An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman go into a pub. The Englishman says something conventional and unremarkable - or slightly stuck-up. The Scotsman in some way demonstrates he is thrifty. The Irishman demonstrates he has misunderstood the entire situation and everyone laughs at him.
Okay, so it’s not a joke, but it’s the format of a joke. Is it anti-Irish? Not really. It's a format. The Irish are not an oppressed and exploited minority - any more. There would have been a time when the joke would have been inappropriate. But we're okay with it now. Why is that?
Jokes and comedy often rely on stereotypes because they are short-cuts. Sometimes they're cliched, sometimes very current. Sometimes they are sweepingly generalised, and other times they are specific. But the format is clear. When someone starts to tell a David Beckham joke, you know that it's a joke about a stupid person. It has been assumed David Beckham was stupid. I’m not sure he is. He is softly spoken and has a fairly high pitched voice, but stupid that makes him not. I note that he’s considerably richer than everyone who reads this blog combined so he’s not that stupid. But because he's a multi-millionaire with a popstar wife, no-one feels that sorry for him, so it's probably okay. But we'll come back to this.
Here’s a standard European joke:
In Heaven, the mechanics are German, the chefs are French, the police are British, the lovers are Italian and everything is organized by the Swiss. In Hell, the mechanics are French, the police are German, the chefs are British, the lovers are Swiss and everything is organized by the Italians.
(EU Joke Book Vol III Page 321 Paragraph 2b)
It seems harmless enough. What’s the joke? That the Germans are efficious, the British are poor cooks, the Swiss are unromantic and the Italians are a shambles. There are all stereotypes, that are broadly accepted as being true - true enough for the joke to be funny - even though there a notable exceptions. But no-one minds too much because we're all of similar status.
There are those who say that it's not okay to joke about nationalities and stereotype in this way - and apply some sort of EU/UN standard to joke-telling. They say "Why is okay to joke about Americans when it's not okay to joke about Nigerians?" We all know that this issue is complicated, but there is a way through. It's okay to make jokes about Americans and the French. And there's a good reason not to make jokes about Nigerians, as we shall see.
No-one really knows how comedy works. There's not a 'Grand Unified Theory' of comedy that I've found convincing, or a 'Standard Model', but in this area of joking about 'people groups' and all that, I think there three categories of joke.
1. A Joke told between Equals.
This is essentially banter between colleagues, brothers and friends - about each other and not designed to cause offence. If anything, it comes from a place of respect and affection and based on the fact that there is general parity.
eg. Jokes about the French by the English - and vice versa. Let’s be honest. The French and the English are not all that different. We’ve had a bumpy relationship over the last thousand years, but for the last hundred years, we’ve been on the same side. We’re large, industrious, wealthy countries and we’re not afraid of each other. Not really. So a joke about the French obsession with food or lack of personal hygience is probably fine. It’s worth watching Flushed Away. There is a French character – a Frog! Who’d have thought it? – voiced by Jean Reno. There are some very funny jokes at the expense of the French, but they’re clearly not meant to wound.
But there would be circumstance in which anti-French jokes would be unacceptable. Imagine you're in a class of English teenagers and there is a French exchange student. The English teenagers tell a series of jokes again and again at the expense of the French student. Is that appropriate? Probably not.
2. A joke told by the Righteous Weak against the Unrighteous Powerful.
We're veering towards satire here. These are, for example, jokes by left-wing broke students against a right-wing privileged government. Some of these jokes will be justified - others less so. Cameron, as Prime Minister and an old Etonian, is fair game. No-one's going to feel too sorry for him on this front because he's had things his own way for most of life. That said, he's suffered tragedy recently with the loss of his six-year old son who suffered from cerebral palsy and a form of epilepsy. It's hard to see how a joke about that could ever be justified comedically or even satirically. You are certainly unlikely to carry an audience with you on that one.
We encounter problems here because this sort of comedy, against the powerful, will delight the less powerful and offend the friends of the powerful. Moreover, comedy of this nature, satire in particular, is intended to offend. It's exposing hypocrisy or cold-heartedness or other vices. Those affected or mocked will be offended by the accusations. This is why, ultimately, offence is very poor indicator of whether a joke should have been told or not.
3. A joke told by the Oppressor against the Oppressed.
This is comedy used to humiliate, oppress and marginalise. This is why it’s inappropriate for an Englishman to tell Pakistani jokes – even though there are 160 million Pakistanis in Pakistan and they have nuclear weapons. They are powerful, but in Britain they are a minority and frequently get a rough deal from those who are simply prejudiced. It would be irresponsible to make jokes about Pakistanis, perhaps even valid satirical ones, if we were increasing injustice and their overall suffering of a group of people.
Jokes can be told about a minority by members of that minority. Is it okay to tell a string of Jewish jokes? If you’re Jackie Mason on a West End stage, yes. The jokes are told from within a community with affection. If you’re a skinhead and leading a fascist rally, no. The jokes are being told to humiliate, oppress and encourage hatred.
The added complication comes when the person telling the joke is a fictional character, especially one who is either confused or unsympathetic. We are not being invited to agree with his views (eg Alf Garnett or David Brent). The tricky bit is when stand-up comedians do this kind of material and are assuming that we are assuming that they can't possibly mean what they're saying. This is more dubious in my opinion.
The fact is every joke takes place within a context - socially and dramatically, and it can make the world of difference what the context is. Some of stuff is really hard to figure out. eg. Animated characters get to be much more visceral and offensive than live action characters (see South Park & Family Guy) But whether we should prevent people from saying things we think are beyond the pail and simply too offensive is a separate question.