Culture / Kirstin Fairnie

No Laughing Matters


I woke up this morning to incredibly honed abs: all it took was one night’s laughing at the Ross Noble boot camp. 

Sorry to sound young and earnest (ach, ‘tis the season for ‘true meanings’, so hopefully I can get away with it) but Noble got me thinking about the ‘point’ of comedy. You’d have thought the name of the tour- Mindblender- might have given you just a hint that Mr Noble was out to make you think. Clearly not for one member of the audience, who heckled him to ‘stop telling really offensive, sick disabled jokes’ (or something like that, I don’t want to get done for libel). Well that put a bit of a downer on things. Oh dear. She hadn’t really grasped the concept of comedy, which is a bit of a shame since she’d probably paid quite a bit for her ticket. Oh well, you win some you lose some.

The rest of the audience seemed to disagree with this lone voice, not because we’re all mad for any kind of –ism we can get our hands on, but because Noble wasn’t telling ‘sick disabled jokes’. Quite the opposite. To cut a hilarious, tangential story short, he was talking about the Paralympics and he said he was disappointed that Sebastian Coe hadn’t shared his fantasy of Oscar Pistorius racing against a competitor with no arms and legs being fired from a cannon. The situation is completely ludicrous, but that’s why it’s funny. It’s not mocking people with no arms and legs, it’s just bringing Oscar Pistorius down a peg or two: yes, Oscar Pistorius might be one of the world’s fastest men on blades, which is an amazing achievement, but he’s nothing against a cannon, just as Wiggo is nothing against a Transit van (as Noble reminded us). Nobody likes a show off.

Laughing about things normalises them. If Noble hadn’t told the cannon joke because he felt it was too offensive, surely that’s positive discrimination? If something’s off-limits, two things happen: first, people don’t really understand the taboo issue and second, people are drawn to the illicit topic and form little cliques of people they know they can laugh about it with. There’s a difference between mocking someone and having a laugh with them. The difference is between attacking the person and laughing at the situation. I am short, which is pretty fair game for almost anyone to take the piss out of, since it’s not due to any kind of congenital illness. If someone felt that they couldn’t mock me when I was trying to reach the top shelf in a supermarket, I would feel offended that they thought I was so sensitive, and that they viewed me as belonging to a separate social group to them, one of ‘people who don’t laugh at short people’, rather than ‘people who do laugh at shortness as a quality’. If someone makes a comment about me being short, we’re both in on a joke together and I know they’re not making fun of me behind my back.

What is most irritating is the condescending tall people who tell others off for taking the piss out of my height. Excuse me, but I can stand up for myself: I don’t need a tall protector. So did the Ross Noble heckler lady really have any right to be the voice of ‘disabled’ people? Given that she herself used the term ‘disabled’, which is now considered somewhat old-fashioned since it implies an inherent comparison with ‘abled’ people, I’m inclined to doubt how fully she understood the complexities of the situation. But I’m probably wrong (again, don’t want to be libellous).

Ignorance and lack of communication breed misunderstanding (I know, I know, it’s just I’m kind of hoping Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney might ask me to do vocals on a 30th anniversary digitally remastered version of Ebony and Ivory– watch this space) . As long as you have nothing malicious behind a joke, I think laughter opens up the debate better than turgid moral commentators ever could. Let’s face it: we can’t actually be serious all the time. It weighs us down. Comedians are like maltesers (and don’t you dare try and misconstrue that), they give us a little lift, and help us to view things from a different perspective. If you can’t have a laugh with someone, you can’t really ever get beyond the awkward chit-chat stage of a relationship because you’re too worried about what you can and can’t do. If you take the occasional risk, you find out where the boundaries lie. How can you identify with someone’s disability, ethnicity, race, age, religion or any other victim of –isms if you’re not comfortable talking about it? Yes, you can have very solemn discussions about it with them, and try to understand exactly what it feels like to be them, but that’s horribly patronising.

I don’t want men not to tell sexist jokes around me because they it’s non-PC and just to save them for their after-dinner cigar sessions when the women-folk are safely locked away in the drawing room talking about sewing patterns. If I don’t find the jokes funny, I just won’t laugh. There’s not really a moral obligation to laugh when someone tells you a joke. That might make me seem like a bit of a fun-sucker, but the horribly awkward silence after the joke might make you both think about why the joke was or wasn’t funny.

Kirstin Fairnie 


 Interact UK –

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