Real life

Melissa Kite: The death of humour

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

A vet has accused me of a ‘hate crime’ for making a joke about vets. On the basis that everything is a hate crime, I am not getting too upset.

But it does seem to be the case that jokes are becoming a liability. The sort of complaints I used to get were from lefty bloggers calling me subversive for daring to mock an organic café in Balham that purported to serve locally foraged ingredients. There were also some poor souls on Twitter who said I had worsened their gluten intolerance by making jokes about wheat.

By and large, though, people have been wonderful and responded to my jokes by saying, ‘Oh ha ha, yes, very funny. Some of this is in bad taste, but let’s all suspend the capacity to fake hurt that we are being told to cultivate in the age of outrage and treat ourselves to a damn good laugh.’

This vet, however, was so upset at me making a joke about vets in a recent column that he not only wrote in to complain, he rang the switchboard of this and several other publications looking for me, and swore at various people down the phone.

We live in a post-joke world, as a character on Family Guy observed.

I don’t suppose the equality brigade will turn their noses up at a vet who claims that his bogus right not to be insulted has been violated. They’ll leap at the chance to champion any mildly discomforted party who has gone energetically out of their way to take offence at something that was meant to be funny by interpreting it as mind-numbingly literally as possible.

‘Oh dear, sir,’ they’ll say. ‘You read a column by a woman in which she made a joke about vets being expensive and, oh crikey me, you are a vet, you say? And you’re not expensive? Oh, you are expensive. But you’re still upset.

‘Well, of course. It’s awful for you. You’ve dedicated yourself to curing animals for large fees and you’ve had it thrown back in your face. She’s insulted your veterinary dignity. How bad do you feel on a scale of one to ten? You don’t mind me calling you sir, do you? If you would prefer me to address you as Mrs, Miss, Ms, Om, or perhaps They — if you’re multi-gendered — I’m happy to do so. Can you quantify the hurt the joke caused you? Do you feel abused? It’s best if you feel abused. Then we can give you a Twitter hashtag.’

I bet the cold callers will catch on to this soon. ‘Hello, we understand you’ve encountered a joke made about a grouping you identify with. Would you like to make a claim? Well, think back. Are you sure you haven’t been the butt of a joke recently? Maybe in the past six months? We can go back further if you like.’

This sort of humourless reaction to jokes used to be quite rarefied. But every week, more and more people cross the line to go over to the dark side. Offence is power.

And it’s not just the vet. My local GP surgery emailed recently demanding to know whether it was true, as they had heard, that I had made a joke about their waiting times. It was. I had intimated that I was so useless on the computer — that it would cost so much to pay my tech guy to help me crack my forgotten username and password to use the GP booking website — that I ended up going private. The joke was mostly on me, I thought. But a doctor’s surgery writes to complain, and what have I got to say for myself? ‘Can I have an appointment please?’ perhaps.

I think the problem is that in the post-joke era, people increasingly want you to entertain them by making jokes that are in no way connected to them. However, jokes are like the bottle in spin the bottle. Sooner or later it is going to point to you. If we want humour to survive, we all need to be on the wrong end of a joke every now and then, because someone has to be.

I could always explain that in the bit of the column where I said ‘my vet is the last good vet on the planet’, I was making an ironic statement. I was using exaggeration to pass comment on an inherent truth. But maybe I should get with the times and ditch the irony. Perhaps I could try and tell you about my travails in a literal way. For example:

This week, the kitchen company suddenly started charging me for things for which I thought I had paid. The builder says it is always like this. A spokesman for The Kitchen Manufacturer’s Association said: ‘It is not always like this, it is like this 87.3 per cent of the time.’

This new non-offensive artistic venture won’t be entertaining, but it will be completely fair by boring everyone equally.

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