Every joke resembles a tiny revolution, George Orwell once wrote. He had a point. Even when they’re instantly forgotten, of little or no consequence or just plain silly, jokes momentarily disrupt the settled routines of our daily lives. The joker draws us into suspended animation. As the joke is told, tension mounts. Suddenly, unscripted, without warning, we find ourselves chortling and chuckling.
Jokes sometimes fall flat on their face, of course. But when jokes tickle our funny bones, they do more than deliver us into the arms of the joker. Even when light and comforting, jokes bite into our habits; they provide comic relief from unfunny reality. They pit us against others, and against ourselves. For a brief moment, against the grain of our own intentions, we find ourselves poking fun at people or things that are normally taken seriously. Jokes often trap us into debunking ourselves; they fling custard pies in our faces. Laughter also lets us vent pent-up aggressions against taboos, or injustices protected by the rich, the powerful and the complacent. Jokes pinprick their bottoms, drag them off their thrones, sometimes with a bump. When that happens, laughter violates things taken for granted, or rules wrapped in respectability. It puts them and us at risk: it’s as if everything, just for a moment, is up for grabs. A little revolution erupts.
During one of my earliest trips into walled-off East Berlin, over drinks one evening in a smoky local pub, dissident friends proved the point by whispering in my ear the joke of the moment (the year was 1983). One of my favourites, it featured head honcho Eric Honecker, who’d just taken the decision to prove to the Party and the country the high levels of support he enjoyed among the working class. So he set off on a lightning tour of a high-rise apartment complex in the Pankow district of Berlin. Chaperoned by a clutch of comrade officials, he rang a second-floor door bell. A young girl answered the door. “Who are you?” she asked. “Little girl”, Honecker replied, “I am the man who makes sure everything goes well for you. I provide you with food, clothing and a place to live….” “Mummy, Mummy”, the girl called out, “Come quick! Uncle Peter from Munich is here!”
Jokes against leaders have a different function under democratic conditions. A mark of a vibrant democracy is the willingness of its citizens regularly to pull off little revolutions by chucking irreverence at those who occupy top positions of power. Democracies depend upon leaders, no doubt. They learn from them, follow them, admire and respect them. But they don’t bow down to them. They refuse to treat them as deities. They periodically force them to stand naked before their citizens, and even before the whole world.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film The Dictator (just released, along with a surprise job offer to Peter Slipper) reminds us that elected leaders are sackable. They aren’t to be confused with the office (president, prime minister, premier, chancellor) they temporarily occupy. Unlike the monarchies of the past, and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, both of which required subjects to treat their rulers with fascinated reverence, democracies cut the connection between the body and personality of a leader and the office she or he holds. Political jokes remind us that elected leaders don’t own the office, as if it was their personal throne. In that sense, jokes keep alive the principle of rotating leaders, the need periodically to boot them out of office, back out into the streets.
Even in the grimmest and gravest circumstances, irreverent jokes against powerful leaders are necessary, and desirable. Think of the way some American citizens (in early 2003) spoofed George W. Bush. Halted by gridlocked traffic on a highway leading into Washington, DC, a driver is startled by shouting. She winds down her window, to be greeted by an agitated citizen waving a jerrycan in the air and bearing breaking news. “The president has just been kidnapped by terrorists! They’re demanding a huge ransom, otherwise they say they’ll set him on fire! The government says citizens should contribute, so the situation can be resolved fast.” Replies the startled driver: “How much on average are citizens donating?” Says the messenger: “About a gallon apiece.”
In recent weeks, in Scotland, where economic and political conditions aren’t exactly easy, a comparable joke has been doing the rounds.
With opinion polls putting him under great pressure, Prime Minister David Cameron visits a Glasgow primary school, where a class is in the middle of a discussion about words and their meanings. The teacher asks Mr Cameron if he would like to lead the discussion on a challenging new word the class has just learned: “Tragedy”.
So the prime minister asks the class if they can think of an example of a tragedy. A boy at the front, keen to impress, stands up and says: “If my best friend is playing in his neighbourhood and a car runs over him and kills him, well, that would be a tragedy.‘
"Incorrect”, says Cameron. “That would merely be an accident.”
A brave girl decides to have a stab. She gets up from her desk and says: “If a school bus carrying thirty children drove over a cliff, killing everybody inside, that would be a tragedy.”
“I’m afraid not”, replies Cameron. “That’s what we would call a great loss.”
The classroom falls silent. No other kid dares volunteer. Cameron looks around the room. “Isn’t there someone here who can give me an example of a tragedy?” Young Callum plucks up courage, raises his hand from the back of the class and says: “If a plane carrying you and Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband was hit by a missile and blown to smithereens, umm, that would be a tragedy.”
“Fantastic!” exclaims Cameron. “And can you tell me why that would be a tragedy?”
“Well,” says young Callum, “it has to be a tragedy, because it certainly wouldn’t be a great loss, and it probably wouldn’t be a f**king accident either.”