Never underestimate the power of a joke. The right joke told by the right person at the right time can have a powerful effect. For example, the British comedian Russell Howard wrote a joke about ISIS that made BBC chiefs so nervous they asked him to rewrite it, in case it offended the fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. Seriously. The comic recently revealed that BBC executives asked him to change a routine in which he attacked ISIS as “not being Muslims” following the 2015 Paris attacks that killed at least 130 people.
During a more recent routine about freedom of speech on his Sky One show The Russell Howard Hour, he recalled that “A while back I worked for the BBC and I did a piece about the Paris attacks when I said ISIS weren’t Muslims, they were terrorists. And the crowd cheered. And then, at the end of the show, the BBC lost their mind. ‘You need to re-record it! You need to say ISIS aren’t devout Muslims.’ I was like ‘Are you worried we are going to offend ISIS? Are they going to write in?'”
Howard then imagined a terrorist mastermind penning a letter of complaint. “Dear Points Of View, imagine my horror when I was misrepresented on a late-night satire show. Farouk and I will be cancelling our TV licence. Please excuse my handwriting. I have a hook for a hand.”
He then added “Fuck those traitors to their faith! If they are killing people, the least I can do as a comedian is call them names. And if ISIS gets upset, then fuck them.”
However, when the routine was broadcast on his former BBC show, Russell Howard’s Good News, the words “devout Muslims” were used instead of just “Muslims,” thus keeping in line with the executives wishes. But he did also manage to call ISIS “hypocritical cowards,” “warmongering pricks,” and “ignorant thugs who hijacked a religion to create fear.”
This case unfortunately reminds us that if we live in a culture where words and jokes are taken as seriously as this, then even those comedians considered to be thoroughly ‘right-on’ will get bitten.
The converse is also true, where the wrong joke told by the wrong person at the wrong time can result in a comedian drowning in a great deal of hot water, something Trevor Noah now knows all too well. Over the past month the long-standing tension between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir reared its ugly head again. But in New York, 7,000 miles west of Kashmir, something apparently far worse, far more dangerous, or at least far more tweetable, happened.
In late February 2019 the South African comedian came under fire for joking about the recent tensions between the two countries. During an episode of The Daily Show, a satirical news program, host Noah began by comparing the decades-old geopolitical Indo-Pak dispute to the Cardi B-Nicki Minaj beef, but with nukes! He then said “Obviously, I hope India and Pakistan don’t go to war. But if they did go to war, it would probably be the most entertaining war of all-time. It would also be the longest war of all time.” He sarcastically added “Another dance number!” and then put on an Indian accent and suggested that a potential war scene would play out like a Bollywood musical.
Whilst Noah was genuinely trying to be satirical (he did add a cautionary “I’m sorry, I love Bollywood, I do”) his playful satire drew outrage on Twitter, forcing the 35-year-old comic to apologise.
Later he added that “It’s amazing to me that my joke about the conflict in India and Pakistan trended more than the story of the actual conflict itself. Sometimes it seems like people are more offended by the jokes comedians make about an issue than the issue itself.”
Noah is a recent addition to a long list of celebrities who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time apologising in the social media era. This may be because they have become more offensive or because we have become more fixated with social media, to the point where we increasingly find ourselves residing in an echo chamber of self-manufactured righteous rage. Who knows? Certainly not me. All I know is the following random selection of comedic quotes I have recently collected are funny to me, and I hope they are to you too. Enjoy!
Trump covering up his crimes is the hardest he’s ever worked. – Brooke Van Poppelen
Calling him “Mr. Trump” feels like calling a squirrel “Sir.” – Jess Dweck
The whole Trump saga is like the Godfather but if all of the characters were Fredo. – Dan Pfeiffer
I was a cool person at one time. I used to do cocaine. That’s true. Me! The person you’re looking at! I would smell it into my nose and I’d get a high from it. A quick tip from my experience, doing cocaine will not make your ex-girlfriend get back together with you, but it will make her worry about you. And in the end, what’s the difference? – John Mulaney
Happy Presidents’ Day. Yeah. I’ll be honest, this is another American holiday I don’t quite understand. Do you pull a president out of the ground and then, if it sees its shadow, there’s six more weeks of democracy? Do I have it right? Is that the thing? – Trevor Noah, 18 Feb 2019
The NBA is launching a 12-team basketball league in Africa, which is bound to be awkward when they’re trying to recruit players. They’re gonna get there and say “Hey, Africa! So, America’s searching for the biggest, strongest people you have. There’s gonna be a draft. The owners are gonna pick who they like best. So, what do you guys say?” Africans will be like “White man, we are not falling for that again! Not this time! Enslave me once, shame on you. Enslave me twice, shame on me!” – Trevor Noah, 18 Feb 2019
The reality is this situation is far too complex for an up or down referendum, which by the way was also true of the first one. Because when voters were just asked to leave or stay without a sense of what that might actually mean, the first referendum was a terrible idea because it was the government punting a difficult decision to the people which, in the peoples defence, is not their job! They elect politicians to make reasoned fact based decisions on their behalf. That’s how representative democracy works…Sometimes you don’t know stuff so you hire someone else to know it for you. If you came to your doctor with stomach pain and he said “Well, what do you think? Should your appendix leave or remain?” You’d probably say “Don’t ask me. Do your fucking job?!” – John Oliver, Feb 2019, talking about the complexities of Brexit, especially the idea of a second referendum
I’m really going to do it, you guys. I’m really going to have no kids. I can’t believe it. I’m baby crazy, that’s what’s insane about it. I love kids. I LOVE kids. The only thing I love more than kids is doing anything I want at all times. But kids are great. I bet your kids are a great measurement of time, right? You can go “Well, let’s see, that was when Billy was four, so that was 1998.” That’s so great to have that. When you don’t have kids all you have is 9/11. It puts such a malaise over just about everything you try to recall. – Sarah Silverman
I think it’s very funny and very strange that the only non-white member of the Spice Girls is called Scary. – Nish Kumar
I’m very happily married now. My wife is Jewish and I was raised Catholic, which you could all tell from the moment I walked out. That’s not a big deal, getting married between Jewish and Catholic. Only a couple of people asked about it, and they were MY parents. Before we got married my mother asked me if my wife was going to convert to Catholicism. You’re right to laugh. It’s a stupid question. “I don’t know, mom. Let me go ask. Let me go see if a 29-year-old Jewish woman who doesn’t like ANY of my suggestions, would convert to, what was it again? Roman Catholicism?” How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure and you’re like “Hey honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not new organization. Don’t Google us! You know that strange look of shame and unhappiness I have in my eyes at all times, especially after sex, and it was all forced on me at birth? What if you voluntarily signed up for it?” – John Mulaney
I used to be a primary school teacher, I used to teach 9 and 10 year olds. On parents evening once there was this racist dad and he came up to me, he was very cross because we’d been studying Islam. He said “I’m not happy that you’ve been teaching my son about Islam. How long has this been going on for?” I said “Since the seventh century. I’m amazed you’ve never heard of it. What else do you not know?!” He was still very cross and he said “My son shouldn’t be learning about Islam, he should be learning about Christianity. Islam is too confusing.” I said “Well, to be fair sir, Islam is a lot less confusing than Christianity.” And he said “What do you mean?” And I went “Well, in Islam you’ve got one main character, Mohammed, who goes up the hill and has a chat with God, he then comes back down the hill and, ta-da! Religion! Granted, there are other plot points, there is a lot more to it than that, you’re right, but my audience were nine years old so they just lapped it up because that explanation was good enough for them. Now, compare this to Christianity, where you’ve got God and Jesus, who are both the same guy, but Jesus is God’s son. They’re the same person, which is mental as a premise. And God sends his son, who is himself, to earth to die, to then go back to his dad, who is himself…And there’s a ghost.” – Donald Alexander
You’ll remember at school that you would have to do work but some of the children finish their work early, which is really annoying because then you have to think of more stuff for them to do. In the trade we call them ‘fast finishers’ but they’re really just arseholes. You just end up giving them something to draw. And Sophie is really bright and she pops up her hand and she says “Mr Alexander! Mr Alexander! I’ve written up all the facts about Mohammed. Should I just draw a picture of Mohammed now?” And I said “Great idea,” very quickly followed by “NOOOO!” On top of all that, I thought she was going to use glitter, which is breaking one of my teaching rules. – Donald Alexander