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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Why do people find racist jokes funny?
Still from BBC's In Sickness and In Health by Johnny Speight
Alf Garnett was meant to expose racism. But many said they identified with him
Ann Winterton is not the first person to fall foul of telling racist jokes. But for good or bad, race is one subject of which joke-tellers never tire. Why is this?

Ann Winterton's joke wasn't funny. Even Bernard Manning admits that.

In telling a racist gag in an after-dinner speech, she committed an act of professional suicide which saw her sacked from the shadow cabinet.

The "joke" - in case you haven't heard it - was that there was an Englishman, a Cuban, a Japanese man and a Pakistani on a train. The Cuban throws a cigar out of the window, saying they are "ten-a-penny" in his country. The Japanese man throws a Nikon camera out, saying they are ten-a-penny in his country. Then the Englishman throws the Pakistani out the window.

Ann Winterton
Ann Winterton: After-dinner speech
It came a few days after comedian Stan Boardman was vilified for telling a racist gag at a Leeds United dinner, and in the wake of three BNP councillors being elected in Burnley.

Some have tried to pass off Mrs Winterton's "joke" as a bit of harmless fun.

But perhaps the reason the joke may have been funny to some is the exact reason many others find it offensive: to find it funny one would have to actually believe there were too many Pakistanis in England.

To make him truthful he's got to say those things, and they are nasty things - but I always feel as a writer that they should be out in the open so we can see how daft these comparisons are

Johnny Speight on why Alf Garnett made racist comments

To test the logic of this, try telling the joke with "a Swiss man" in the place of the Pakistani.

In other words, could it be a simple illustration of the old line that there is many a true word spoken in jest - that far from being jokes, racist gags are simply a more "acceptable" way of being racist?

In 2000, shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox told this joke to fellow MPs: "What do you call three dogs and a blackbird? The Spice Girls." Dr Fox apologised but did not have to resign. Could it be that, although an indelicate remark, it is more acceptable because it does not appear to mask a racist attitude?

Bernard Manning
Bernard Manning: "Never take it seriously"
Bernard Manning, who unashamedly proclaims his desire to tell jokes about anyone of whatever nationality, does not agree that jokes are a cover for racism.

"You never take a joke seriously," he says. "It's a joke! There's no such thing as throwing [people out of the window]. You wouldn't do that!

"We have to tell jokes about everything and everyone."

[Ali G] is being celebrated because it allows the liberal middle classes to laugh at [black street] culture in a context where they can retain their sense of political correctness

Comedian Felix Dexter
Others in the profession disagree. Steve Nallon, a former Spitting Image regular who now lectures on comedy at the University of Birmingham, says the joke is about the "valuelessness" of human life.

"It's about throwing people out of the window. That's why it's fundamentally unacceptable. It's saying these people - and it doesn't matter which race it is - are not worth keeping alive."

For him there is a big difference between gags like this and those that merely play on a stereotype - the example he cites is a joke about Pakistan never winning the World Cup because whenever they had a corner they would build a shop on it.

"Now I don't think that's necessarily offensive," he says, "because it's not saying anything other than the Pakistani community put enterprise before they put football."

Ali G
Ali G: A white boy pretending to be black
Yet some would still say that goes too far. Comedienne Shazia Mirza draws a distinction between joking about other cultures and joking about one's own.

"I make jokes about Pakistanis because I am Pakistani. I make jokes about Muslims because I am a Muslim. I would never make a joke about black people because I'm not black," she says.

"I make jokes about my own culture, because I feel I know about it. No-one knows it better than me."

The vein of comedy about one's own race is a particularly rich one. Nallon says there's a simple reason why Woody Allen is not offensive whereas, to many, Bernard Manning is.

He is satirising the way white kids try to copy the black street culture and look ridiculous - if it's offensive to anyone, it's offensive to white people

Channel 4 spokesman defending Ali G
"Woody Allen is coming from within a historically persecuted community. Bernard Manning is white, heterosexual, fat, northern bloke. He's not persecuted by anybody. Essentially he's the powerbase of the British society."

Comedian Ivor Dembina, who has long analysed his Jewishness through his stand-up routines, currently has a show called Sado Judaism, something he characterises as enjoying being beaten... but not in business.

Reflecting on Mrs Winterton's sacking, Dembina told BBC News Online: "Racist jokes are great a safety valve. They help us get rid of Tory politicians."

Should people feel free to joke about anyone and anything? If not, where should the line be drawn? Let us have your comments, using the form below.

Your comments so far:

Some of the most "offensive" comic material ever was that of the late great Bill Hicks (he joked about paedophilia, disability, pornography, killing celebrities, and much more). However he was also incredibly funny. Hicks relentlessly challenged social norms, and individual preconceptions with subtle and complex humour; he was saying something worth saying, and that stopped him from being truly offensive.
Robert, Zurich

What about the TV program Goodness Gracious Me. That makes fun of white people shouldn't we be talking about that or is this another one sided argument?
Matt , UK

As a gay guy I find jokes about homosexual stereotypes amusing. But as soon as the element of hate or distaste comes into the equation (....throwing me out of a window), the reality is lost. The Spice Girls joke was not a racist joke entirely as the joke condemned the white girls and used a politically incorrect phrase to describe a woman of African decent (a phrase which is not used as a racist taunt).
J Holmes, Korea

Humour has always helped understanding. Better to laugh than to fight. Political correctness here only drives tribalism underground -- where it festers.
Alex Dryden, Canada

Joking about other cultures while they don't have a clue what harm or hurt it will cause is irresponsible. Sometimes it's sick.
Linda Chen, Chinese

Being a multi-cultural society I think we must be able to see the funny side of each other's culture. Laughter is a great leveller and is infectious. We all feel good after a good laugh no matter what culture we belong to, it also relives tensions.
J Stringfellow, England

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05 May 02 | UK Politics
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