BBC - Ouch! (disability) - Opinion - When is a joke not a joke?

Home > Opinion > When is a joke not a joke?

Adam Hills

More from Adam Hills

Adam is one of Australia's most talented and widely-respected comedians, whose shows include Happy Feet and Go You Big Red Fire Engine. In the UK, he has appeared on Radio 4's Loose Ends and taken highly successful one-man shows to the Edinburgh Fringe.

More from Adam Hills

When is a joke not a joke?

14th March 2005

I could never understand why jokes about Heather Mills were considered to be in 'bad taste'.
My favourite was actually told to me by someone who was unaware I also have an artificial foot, and I thought it was extremely funny. Simply, the joke was this - "What has three legs and lives on a farm? The McCartneys."

If I wanted to be an anally obsessive comedy trainspotter I could go into the reasons why that joke is funny. It's a basic twist on an old format, and is obviously funnier when you're not pre-warned that the answer will have something to do with Heather Mills (or any monoped / biped couple). In fact, I fail to find anything remotely offensive in that joke at all. They live on a farm and between them they have three legs - where's the problem? Nobody is calling anyone something they're not; it's just funny. And I would wager that Mrs Mills-McCartney thinks so too.

Making a joke about an awkward or even tragic event is human nature. I'd go as far as to say that's why jokes were invented. Laughing at the absurdity of an incongruous situation helps to deal with it, and there is certainly something incongruous about someone with one leg. I'm the first to admit it - it looks weird.

Your brain registers the fact that there should be something there, but there isn't, and attempts to make sense of that. It's like seeing the Queen in overalls, trying to drink Blue Pepsi, or looking at just about any Salvador Dali painting. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

As far as I'm concerned, jokes about disabled people are not only OK, but are necessary - with one proviso. The intention has to be clear. Some of my mates (particularly comedians) have made the most tasteless remarks about my leg, but I don't take offence because I know they don't don't carry any negative connotations.

Only yesterday I was playing football with some comics - and might I say defending rather well - when the call went out, "Come on, outrun him! He's only got one leg, for Christ's sake!" Now from a passing stranger on the sidelines that may have been offensive, but from a mate who knows me, knows that I can actually run, and most importantly knows I can take a joke, it was very amusing. It wasn't yelled out of spite, malice or even ridicule - he just thought it was funny. And that's my point.

Recently I was chatting with a TV comedy writer about the 'appropriateness' of Heather Mills jokes. He offered the theory that originally they were considered off-limits due to the tragic nature of her accident, and the fact that she seemed to be a lovely person who made her husband very happy. However, according to this writer, recent rumours have suggested that she may be quite a difficult person in real life, and may even be "a bit of a bitch." Therefore it had now became allowable to make jokes about her.

Now, I'm not here to argue for or against Mrs Mills-McCartney's character traits - that's a job for someone who actually knows her. However, even if those slurs were found to be true, why does that suddenly make it OK to make a joke about her leg? You're just using her disability as a target for a cheap shot, and that's just being nasty. Even if she does turn out to be a bitch, at least make a joke about how much of a bitch she is.

To personalise the whole thing - I laughed when my footballing adversary yelled, "He's only got one leg, for Christ's sake!" because I knew there was no malice attached. If, however, he'd had a previous gripe with a totally unrelated aspect of my personality and had chosen to take it out on me by way of a 'leg joke', I would have been vehemently offended. In other words - if you have a problem with me, say it to my face, not to my leg.

The same goes for Heather Mills. If you feel the need to make a joke about her leg - or lack of one - then do it because there is something innately off-beat and jarring about a missing limb, and not because a friend of a friend told you she may be "a bit of a bitch".

By the way, if anyone knows Mrs Mills-McCartney then please let her know I have only the utmost respect for her, and in fact would one day love for us to do a show together. I even have a name for it - Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better. Now that's funny.

Bookmark with...

What are these?

Live community panel

Our blog is the main place to go for all things Ouch! Find info, comment, articles and great disability content on the web via us.

Mat and Liz
Listen to our regular razor sharp talk show online, or subscribe to it as a podcast. Spread the word: it's where disability and reality almost collide.

More from the BBC

BBC Sport

Disability Sport

All the latest news from the paralympics.

Peter White

In Touch

News and views for people who are blind or partially sighted.

BBC Radio 4

You & Yours

Weekdays 12.40pm. Radio 4's consumer affairs programme.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.