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What should decide when a joke is not a joke?

A disgusting ‘joke’ about the Holocaust has outraged some, while others stand by it. Sam Ord explores why it’s never acceptable to boost oppression
Issue 2792

Jimmy Carr sickeningly mocked Gypsy, Roma and Travellers (Picture: Wikicommons/ Albin Olsson

Comedian Jimmy Carr triggered widespread outrage over his so-called “joke” about the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) Holocaust experience during the Nazi regime.

Just a week after Holocaust Memorial Day, Carr described the systematic killing of GRT people as a “positive” in his Netflix special His Dark Material.

GRT people brand the Holocaust as the Porajmos or Devouring. Around 500,000 GRT people were selectively murdered by the Nazis. Many more were pushed into labour camps, sterilised and used for medical experiments.

Tory health secretary Sajid Javid joined those expressing opposition to Carr, branding his comment “horrid”. But outrage from Javid, whose party is pushing the anti-GRT police and crime bill, is completely hypocritical.

Carr hasn’t walked into this situation blindly. He’s made a calculated attempt to tap into an audience that feels constrained by “wokeness” and embraces some right wing ideas. He adopts a more careful face for his lucrative television appearances and then a manufactured “edginess” for his live shows and the spin-off DVDs.

And Netflix bosses allowed his programme on its global platform.  They choose to show what is profitable, regardless of the wider impact. They do this while simultaneously releasing series with more diverse casts and storylines in the wake of movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Some have rushed to Carr’s defence. They claim that opposition to him is another example of “cancel culture”. Instead they argue for “freedom of speech”. But “freedom of speech” is a myth—and our rulers and the rich know it. 

They constrain what is said by their ownership and control of much of the media, and sometimes they directly use violence or censorship to drown out opposing views. 

Carr’s “joke” wasn’t about freedom but normalising speech that can lead to hate crime on the streets or roll backs of rights. Not all targets of jokes are equal.  A joke about the queen or the Tories is not the same as one directed against Muslims or migrants. The difference is that some groups are oppressed and face repressive laws.  Others hold the power within the system that bolsters oppression. 

It’s right to laugh at the powerful even—or especially—if it causes horror and outrage from those at the top. But often comedy isn’t as simple as punching upwards—against Boris Johnson, the royals or the corporations. Blows can go sideways. 

Comedy can be powerful, exposing the hypocrisy of the system and its defenders. But it can also encourage prejudice and support for ruling class ideas. 

There is a long tradition of racism in British comedy that reinforced negative stereotypes. And for a long time it was completely unchallenged. 

In the 1960s a black comedian called Charlie Williams acted as his audience and employers expected.  He used phrases such as, “If you don’t laugh, I’ll bring my tribe in and we’ll eat the lot of you.” But Williams also made jokes such as “When Enoch Powell said, ‘Go home, black man,’ I said, ‘I’ve got a hell of a long wait for a bus to Barnsley.’” 

In the 1970s Williams was joined on television by Kenny Lynch, the butt of Bruce Forsyth’s and Jimmy Tarbuck’s jibes about black people. Eventually, largely because of wider movements in society, that sort of comedy was challenged and marginalised. And many comedians themselves turned against it. 

Comedy can be illuminating, biting, fun and an escape. It can also entrench oppression. So who is targeted—and why—matters. We have to be ready to defend those who face the brunt of bigotry.

The Me Too movement managed to pull some sexist and predatory comedians from platforms such as Netflix. The same can be done over “jokes” such as the horrendous one made by Jimmy Carr.

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