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Richard Downes has been musing on what makes things funny. He starts off with a bad joke and ends up with a series of interviews with disabled comedians about what makes humour so essential to our lives.

I'm sitting on the bed putting a shirt on when the joke comes to me. I capture it. Where did it come from? I think about songwriters who when talking about their craft say the song is in the ether, it exists whole before they take it. All they have to do is wait, be open to the moment it arrives. It feels mystical. Sounds divine. Can something as short as a joke be inspired. If so do we value the joke as we should.

I worry about my jokes. They cause consternation and I'm not a comedian. I'm just someone a joke occasionally happens to. My instincts are to tell it. To take the risk and put it out there. I email two friends. A blind man and a feminist activist who knows her disability equality, who happens to live with another blind man. Neither of them reply to my joke:

“Why don't blind men dance?
Because they tried the bump and didn't like it.”

I start hawking it around the office. Someone doesn't get it. For all you youngsters out there; the bump was a 70's disco craze. It was horrible.  Topicality, age are joke issues. Someone in the office is concerned how blind people would receive it.

I contemplate the joke more. Why do we criticise non disabled comedians having a go at disability humour? Is it because they are having a go at us? Does having a go have some hostility about it? Is there something about having a go that relies on uncomfortable  stereotypes? Have I created a stereotype? Will I hear sighted people opining that blind men don't dance just as white men don't jump? Is there something I like about the joke? To say blind men don't dance is clearly ridiculous if you have seen or felt blind men dance. Is there something desirable in comedy about ridiculous moments?

What of the second line? What about that bump now you know how the double entendre works. Is it unkind? Is it fair observation? Is comedy observation? Is it cruel observation? Can disabled people be cruel about disabled people? What is fair game and when? I have worked with blind people who talk about the bump. They will tell you how much it hurts. How they got that cut on the forehead. By extension, is there a usefulness in the joke?  Does it reflect something that happens? Something we need to be aware of if we are building safe, friendly environments? Is there a a need to defend the joke and is this my defence?

I'm glad I'm no comedian and that jokes don't happen to me too often. Its too confusing.

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richard downes

26 June 2012

thanks for the advice Allan. Its really neat how you reworked the joke which is what most of the comedians i have spoken to have suggested.

I like you rule of thumb. its ok to go for those who are more powerful than you as they are fair game. Seems to open up a whole raft of status mongers.

Something i do wonder about here though is those disabled people who are more powerful than me. Once saw a great sketch about diane petty by liz carr. For a moment she was more powerful , getting more attention than i would ever get and prmoting a cause that i have mixed feelings about but taking a position that i was not fully comfortable with.

I guess this leads to ideas about transitionary powers

Allan Sutherland

3 April 2012

Seems to me there's nothing too impermissible about the subject matter. It presents blind people as making decisions, being in charge of their lives, not saying 'Aren't blind people stupid, they're always bumping into things'.

But it doesn't really work as a joke, because it doesn't have enough set up. You're not going to laugh if you're puzzling about what something means, so all the information has to be in place before the punch line. This joke relies on two meanings of 'the bump', neither of which is immediately apparent.

I've often heard blind people complaining about obstacles, and bumping into things, but I've never heard them refer to it as 'the bump'. As for the forty year old dance craze, I didn't think of that immediately, and I'm old enough to have heard of it.

When I was doing stand-up, I was aware that jokes can be a kind of bullying by proxy, so my rule of thumb would always be 'Am I making fun of someone more powerful than me?' So it's relevant to ask whether you're a blind person youself. If you're not (which is what you seem to imply) then your audience is likely to worry that you're asking them to make fun of blind people, which will make them feel uncomfortable.

The way I can imagine the joke working, with some rewriting, is as part of a routine by a blind comic. If they'd already done material about bumping into things, and moved on to some material where they were listing past dance crazes, then it would be possible to bring in a gag like:

'The bump. Blind people don't really like that one. - It's too much like real life.'

With enough of a pause after the first two words for people to take in that 'the bump' is a dance, before you move on to the punch line.

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