade to bury the bodies.” Funny, or what?)
I should remind myself of this every time I leap up, clutching a trouser seat peppered with small-shot after enduring yet another TV ad featuring some smart, sassy female striking sparks off a dumb and plainly retarded male. “Why oh why,” I scream, “are advertising people so bloody unimaginative? So herd-like? So enslaved by a cliché?” Once, years ago, in the fabulous dawning of the post-feminist era it might have been smart to reverse the sexual stereotypes. It might even have shaken a few bone-headed males out of their complacency. But does substituting one stereotype for another mark any kind of advance?
Now if only I had a sense of humour I would not be so po-faced, I would see the joke. I would shriek with laughter rather than pain.