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Royal phone prank: the joke’s on who?

Jokes are anything but simple, says comedy writer Evan Williams. The best thing to do is work out who or what exactly we are supposed to be laughing at?

A lot of people think jokes are simple. Mostly, because they result in two types of easily identifiable reactions: laughter, or silence. This should mean that there are two types of jokes: bad jokes and good jokes — and obviously, jokes that seem to have played a role in a woman’s suicide, must be terrible jokes.

But, after a year writing for a daily news satire program, I’ve found that jokes are anything but simple. The defensibility of a joke is a particularly complicated matter and one of the most heated topics of discussion in the writers’ room. My preferred method to gauge the defensibility of a joke is to try and understand who the victim of the joke is — in other words, when the audience laughs, who or what exactly are they laughing at?

There’s usually three options: the first option is that the victim of the joke is a person who has done something worthy of ridicule; an example of that being when Bill Shorten said he supported what his prime minister said, even though he hadn’t heard what it was that his prime minister had said. Shorten’s nonsensical behavior ensured he was worthy of being the victim of a joke.

The second option is that the victim of the joke is the joke-teller; Steve Martin pulls this off perfectly when he asks: “You know that look that women get when they want to have s-x? Me neither.” The pathos of this late admission by Martin makes him the victim of the joke.

But, there’s the third option. That the victim of the joke is someone innocent; say, a nurse in a stressful situation, nervously trying to serve others. Well, that person might not be such a worthy victim.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe this third option was the one the presenters were pursuing. I think they initially set out for the second option: the presenters, with their terrible accents, were supposed to be the victims of the joke. But, they got put through to the nurse in charge of Kate, which I suspect they found too big of an opportunity to pass up. This was their chance to become household names — a status they have now achieved, but not for the reasons they would have hoped.

Once the nurse started giving the duo personal information, I think they realised they were in the wrong and tried to again become the victims of the joke. Mel Greig (The Queen) brought Michael Christian (Prince Charles) into the prank. They played the corgis sound effects and quarrelled with each other. But soon the temptation was too strong and again they began to collect more personal information about Kate, like her retching and sleeping habits. This was a bad idea, and Grieg’s gleeful exclamation that they got “real information!” wasn’t a nice finishing touch either.

In my view, these presenters made a mistake. While moments of the joke were defensible — those moments when they were the victims of the joke — the presenters ended up targeting the wrong person. This is hardly an unusual mistake. Rather, due to the nature of jokes, it’s actually a common occurrence. The core ingredient of a joke that produces laughter is surprise. When Stephen Wright says, “I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize”, the incongruity of that statement means you’re surprised. Often though, in an attempt to inject that ingredient of surprise into a joke, people make mistakes.

Highly intelligent, university-educated comedians like The Chaser make fun of terminally ill children; seasoned talk show hosts like Jonathan Ross shout “he f-cked your granddaughter!” onto actors’ answering machines; radio hosts like Grieg and Christian, looking to get famous, do things that instead make them infamous. It happens. But, it happens a lot more on 2DayFM than anywhere else.

Management have again failed to identify a problem with content before putting it to air, which means this joke — with all the public outrage now attached to it — is on them. I only hope the shiver sent up their spine from this tragedy inspires them to reconsider their goal to be the pioneers of poor taste in this country.

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    Steve777
    Posted Saturday, 5 January 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I think that there might be another criterion - the power or powerlessness of the victim. The rich, powerful and influential are fair game when they act in a ridiculous or venal manner. To play a prank on someone who is powerless amounts to bullying. It is possible that the intended victim here was royalty. However, the victim was the unfortunate nurse who, even if she suspected a prank, felt compelled to go along. People whose job involves taking calls from the public generally have to be polite and cooperative, no matter how asinine or offensive the caller. This prank fails on the powerful / powerless test.

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