The comedian Jimmy Carr joked:
Say what you like about IEDs but we're going to have a hell of a paralympic team.
I thought about that again recently. There was a nice little piece in theipaper last Tuesday about lovers of sick jokes. Researchers described humour as a two-staged problem solving process. It's true. All jokes involve the ability to reinterpret.
The key question, 'If you want to gauge a person's intelligence tell them a sick joke and see if they laugh.'
So, in similar style to the Jimmy Carr joke:
Doctor have you got the test results on my baby?
Well the good news is you're never going to struggle to find a parking place.
Now the Jimmy Carr joke will make you laugh as long as you are sure there are no insensitive amputees in the room. Then you might worry. The first time I heard it he was telling it in Afghanistan to a group of hardened squaddies. They fell about. Its success relied on a knowledge of the risks and a willingness to embrace the reality of injured friends by laughing. If you're still trying to work out what an IED is then you've got no chance of laughing.
Yet most of us cannot imagine the circumstances in which the test-results joke is funny. We see the way the joke works, may even find ourselves briefly entertained, but have a moment of self-censure.
A few years back on social media I came across:
Research proves most suicides caused by attempting to change duvet covers
It was followed by some comments by the sickened who felt it took suicide lightly. I couldn't possibly mock. But the joke works in exactly the opposite way. It is funny because it takes the slightly annoying and awkward job of duvet-cover-changing far too seriously. And anyway, once you gotta explain it it ceases to be funny and becomes damage limitation.
A few more years back a marriage preparation course produced by a Christian Home Mission agency included a list of things a couple might get up to during intimacy. One of the things was:
Cover each other in ice-cream and lick it off
I had never used the course (or wasted good ice-cream thus) but found myself in a church, seeing couples, who had been given the material. One such couple, having discussed their wedding with me, then told me in no uncertain terms that what I had done was disgusting. Disgust works very well in a female Geordie accent by the way er, man.
I pointed out that if they agreed that neither of them ever wanted to lick anything off the other then the material had served its purpose - a discussion had taken place and agreement had been reached. But no. Their disgust went beyond that. Their disgust was at the very suggestion - this was not simply something they didn't want to do but that no sensible person should ever want to do and the church had suggested it. It was an uneducated response. The course compilers may have been daft not to foresee that but it was true. This was a couple who couldn't see the world from another's point of view.
And there, I think, is the rub. See the world from another person's point of view. Those of us who walk near the edge of humour's cliff from time to time need to rely on the joke-hearers also being sensitive. Sensitive to the fact that offence may not have been the primary aim. For, to be sure, comedians cannot give offence; that is to allocate them too much power. It can only be taken.
Must dash. Those kittens won't torture themselves.