Not long after reading the upsetting story about Oscar Pistorius on the BBC news app, this comment appeared on my Twitter feed:
No doubt there are countless other Pistorius jokes out there, but this one came from John Cleese, a British comedy icon rather than some random tweeter (twit?), which made me pause and think. Why do we make these jokes and why are reactions (note the first reply and the number of retweets) to them so polarised? Before anyone starts ranting at me, I’m neither defending nor criticising Cleese’s joke – I’m just wondering whether this type of humour is ever okay and if not, why not?
The are several reasons why it could be considered unacceptable. Let’s start with the most obvious, the fact that somebody died. This is tragic, not funny. (At lot of people commented that a “lovely young woman” died. Does this suggest that it’s okay to joke about unpleasant old men dying?) I took a quick look through the other tweets of some of the people commenting – one of the most aggressive critics had made a joke about a suicide prevention helpline a few hours earlier. Is it okay to joke about death in certain circumstances but not in others?
Another argument (interesting used by both sides) is that the joke isn’t about death, it’s about disability. The butt of the joke is Pistorius (deservedly, IF he is guilty) but it mocks his lack of legs, which could be offensive to a lot of other people.
A frequently made point was that it is “too soon” to make a joke about this event. Does that mean it will be okay in a week, a month, a year? Will Reeva Steenkamp’s death be less of a tragedy to her family and friends then? Will the very public fall of a man who is an icon to many be any less of a loss to those he might have inspired or helped? (One possible reason why it’s too soon now but may be acceptable in the future is that Pistorius has only just been arrested and ‘trial by media’ never helps the judicial process.)
Maybe it’s just not a very good joke… A pun on the literal and metaphorical meanings of “legless’ is bit obvious, especially for a Python. Somebody’s finding it funny though – last time I checked it had well over a thousand retweets. This type of humour strikes a chord, even if only as a defence-mechanism against the horribleness of the world. We make light of what we can’t otherwise bear to think about. On a smaller scale, I joke about Jamie’s heart condition; his oxygen saturations are around 83% and I tell people that I’m secretly relieved as I wouldn’t be able to keep up otherwise. Without over-analysing, I think I say things like this to put other people at their ease, to help them cope with a difficult situation.
Perhaps, although these jokes aren’t okay, aren’t always funny and definitely aren’t nice, they are sometimes necessary. If so, the only question left is, does Cleese’s joke fit this category?