No jokes for the Woke

Andrew Donaldson says these are fearful times for the professional funny guys


STOP me if you’ve heard this one before, but a sales rep walks into a bar. It is deserted. There are no stereotypes in sight: no politicians, no gays, no lesbians, no trannies, no piano players, no cripples, no blacks, no blind drunks, no Jews, no Arabs, no dwarfs, no Afrikaners, no Mexicans, no Asians, no Chinese, no Irish, no Scots, no Catholics, no born again Christians, no dumb blondes, no mistresses, no mothers-in-law, no angry wives, no drunks, no talking horses, no randy dogs, no genies popping out of bottles, no swearing parrots and no bartender even. “That’s funny,” the rep says, “I thought there was a punchline in here…”

Not our best effort, I know, but it was inspired by John Cleese. The Monty Python star was on the BBC’s Today programme this week to promote his new book, Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide, and the chatter soon turned to the subject of humour in a climate of “asphyxiating” political correctness. 

While he agreed with PC’s original considerations towards minority and marginalised groups, Cleese argued that it was now the “indulgence of the most sensitive people”. Catering to the “most easily upset” among us, he said, would result in a “very neurotic society”. He then challenged his interviewer: “Can you tell me a woke joke?” He didn’t think it was possible, although one could certainly try. “And it might be heartwarming,” the comedian said, “but it’s not going to be very funny.” 

Game on, then, and the Beeb duly invited listeners to do their wokest and send in their best PC gags. I await the results with interest, but I am not hopeful.

These are fearful times for the professional funny guys. Critics of Scotland’s proposed new laws prohibiting hate speech argue, for example, that it will outlaw comedy and kill off the Edinburgh Festival’s Fringe stand-up circuit, arguably the world’s premier comedy showcase. Commentators have suggested there would be no time left for even one-liners once all a performance’s trigger warnings and caveats had been announced.

Some weeks back, it was revealed that, after an absence of 24 years, the abrasive hit ITV puppet series, Spitting Image, would be returning to the small screen. Almost immediately, concern was raised about the viability of the project. There were dire warnings that the show would bomb; it would not be possible to pull off the same level of caustic satire that was a hallmark of the original series as its targeted audience — mainly young wokefuls — would be too easily offended by its contents.

Older readers may recall, back in the late 1980s, that a puppet of PW Botha was a Spitting Image regular. One of its more memorable appearances was in the song-sketch I’ve Never Met a Nice South African. The video features Botha and several gun-toting white South Africans in Springbok jerseys and a sheep on safari, all bluntly describing themselves as “arrogant bastards who hate black people”, “ignorant loud-mouths with no sense of humour” and “talentless murderers who smell like baboons”. The closing lyrics also describe exiled writer Breyten Breytenbach as “quite a nice South African” who has “hardly ever killed anyone” and “that’s why we put him in prison”.

Given the Black Lives Matter climate, it seems unlikely that South Africa’s current leadership could ever be lampooned in such a manner. Not that Spitting Image’s producers need to poke around our neck of the woods for much material. 

But the show, due to air in a couple of months, has already landed itself in trouble over a depiction of Boris Johnson in a promotional video. ITV has reportedly banned it from flashing what has been termed the prime minister’s “tiny Johnson”. The network had commissioned the four-minute trailer, but executives took fright when they saw the results, which featured Johnson, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin wrestling naked in a sauna.

The Sun quoted an unnamed ITV source as saying, “We told them to take no prisoners with the trailer. And they certainly didn’t. But some of the senior executives couldn’t handle the fact they were fighting with their willies. They’ve given Boris and Trump tiny latex penises as well. They’re really small, but Putin’s is monstrous. Like a snake. It was eye-popping stuff.”

Other PC concerns have been noted. Kevin Lygo, director of television at ITV, has held meetings with senior producers and executives to discuss how black characters, like Megan Markle, Beyonce and Kanye West should be portrayed and to set up guidelines as to what is permissible and what is not. Then there are fears that, with toxic nationalism and stunted identity politics impacting on cultural environments, very little of the new show’s satirical jabs will actually find their targets.

These are, of course, the concerns of being funny in an increasingly puritan environment. It’s no joke. Anyone who’s ever paid the slightest attention to the career of Conrad Koch, arguably South Africa’s least funny comedian, will know that there’s nothing funny about PC humour. 

The problem with the ANC is that they don’t do jokes. Their self-importance and aloofness has rendered them impervious to wit and drollery. They may have a vague idea that someone’s having a laugh at their expense, but the punchlines are like helicopters circling away without ever touching down. 

It’s an entirely different matter when you just tell them to “voetsek”. That apparently hurts, judging by all the whining that follows about the people being so disrespectful to the leadership.

A liar in winter

Jacob Zuma will not be attending the commission of inquiry into state capture later this month. This is hardly surprising. According to lawyer Eric Mabuza, his client’s appearance dates had been set without approval, and it was a bit much that the testimony of more than 30 witnesses should be studied in preparation for the big moment. Besides which, Mabuza continued, Accused Number one was also preparing for his criminal trial, “the importance of which cannot be over-emphasised”. Indeed.

More cruelly, it appears the passage of time is taking its toll. “It must be further noted,” Mabuza continued, “that [former] president Zuma is also of advanced age and, given the current Covid-19 pandemic, he has been advised to limit his movements.” 

Can this be? It is true the Thief in Chief is 78, but it seems only yesterday that he was all over bubbly fiancee Nonkanyiso Conco like some cloven-hooved goat-god. Poor Nonkanyiso. Word among the gossips is that the 25-year-old struggled to keep up with her voracious partner, and she was forced to break off their engagement. As for the coronavirus, a good soapy shower should take care of that.

Herd impunity

Ho-hum. Another weekend, and another reportedly “heated” national executive committee meeting concerning the deeply rooted culture of corruption within the ruling criminal enterprise. All of which suggests these are trying occasions for all concerned, and there is much bickering as they struggle to reach consensus on a way forward that doesn’t entail acknowledging the elephant in the room — that they’re all rotten beyond the telling of it.

On Tuesday, however, ANC stalwart and MK veteran Mavuso Msimang suggested he may have a firm understanding of the situation. The problem, he said, was that the organisation had been “infiltrated” — as Eyewitness News put it — by the wrong sort of people. Or, as we have been saying for some time now, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), it’s only 90 per cent of the membership who’ve been giving the other 10 per cent a bad name.

“The branches, which are the people who elect members of the NEC, have been perfidiously infiltrated by people who have absolutely nothing to do with the values of the ANC,” Msimang was quoted as saying. “That is why they produce these kinds of people. When they say we’ve been elected by the people, those people — by the leaders’ own admission — are seriously implicated or involved in these [criminal acts].”

But then he suggested that Cyril Ramaphosa is the first leader since Nelson Mandela to order strict action be taken against corrupt party members, and that it was time for Squirrel to deliver on his word and act. “They must not expect the public to suddenly embrace them and say, ‘How wonderful!’ When big names go to jail, when Parliament is denuded of people who have committed serious offences [then the public will believe them],” Msimang said.

Deliver? Act? Put “big names” in prison? The man is clearly deluded. It’s no wonder nobody takes Msimang seriously.

Mickey Mouse matters

Elsewhere in entertainment news, it appears there was also racism a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… This is according to British actor John Boyega, once the rising star of Disney’s mega-zillion dollar Star Wars franchise. He has told GQ magazine and Black Lives Matter protesters in London that his character was a token black person who was sidelined by the studio and given no depth. What startles here is the conviction that characters in Star Wars movies, the cornball franchise that effectively lobotomised cinema, should have depth. 

Boyega is, of course, risking his future. No-one goes up against Disney and survives. Ask Lindsay Lohan, Shia LeBeouf, Mitchel Musso, Jake Paul, Bella Thorne and any number of other once-rising stars you’ve probably never heard of because their careers were cut short after they maligned the Mouse people. 

Play the game, though, and the world could be your oyster. Or at least a sizeable chunk of Senegal. This week, in a display of extraordinary narcissism, the Senegalese-American singer, producer and actor Akon (or, according to his birth certificate, Aliaune Damala Badara Akon Thiam) unveiled plans to build a futuristic R100-billion city outside Dakar based on Wakanda, the fictional kingdom featured in Black Panther, the 2018 Disney-distributed hit movie.

Akon told a news conference that work on the 2 000-acre Akon City, which has the blessing of the Senegalese government, will start next year. The 47-year-old star was quoted by The Times as saying that, growing up in New Jersey, he “ran into a lot of African-Americans that didn’t really understand their culture. So I wanted to build a city or a project like this that will give them the motivation to know that there is a home back home.” 

Sounds a bit like Sun City to us. Which is all the Disneyfication that Africa should be forced to endure.