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Gary Oliver: Watch out, jokers, the Department of Humour is on your case


‘Coming into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom . . . just pray you emerge with your dignity intact.’ Michael Gove interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 28 October 2017.

For many years Michael Gove had presented a facade of cheerful, unfailing courtesy; however, his now-notorious ‘joke’  was, according to Diane Abbott, “undermining and demeaning for women” – and when is Diane ever wrong?  Gove excused his offence as a ‘clumsy attempt at humour’ and, being a clever-clogs, had gone for not just one cheap laugh, but two. Thankfully, the ever-vigilant Neil Kinnock, anticipating that Gove had an impending follow-up, interjected some witless jabber, thereby successfully spoiling Gove’s timing and ensuring that his intended pay-off fell flatter than it might otherwise have done. Hurrah for Neil!

But though Lord Kinnock limited the impact, Gove nevertheless drew considerable laughter from the audience; indeed, the recording picked up a smattering of applause. And rumour has it that those laughing even included – gasp – a number of women. However, as Green Party peer Jenny Jones astutely observed, much of the apparent hilarity could only have been involuntary ‘shocked laughter’ because, as all right-thinking people surely agree, clearly there was ‘nothing funny about it’. Those who instinctively laughed and applauded are obviously in need of re-education – especially the traitorous women who, one must assume, have had their spirits broken by the unreconstructed men in their lives.

LibDem MP Jo Swinson tweeted that Michael Gove should not ‘trivialise sexual assault’. But just as important, she dismissed the entire premise of his so-called joke: ‘No, it’s not like that. I have never once feared for my safety in a media studio.’ And here Ms Swinson makes a crucial point: any so-called joke which relies upon abstract concepts such as allusion, analogy, metaphor or nuance, is liable to result in misunderstanding and even factual error. So every wannabe comedian should observe Jo’s sage advice: be literal at all times.

But of course, Michael Gove is just the tip of an enormous iceberg: in the UK there are millions of men who every day make what they describe as jokes but which are in fact callous attempts to demean women and make light of female suffering. What can be done? Fortunately, TCW can report that plans are afoot to address the problem and outlaw this epidemic of male sexist humour.

Now that the dust has settled following Michael Gove’s heinous remark, and the many triggered females have begun to recover from the upset caused – apparently some required smelling salts – there is consensus that the endemic problem of sexual harassment requires specific tackling of the misogyny which underpins so much of what men regard as humour. To find solutions, TCW understands that informal cross-party talks have already taken place between female MPs, plus the establishment of a WhatsApp discussion group which involves a high proportion of Westminster’s women who call themselves the Angry Members. Expecting that TCW will be sympathetic to the cause, reliable sources have briefed us on progress to date.

The Angry Members recognise there is a long history of male predatory behaviour disguised as humour. Men will routinely groom others of their own sex into ostensible friendships, only to subject the victims to the most appalling verbal abuse, conduct usually referred to as ‘taking the mickey’ or a more unpleasant variant which alludes to the extraction of urine. Indeed, the closer these male relationships purport to be, the more vicious and prolonged the verbal attacks become, to the extent that brutal name-calling often appears to be the sole method of communication. And those hapless men who fall victim invariably go on to groom others in the same way, repeating the same sorry cycle of abuse. None of which would matter were the practice confined to the male of the species, but when this behaviour spills over into the verbal teasing of women, there must of course be zero tolerance.

Also, there is a view amongst the Angry Members that men in middle age pose a particular threat. This is the generation whose formative years were blighted by repeated exposure to Carry On films, the effect of which has been to inculcate humour based upon sexist double-entendres, deplorable lechery (Sid James), objectification of women (Barbara Windsor) and female body-shaming (Hattie Jacques). And that is quite apart from the Carry Ons repressing the homosexuality of Kenneth Williams and disgracefully mocking trans-women by presenting Bernard Bresslaw and others in drag. It is inevitable that in due course the group will press for an outright ban on any television channel continuing to broadcast those reprehensible portrayals of human behaviour and relationships.

TCW understands that the Angry Members intend to lobby for the creation of a Department of Humour, to be directly accountable to the Minister for Women and Equalities. A few have expressed concern that the title Department of Humour will immediately be referred to as DOH! thereby exposing it to ridicule. However, on balance it was felt this will demonstrate that those calling for the creation of DOH! are not in fact humourless harpies, while the exclamation mark is judged to be a neat contemporary touch.

The key role of DOH! will be to identify which subjects are, and which are not, permissible for humour by men towards women, and to create and constantly update a list of proscribed words and phrases. While this regulatory power is intended to provide men with clear guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable speech, the ultimate aim is that a misogynistic remark or joke will simply be defined as: ‘Any incident which is perceived to be misogynistic by the victim or any other person’.

Once a joke has been established in law as misogynistic, the Angry Members’ recommendation is that the male lawbreaker should be prosecuted under a new misdemeanour of Causing Offence due to Bad-mannered, Bawdy, Lewd or other Egregiously Ribald Speech (COBBLERS).

The Angry Members insist that they have no wish to criminalise men simply for attempting poor jokes; the group therefore envisages the creation of an advisory panel for the benefit of those males unsure whether a joke that they propose to tell in female company will be COBBLERS. Men will be invited to supply the wording they intend to use and submit a request for consideration by another new body, the Committee for Review of Appropriate Punchlines (CRAP).

Should any man not avail himself of the CRAP service and, without state approval, proceed to talk COBBLERS, he can expect to face the full force of the law. The Angry Members are taking legal advice regarding the range of available penalties, referred to as Sanctions for Male Unauthorised Tastelessness (SMUT). At the time of writing, we await news of what SMUT will be recommended for talking COBBLERS.

No female MP has yet identified herself as part of the Angry Members’ working group, though there is speculation that when the time comes to go public the cross-party spokeswomen might include the aforementioned LibDem Jo Swinson, Maria Miller for the Conservatives and Labour’s Yvette Cooper. It goes without saying that under no circumstances must a man refer to Ms Cooper as Mrs Balls; not only would this insinuate that Ms Cooper is subordinate to husband Ed, but if accompanied by a snigger it will be actionable as COBBLERS.

However, there is a growing feeling amongst the Angry Members that their campaign might best be led by a woman who is not currently in the House, and one name mentioned is former LibDem MP Sarah Teather. Ms Teather is viewed as an authority on acceptable comedy and remains highly regarded for her unforgettable stand-up routine at the LibDem conference in 2011. Admittedly she received few laughs; but much more important, no women were offended during her act.

One reservation is that the name of Ms Teather could be the subject of an objectionable pun. And the Angry Members are acutely aware that several female MPs also have names which might be misappropriated for attempted comic effect. The general view is that a joke at the expense of Liz Truss will be permissible provided there is a genuine medical basis for the gag. However, any man attempting to extract humour from the surname of Joanna Cherry, Stella Creasy or Marie Rimmer would not only be prosecuted for talking COBBLERS, but under SMUT will face an additional charge of Aggravated Innuendo.

Of course, these proposals still have some way to go before becoming statute. Nevertheless, in the meantime the advice from TCW to any man considering making a dubious joke in female company is to desist from talking COBBLERS and instead think SMUT.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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