Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
18 June 2017updated 19 Jun 2017 8:54am

Laughter can ease life’s pain – we must protect the freedom to joke

We can't let comedians be censored.

By Rachael Jolley

The world is in serious need of a laugh right now. A ridiculous, oversized belly laugh would let the tension ease out. We are on edge, with that nasty grating feeling, a bit like when there’s raw skin in your mouth and you can’t stop touching it with your tongue. 

Politics. Life. Everything.

When things are at their most difficult, the extreme moments in life, when you can’t talk about Brexit one more time without screaming, then comedy can ease the pain. Stand-up comedian and writer Grainne Maguire believes that trauma sometimes brings out the best laughs. “Comedy is a challenge to heartbreak,” says Maguire, who writes for 8 Out of 10 Cats and BBC Radio 4’s Now Show. The Irish comedian, who tweeted updates on her periods to the Irish Taoiseach as part of an original attempt to bring attention to the country’s ridiculously historic abortion laws, believes that comedy gets to truth and authorities don’t like that.

And so it is in Spain right now. Comedy, it turns out, is touching a nerve, as it often does, and rather surprisingly the lawyers are getting involved. Comedy is not only a threat, but under threat.

What’s bizarre is, this is Spain, a modern democracy, a solid, sensible country at the centre of Europe. Locking people up for making a joke, that’s something you might expect from an authoritarian and struggling state. But Spain?

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Well, it turns out, this is Spain in the 21st century. The list of comedy offences reported in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine is not short. Spanish comedian Dani Mateo was told to testify before a judge in May for telling a joke referring to a monument built by Franco’s regime as “shit”. He told the joke during a satirical show. Now it doesn’t sound like the best joke in the world, but hell, we defend his right to tell it. And Mateo is not alone in the Spanish comic fraternity. There’s Facu Díaz, who was prosecuted last year for posting jokes on social media; Cassandra Vera, who was sentenced to a year in prison for making jokes about a former Spanish president; and three women who were accused of a religious hate crime for mocking a traditional Easter procession. Then there’s the two Spanish puppeteers whose Punch and Judy show included a sign for a made-up terrorist organisation carried by a witch. They spent a year fighting prosecution, unable to leave the country for weeks, receiving anonymous threats and having to report regularly to the police.

Jokes are a barometer of public mood, and as British comedian Andy Hamilton told this summer’s Hay Festival, you can even use them to test how much the public like or dislike a politician or public figure. He remembered making a joke about then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and being told by one of her staunchest supporters to expect a wave of outrage. On checking, he found just three complaints, and that’s when, he said, he knew Thatcher was on the way out. Perhaps someone could test out a joke about Theresa May and see how the complaints barometer swings? Author John O’Farrell says: “It’s such a sign of a healthy democracy that we can laugh at our leaders.”

Jokes do take the temperature of the nation, and one of many reasons politicians fear them is, as Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Politicians fear being made fun of, and fear that a satirical representation may take root in the electorate’s brain. They fear the public seeing their weaknesses. Some may remember how TV’s Spitting Image reduced each member of the cabinet to a single ridiculous idea, a spitting former Home Secretary Roy Hattersley or a tiny David Steel tucked in the top pocket of David Owen (joint leaders of the SDP-Liberal alliance). Not good for their egos, not good for their future prospects. Steel said later that the sketch definitely affected his image.

Joke-telling is not the only ingredient in the comedy cupboard that upsets the powers that be. The most obvious creators of exaggerated portraits are newspaper cartoonists, who sometimes feel the long arm of the police on their shoulders as a result.

South African cartoonist Zapiro told Index on Censorship: “We provoke thought, even if that thought is pretty outrageous. Others can do it too. We just occupy a space where you can really push the boundaries.” Zapiro faced a six-year court battle with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma over one of his cartoons. But Zapiro is just as feisty as ever, and reckons he is bolshier than the generations that have come after him. Meanwhile in Germany this February talk show host and comedian Jan Böhmermann was hit by a civil court action banning him from repeating a poem that was rude about Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Cracking down on comedy is just one attempt to command and control society. And when solid modern democracies such as Spain and Germany start taking their comedians to court it’s a sign that society is feeling so out of sorts that they think free speech no longer feels important or worth defending. In fact it needs that key freedom now more than ever.

O’Farrell believes authoritarians are wrong anyway, that comedy is less about power and more about releasing our Munch-like screams. Let’s get our Adam’s apples warmed up.

Rachael Jolley is editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The summer issue is out next week and features an interview with Zapiro. On July 4, the Index Stand Up For Satire comedy night will feature Al Murray, Tim Key, Felicity Ward and more.