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Sunday 1 March 2009

You'd have to laugh if it wasn't so over the top 

You'd better think hard about what constitutes a laughing matter or the joke could be on you, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE world is in chassis, and the ranks of the poor are swollen daily by the newly jobless, but, hey, let's stop complaining about incompetent politicians and insane bankers and concentrate on outbreaks of inappropriate laughter in Leicester and New York.

Call centres are notoriously horrible places to work. The public hate you, and you work with a set script to brutal targets. Indian call centres -- where the agony is compounded because the operators are usually overqualified for the job, yet have communication problems with the callers -- are notorious for drug-taking and casual sex. In Leicester, British Telecom (BT) call centre workers lightened their day by emailing each other this joke.

Paddy and Gerry drive to the top of Conor Pass, where Gerry looks down at the 1,000ft drop and says, "Dis looks like a grand place". He takes two budgies out of a box, puts one on each shoulder and jumps off. Paddy watches the birds fly off and Gerry falls to the bottom, killing himself stone dead. Seamus arrives with a box and a shotgun. "Hi, Paddy," he says. "Watch dis." He lets a parrot out of the box, throws himself over the edge of the cliff, shoots the parrot when he's half-way down, plummets to the bottom and breaks every bone. As Paddy's getting over the shock, Sean appears, pulls a chicken out of a sack, takes it by the legs and hurls himself off the cliff. He falls to the bottom, hits a rock and breaks his spine.

Paddy shakes his head. "Stuff dat, lads," he says. "First dere was Gerry budgie-jumping, den Seamus parrot-shooting and now Sean and his hen-gliding."

They're not laughing now. As a BT spokesman explained: "A complaint was made about a joke which could be offensive to some people." Computers were checked and 30 workers proved to have forwarded the joke were suspended.

In New York, a cartoonist who thought badly of the recent confused financial package passed by Congress was inspired by the police shooting of a recalcitrant celebrity chimpanzee to draw a cartoon showing a cop standing over a monkey he's just shot. His colleague remarks, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

Cue the Reverend Al Sharpton, a racist, anti-Semitic rabble rouser, who once famously told a student audience: "White folks was in caves while we was building empires ... We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it."

Well-described as a racial arsonist, Sharpton's incessant complaints about American anti-black racism had been temporarily muted by the result of the presidential election. He grasped the opportunity offered by the cartoon to organise shouting picketers to rage that the cartoon was in the tradition of stereotyping of blacks as monkeys, and was directed at Barack Obama.

Since the President didn't write the bill and the attack was on those who did, the newspaper initially stood its ground against increasingly hysterical attacks. The idiot at the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the aptly named Benjamin Todd Jealous, called on the tabloid to remove Col Allan, the editor-in-chief, as well as Sean Delonas, the cartoonist, claiming the cartoon was "an invitation to assassination".

But Rupert Murdoch, the owner, is a man who puts business before everything. "I can assure you -- without a doubt -- that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation," he said. However, "The buck stops with me. Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologise to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted." I expect that some of those who liked George Bush used to feel pretty offended, and even insulted, by the innumerable representations of him as a monkey. Google 'George Bush monkey' and the first of the 978,000 links is: 'George W Bush or Chimpanzee?', 'George Bush and Monkey Lookalikes', 'The Bush Monkey', videos of 'George Monkey Bush' and 'The Monkey Song with Bush' and 'The George Bush Monkey T-shirt.' But, hey, Bush is white and a Republican. Besides, his supporters didn't complain.

Murdoch's crow-consumption had extended to promising "to be more attuned to the sensitivities of our community", but he hadn't gone far enough for the Rev Al. "The question is," he explained, "what will guarantee that these kinds of things will not happen again." The cartoonist has called the row "absolutely friggin' ridiculous", but -- like Allan's -- his job is now on the line.

They should look on the bright side in Leicester and New York. Unlike the critics of the Danish cartoonists who made jokes about Muhammad, BT and Sharpton have so far refrained from demanding the inappropriate jokers be executed.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards