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Reform Magazine | May 18, 2024

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A good question: When is a good joke bad? - Reform Magazine

A good question: When is a good joke bad?

One question, four answers

‘Being funny doesn’t make a joke wise’

Jo Brand’s recent joke on the BBC Radio 4 programme Heresy, has sparked back into life the age-old debate about what is within the bounds of acceptable comedy. Brand herself described it as ‘crass and ill-judged’. But it is impossible to come up with any meaningful answers or boundaries to define what we can and cannot find funny. To definitively answer such a question would ultimately suck the humour out of all comedy, because so much of what I find funny is instinctive.

Those times in my life when I’ve been unable to breathe and had tears running down my face because I’ve found something so funny, would be completely unfunny to most people if I were to explain it to them. Context is everything when it comes to humour. It’s about a split-second guffaw in most instances – and it depends on the delivery, the context, the timing, the background and worldview of the hearer. We bring so much of ourselves to the things we find funny.

Nonetheless, whether or not a joke is funny in our heads doesn’t mean we should proceed with telling it. Would it be wise or fair or good to make a joke about atrocities such as the Holocaust or 9/11? Can a joke about those things ever be funny? Clearly, people like Katie Hopkins have gained a following from daring to say what others find offensive, but there is nothing to be applauded by offending whole groups of people just because you can. Context, again, is king. …

Chine McDonald is Head of Media at Christian Aid


‘Christians should lay off the outrage’

There’s an unexpected story told by Tertullian, an important (and frequently hot-tempered) Church Father who lived in the 2nd century. One day, he came across a man who worked with the animals at the local arena. The man was carrying a placard showing Jesus with donkey’s ears and hooves, carrying a book and wearing a toga. A slogan scrawled underneath said: ‘The God of the Christians, born from sex with a donkey.’

You’d imagine that Tertullian, who was a pretty black-and-white sort of person, would have been furious at this mockery of his cherished beliefs. But instead, he simply wrote: ‘The name and the figure amused us.’

Things were obviously different in the second century than in the 21st, but it’s astonishing that such mockery of Jesus produced not offence, but amusement, even for a hot-tempered Church Father. It’s a rather huge contrast to the offence today which Muslims take at cartoons of Muhammad, and Christians take at jokes about Jesus …

Simon Jenkins is Editor of

‘I don’t find any jokes offensive’

Much of the allure when I began standup comedy was the idea that the art form is steeped in truth. I naively thought back then: That’s easy, I’m honest; just don’t lie. But the deeper I delved, the more I learnt about how challenging it is to be completely honest with myself and the act of delivering personal stories.

My job forces me to reflect how far I am willing to go to tell the truth. I have resolved that I will go as far as it takes. I don’t think it’s good to censor my act, because, if comedy is honesty, such self editing is doctoring the truth, ie lying.

We live in a very troubling time, where offence culture prevails and it seems as though there is a prize for the person who is outraged the most. An audience member’s right to outrage does not outweigh the comic’s right to freely express themselves – the two are mutually independent. An audience member being offended says a lot more about them then it does about the joke. It implies they were there simply to have their world views validated, rather than challenged, and moreover that they cannot take a joke.

I think this is why brands of ‘religious comedy’ have never taken off. I don’t use comedy to be a spokesperson for my religion, I can only speak for and represent myself, not a wider collective. …

Sadia Azmat is a standup comedian and co-presents the podcast No Country For Young Women. Her programme My Single Life is on BBC Radio 2 on 14 July

‘If religion is above laughter, it is above criticism’

I used to do a comedy act at Greenbelt festival by the name of the Revd Gerald Ambulance. Gerald would dispense ill-judged advice and unhelpful platitudes, sing bad worship songs and share hair-raising stories from his church and his own spiritual life. It was not everyone’s cup of tea. Audiences laughed a lot, if sometimes nervously.

Gerald’s songs were versions of the many kinds of worship songs that were making me cross at the time. ‘O God, you are just really Lord’, for example, or his take on those worship-as-escapism songs that say: ‘When I’m in your presence, my problems disappear’ which was called ‘You are my heroin’.

That last song was the only thing of Gerald’s that ever got heckled by an offended hearer. ‘How can you joke about heroin?’ he shouted. That was a surprise. I later found out this comedy nemesis of mine had had a bad time thanks to drugs. Someone else at the festival had had a bad time thanks to church, and thanked me for calling out manipulative spirituality. Another said I set a bad example to young Christians. …

Stephen Tomkins is Editor of Reform

These are extracts from an article that was published in the July/August 2019 edition of Reform

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