It’s a funny feeling as a comedian with nearly 300 live gigs, radio appearances and presentations under my belt to have, for the first time, caused someone offence with a joke on Twitter. This isn’t something I do lightly: I am, for example, in possession of the Most Offensive Joke in the World, and have no intention of telling it on stage before both my parents are long dead and I have a sworn statement from an Ayatollah and a Pope that there is no afterlife from which they can look down (or possibly up) and view my actions. Although, thinking about it, my dad might quite like it.
At times like this, what usually happens is that people say ‘it’s a bad and tasteless joke, but I suppose you have the right to say it.’ Usually these people are politicians, and what would they know about humour? May I also say from the get-go that I think such jokes are usually pretty good, and if they don’t work out of context, that is not the fault of the author.
Today is the day of the publication of the Hillsborough Inquiry. I am not qualified to address tragic events on a grand scale. What I do is mock politicians. And so, when I saw Boris Johnson’s profoundly offensive and insensitive Spectator editorial about Liverpool on Twitter (which, I think he didn’t actually write himself, but he was the editor in charge, and so the buck stops with him), I re-tweeted. Mr Johnson (funny to use the second name – makes him seem more serious, no?) in the wake of the Olympics, has been seriously tipped to return to the Commons, and make an attempt on Cameron’s position. I feel that publishing such an editorial betrays a lack of judgement that doesn’t fit well with the job of Prime Minister. I’m also aware that Mr Johnson is unharmed by the portrayal of himself as a bit of a buffoon, a larger than life character who scoops votes because people know who he is as much as what he stands for. I felt more people should see his true colours.
I therefore appended my RT with the words, ‘< Boris for pm, lolz etc'. If you've read this far, you may have judged for yourself that 'lolz' isn't part of my regular vocabulary (indeed, my account was hacked, and more than one person who received a DM from me didn't click on the link because they were suspicious of my apparent use of the word 'ROFL'). I think my satiric intent is quite clear: Mr Johnson would be an inappropriate person to be made PM, and one shouldn't vote for him because he's quite good on Have I Got News For You?. Further, it is dangerous to take the charm at face value when such disturbing – and they are disturbing, as well as being ignorant (‘more than 50 [deaths]’ is especially awful) – views are simmering underneath. Finally, I bring to mind a drawing by Gerald Scarfe of Idi Amin in a clown costume, captioned ‘Ain’t he a laugh?’ which, I think, covers similar ground. Not that Alexander B P Johnson is that bad.
The response from @Ashy_number3 was swift: ‘@sillymrhawkins deserves a slap after that tweet!! 96 grieving families today and ur praising a mayor for his ridiculous comments!!’
For the removal of all doubt, I also RT’d (without comment) a number of other tweets that expressed empathy and calls for justice more eloquently than I could hope to write. I did reply to @Ashy_number3 to say that I was attempting satire, and I think if not done well, it was clearly so, because none of his 2,254 followers have felt the need to comment further. As for the threat, I’m giving it the same credence Robin Hood Airport ought to have given that man who threatened to blow them up, ie. none.
So far, @Ashy_number3 hasn’t retracted, which is a shame. We are on the same side. And I’m not sure that I mind offending people if the intention is clear: I once very deliberately ‘threw’ a gig when the Nigerian act on before me was racially heckled with the apparent approval of the rest of the audience. This wasn’t a crowd I wanted to entertain, and since I wasn’t being paid, embraced the opportunity to walk onstage and deliberately, painfully die for seven minutes. It was a cathartic experience (for me – hell for the audience). By the way, the reason I don’t find racist jokes funny is not because I’m a tedious and politically correct leftie, but because they rely on a set of assumptions that don’t naturally occur to me. Someone once asked me to tell them a racist joke: I said simply, ‘Nick Griffin.’
Being offended doesn’t confer upon you a magic status. I would rather @Ashy_number3 wasn’t offended by my joke, because the only reason he is, is that he has grabbed precisely the wrong end of the stick. I’m not comfortable with upsetting people, but I do stand by my joke, because jokes are what I do, in the entirely unfounded belief that a well-aimed dart of humour can penetrate the armour more effectively than a crudely-lobbed half-brick of fact. At the heart of every satirist is an idealist. Some of my jokes, including this one, are intended to make you angry, as well as making you laugh. Unfortunately, @Ashy_number3 is now thoroughly angry at entirely the wrong guy.