Sick Notes is part of SICK!, an ambitious, cross art-form festival that seeks out new ways of talking about and dealing with the experience of sickness. Sick Notes is an online video archive of sick jokes and funny stories about illness. John O’Donoghue likes a good laugh. But will Sick Notes deliver?
There was a programme on BBC4 a while ago: Old Jews Telling Jokes. The format was very simple. Old Jews stood in front of the camera and told jokes. A lot of the jokes were very traditional, about Rabbis, Jewish mothers, cake, the kind of stories Jackie Mason would tell. But perhaps the biggest laughs went to some really filthy material. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of venerable-looking schnorrers wisecracking about sex that did it. Or maybe we just find this subject matter very funny. The sense of being naughty, of breaking taboos, of going places we shouldn’t seems to ramp up the comedy. Or perhaps we’re just all dirty-minded schmucks.
The Sick! Festival that recently ended in Brighton has left one striking legacy: a website where patients, doctors, comedians, and members of the public tell their favourite (or least favourite) sick jokes and funny stories about illness.
Richard DeDomenici was commissioned to track down and record the best and most inappropriate sick jokes. There’s a similar format to Old JewsTelling Jokes but instead of getting his joke-tellers into a studio DeDomenici catches them on the fly, vox-popping them as he goes round Brighton - and putting the resulting short films up on the site.
There’s a doctor who tells a couple of anecdotes, one about a patient who phones him in the middle of the night to tell him he’s got insomnia. “That makes three of us!” shouts his irate wife before slamming the phone down. Then there’s the bloke in a café who gets the entire gag into two lines: “Mum, can I lick the bowl out?” “No! Flush it like everyone else.” Or the sickest of the lot, told by a sweet-voiced young woman outside what looks like the Sussex County Hospital: “So the doctor says, ‘You’ll be needing a lot of nappies.’ ‘Am I pregnant?’ ‘No, you’ve got bowel cancer.’”
This joker has her face pixellated, and I was wondering if she was a member of staff there or felt too awkward to reveal her identity. They say that sick humour is one way people in the Emergency Services cope with their jobs – it’s when this brand of humour becomes some kind of envelope-pushing contest that it can get nasty.
Since when did it become acceptable for comedians to make vile jokes about disabled people? Frankie Boyle and his ‘gags’ about people with Down’s Syndrome – he might as well be Bernard Manning telling racist jokes.
But perhaps this kind of joke won’t end up on the website. Perhaps lots of disabled people will contribute their own funny stories. Perhaps this could be our version of Old Jews Telling Jokes. My fear is that it might turn into the Comedians.
Sick Notes will grow over the course of 2013 revealing how different groups of people say the unsayable and use humour to deal with physical and mental illness. Go to www.thebasement.uk.com/sicknotes/