Have you heard the one about the man with no arms and no legs who is sunbathing on the beach?

I was away for a few days and I had only two things to read. The first was The Count of Monte Cristo. The other was a collection of "bar-room jokes" given away free with an issue of FHM magazine.

You know when you're away somewhere abroad and you find yourself devoting a ridiculous amount of attention to some newspaper or magazine you happen to have with you? You read all the bits of the newspaper that you didn't previously know existed: the gossip column in the sports pages, a strip cartoon in the business section which you don't understand. You try to finish the crossword. It takes the whole week, and there are still a couple of clues you don't get, and you guiltily remember reading somewhere that Noel Coward, W H Auden and Stephen Fry complete, or completed, the Times crossword before breakfast. (As I type these names I ask myself - are crosswords a gay thing, like Judy Garland movies?)

As I read the deliberately offensive jokes, I was trying to think of what connection there is between a joke's being offensive and being funny. To choose an example almost at random, Q: What's the connection between a fat woman and a moped? A: They're both a great ride until your mates see you on one. There's nothing problematic about this joke because it isn't funny. You don't even find yourself furtively laughing at it.

But can a joke be really offensive and really funny? Is there, somewhere out there, an incredibly funny Nazi joke about Jews? Or if a joke is authentically funny, does that mean it isn't really offensive? Ten years before "alternative comedy", Trevor Griffiths' remarkable play The Comedians argued that true comedy had to be honest, perhaps even a radical political act.

I wouldn't go that far but I think a joke should have a certain honesty.

Take the following: Q: How do you stop a woman giving you a blow job? A: Marry her. That's nasty but at least it has a real subject, the battle between men and women over sex, the fear that men and women may simply have different sexual needs. By contrast the numerous jokes about women's vaginas smelling disgusting are non-jokes, because the real force behind the jokes is never expressed, namely fear felt by heterosexual men of something that also obsesses them.

Needless to say there are loads of homophobic jokes, but what about this one? A boy comes home and tells his parents that he's just had sex with his geography teacher. "I'm proud of you, son," the father replies, to the mother's disbelief. "I think you're old enough now to ride your brother's bike." The boy's face drops in disappointment. "I can't. My arse hurts too much."

Now that's unpleasant all right. But does the joke depend on a visceral disgust about homosexuality or is it horribly funny because it catches us out in our double standards about underage sex?

My problem is that, in the end, I can't agree with Trevor Griffiths when he says that a joke has to be in some way healing in order to be funny. I think it just shouldn't be hypocritical. And I think you should be able to imagine the subject of the joke telling it. If it's a joke about a woman and you can't imagine a woman telling it, then you should ask yourself: why not?

Here are the two jokes in the book that made me laugh loudest. The first insults the disabled.

A man with no arms and legs is sunbathing on a beach. He is approached by three beautiful women, who look at him with pitying expressions. The first asks him if he has ever been hugged. He shakes his head and she gives him a big hug. The second asks if he's ever been kissed. He shakes his head and she kisses him.

The third asks him if he's ever been fucked. He shakes his head, his eyes lighting up. "Well, you are now," she says. "The tide's coming in."

The second makes light of the war in Bosnia.

Liverpool FC sign a superb striker from Bosnia. In his first game for Liverpool he scores a hat trick. After the match he phones his mother with the good news, but she starts crying. He asks what the matter is and she replies: "Well, this morning your sister was raped by a street gang, then your little brother was savaged by wild dogs while playing football in the street, after that your dad was shot by a sniper and I was mugged and beaten up while I was out shopping."

The man is devastated. "Mum, I'm so sorry."

"Sorry?" she shouts. "It's your fault we moved to Liverpool."

Offensive? I don't think so, but then I'm not offended by anything, except maybe comments about people going bald, because, to be quite honest, that sort of thing is needlessly upsetting to some of us - I mean, them.

This article first appeared in Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war

1999-06-14