Dani Garavelli: Joke’s on us if we wring our hands about Jo Brand

Jo Brand is driven away after appearing at the Henley Literary Festival on Thursday, her first public appearance since the controversy broke. Picture: Rick Findler/PA
Jo Brand is driven away after appearing at the Henley Literary Festival on Thursday, her first public appearance since the controversy broke. Picture: Rick Findler/PA
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While Jo Brand is pilloried for her unwise battery acid gag the ruinous japes of Farage, Johnson and Co go unpunished, writes Dani Garavelli

Earlier in her career, when she seemed a lot angrier, and intent on smashing the patriarchy, Jo Brand’s trademark one-liner was a feminist zinger. “The way to a man’s heart,” she would say, with a sly smile, “is through his hanky pocket with a breadknife.” The joke worked because it played with the literal and metaphorical meanings of the word “heart”, and because it substituted the original ending – “through his stomach” – which fed into stereotypes of women as subservient, with an alternative that did the opposite.

Back then, the joke was one of many in which male demands – for food, for clean laundry, for sex – were dismissed as a marker of female empowerment. “How can you make the male orgasm more intense? Who cares?” was another.

Back then, the joke was one of many in which male demands – for food, for clean laundry, for sex – were dismissed as a marker of female empowerment. “How can you make the male orgasm more intense? Who cares?” was another.

Though they made a powerful point, these jokes might be considered beyond the pale today; the first, in particular, does not endorse domestic abuse, but it does make light of it, and society is, quite rightly, less tolerant of the normalisation of violence than it used to be (see also a backlash against Tom Jones’ Delilah).

Last week, Brand made another joke involving violence. Asked if she agreed Britain was living through a terrible parliamentary time, she told BBC Radio 4’s Heresy programme: “Yes, I would say that because certain unpleasant characters are being thrown to the fore, and they’re very, very easy to hate, and I’m kind of thinking, why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?”

This wasn’t as clever as the breadknife joke; nor was it judicious. It didn’t take long for Nigel Farage, milkshake survivor and early adopter of the “snowflake” jibe, to get on the case; within a matter of hours, Brand was facing calls for her to be sacked by the BBC, and the police had launched an investigation (now dropped).

Judging from the many character references she has accrued over the past few days, Brand is a good and likeable human being who has mellowed since her days as a ball-breaker. Given her comments were made on a satirical show, they couldn’t really be construed as incitement to violence, and she later offered a whole-hearted apology – in contrast to the self-serving one recently proffered by Danny Baker.

Judging by the character assassinations accrued by Farage over the past four years, he is a bad and dislikeable human being; given he has previously stoked hatred towards immigrants and recently defended Ann Widdecombe over her apparent endorsement of gay conversion therapy, it is impossible to regard his response to Brand as anything other than hypocrisy.

Nevertheless, at a time when the atmosphere in the UK is febrile; when people are genuinely (and justifiably angry); when one MP has been murdered and others have received death threats, all public figures – including comedians – ought to be extra vigilant about their use of language. Like Frankie Boyle’s “Where the F*** are the IRA when you need them?” quip about Theresa May’s famous Chequers meeting, Brand’s joke runs the risk of normalising revenge as a response to these most difficult of times.

Accepting Brand made a misjudgment, however, does not prevent us asking why comedians are taking so much flak for mocking politicians when politicians are taking the piss out of the electorate without facing any repercussions at all.

Why are Victorian villains like coke-snorting Michael Gove and Jacob Rees “I’m allergic to the concept of human rights” Mogg, given free rein to spread their repugnant views regardless of the offence they cause? Why is Boris Johnson – a man who once discussed a plan to have a tabloid journalist beaten up – still considered a viable candidate for prime minister? Brand’s flippancy is much less toxic (and less dangerous) than their mendacity.

A few days before Brand made her comments, two High Court judges ruled Johnson should not face charges over comments he made during the EU referendum campaign about the UK sending £350m a week to Brussels. The UK does not send £350m a week to Brussels. In most contexts his claim – emblazoned on the side of the Leave bus – would be considered a “lie”. But for the purposes of this piece let’s call it “spin”.

While Brand’s light-hearted remarks attracted much ire, Boris’s “spin” – which fuelled the eventual Leave victory and so played a key role in creating this crisis – was judged not to constitute an abuse of power. Spin 1: Jokes, nil.

Meanwhile, there is no suggestion that a referendum – held on a whim, without a plan, by a bunch of empty egotists – could be voided. Even though the campaign was illegally funded; even though it was based on myths, the result is touted as the democratic will of the country.

That’s a prank and a half, isn’t it? Makes Brand’s jape look a bit flaccid. Of course, the laughter’s ringing hollow now companies are deserting our shores, and we’re nowhere nearer securing our actual exit. But, again, there are to be no apparent consequences for those who wrecked our children’s futures for the bantz.

The reason those on the right feel able to stoke the backlash against Brand even as they defend the likes of Count Dankula (the Nazi pug man) on freedom of speech grounds, is that this is not really about the jokes or the offence they cause: it’s a proxy war on the left.

That’s why the right-wing papers consistently refer to Brand as a “left-wing” comedian; it’s why commentators such as Piers Morgan whine on about double standards. Why was Baker sacked from the BBC [for a tweet that was perceived to be racist] and Brand wasn’t? Well, 1) because Brand isn’t employed by the BBC (although they did edit her comments out of the programme) and 2) because there is no equivalence between race, which is an innate characteristic, and being a hard Brexiteer which is a poor lifestyle choice.

You could just as easily ask why Baker was sacked for a “racist” tweet , while comments about burqa-wearing women looking like letter boxes and references to piccaninnies glide off the slippery Johnson. The answer would be wealth and power and social connections. The answer would be Eton and the Bullingdon Club and the old boys’ network.

These are the evils that are breaking Britain; not some off-colour joke on a satirical programme. So, yes, comedians: think before you speak. Try not to make the Brexit debate more poisonous than it already is. But also, the rest of us: let’s not fixate over offensive jests at the expense of whopping great lies. What the likes of Boyle and Brand do to right-wing politicians is far less damaging than what right-wing politicians are doing to the country. When we allow ourselves to be dragged into another debate about the limits of satire, we divert attention away from their epic misdemeanours; we walk willingly into the trap they have laid 
for us.