Vile Bodies

The Butt of the Joke

May 27, 2017

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The Butt of the Joke

You know you are getting old when even the judges look young; but another sign of aging is a failure to understand the humor of the young, a failure that on my part now goes back at least two decades. The things that the young laugh at nowadays escape me entirely. They seem to me offensive and banal in equal measure, an undesirable combination that is not easy to achieve.

A friend drew my attention recently to the case of a Scottish comedian, apparently very famous but previously unknown to me, called Markus Meechan. He posted a video on YouTube that shows him trying to teach his girlfriend’s dog, a pug, how to be a Nazi. Apparently, many people found this hilariously funny.

The Scottish police, however, arrested him for offending against some inherently arbitrary law or other, and now he faces trial and possible imprisonment for up to a year. This is so ludicrous and sinister that I leave it up to others to huff and puff about it. One cannot always confine oneself to hitting the easiest targets.

“What struck me most about Mr. Meechan was that he had managed to make himself uglier than his girlfriend’s pug.”

What struck me most about Mr. Meechan, however, was that (according, at least, to the photographs that I saw of him) he had managed to make himself uglier than his girlfriend’s pug, which is again no mean achievement. No doubt he—Mr. Meechan, not the dog—was unfavored by nature (as so many of us indeed are), but it took some determination on his part to look quite as hideous as he manages to do. In this, however, he was only showing how deeply conventional was his mind, for such primitive self-mutilation as he indulges in has now become a mass phenomenon. If dandyism had been the fashion, he would no doubt have been a dandy; but unfortunately the fashion is now to make oneself look like a barbarian attacking the Roman legions on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall. There is nothing as feeble as the human mind when it is in the grip of the desire to be fashionable.

Much as my inner authoritarian would like to see Mr. Meechan imprisoned for criminal ugliness and crimes against beauty (and his girlfriend taken into protective custody for her own good, for in my clinical experience women who are attracted to men of this appearance are attracted to others, and come to a miserable end), my attachment to personal liberty forces me to advocate that he be left at liberty to increase the ugliness of his surroundings and say what he likes.

Now, according to the one article about the affair that I read on the internet (and therefore it must be trustworthy), Mr. Meechan has been picked on, or persecuted, by the police because he is famous only on the internet and not on the stage or on television. That is to say, he is not a celebrity in the full (or should I say empty?) sense of the word. According to the author of the indubitably trustworthy article, another Scottish comedian, this one more of a true celebrity, called Frankie Boyle, has made jokes just as offensive as Mr. Meechan’s without being bothered by the police. There is thus one law for celebrities and another for everyone else.

How far this is true I do not know, and do not much care. What struck me in the article was the offensive joke that the author cited that had not drawn the attention of the police to the comedian who made it. Frankie Boyle said of the Palestinian situation that it was like “a cake being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew.”

Whatever you think of the Palestinian situation, this joke is not (at least to me) funny because the image it conjures up is clumsy, inapt, inexact, and unilluminating. There is no wit in it. Compare it with a joke that some might find anti-Semitic (at least when not told by a Jew), but which is funny:

Mr. Cohen dies and his widow wants to put an announcement in the ‘Jewish Chronicle.’ Told that announcements cost a pound a word, she suggests ‘Cohen dead.’ Told that the minimum is five words, therefore five pounds, she suggests ‘Cohen dead. Volvo for sale.’

Of course, people who are as hatchet-faced as the Scottish first minister, whose smile looks as if she had to learn it from a personal trainer, might object that the joke reinforces a certain stereotype. And of course it is completely taboo to ask whether stereotypes may have some foundation in reality. But the joke also has a hinterland, as it were: The unexpected last line conjures up a lifetime of conflict and bickering, of a miserable marriage, and of a long-desired thirst for revenge assuaged at last by the husband’s death. It captures a common human situation. By contrast, Frankie Boyle’s remark is dead, completely without interest. If it offends, it offends against intelligence.

Mr. Meechan explained the difference between Mr. Boyle’s situation and his own by saying:

If Frankie Boyle got arrested people would be fucking furious and the police would not have any public support.

Here the most interesting question is not whether or not this is true, but what the difference is between being furious and being fucking furious. Is there any way to distinguish between the two, and if so, what is the test? Does “fucking furious” mean “very furious”? But if you can be very furious, you can presumably be slightly furious, which makes nonsense of the word “furious.”

In fact, the word “fucking” as used by Mr. Meechan is not used to convey meaning, for it has none, but rather is used to convey an attitude to society and perhaps to life itself, an attitude that he probably believes to be virtuous and on which he no doubt prides himself. The word “fucking” is to his language what the ironmongery and other impedimenta are to his face: They are inserted to prove that he is a savage. And as we are all supposed to believe, the savage is a noble being, much superior in every way to the effete, affected, and civilized one.

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