Three online storms yesterday make me concerned about the future of humour online, with online mob outrage about jokes leaking into mainstream media and employment matters.
- The Irish Times joined in with an online mob who attacked Monty Python star John Cleese for joking about how we Irish spell and pronounce our names.
- Deloitte rescinded a job offer to Harvard graduate Claira Janover after she joked on TikTok that she would stab people who say All Lives Matter then tell them that her paper cut matters.
- William Shatner blocked David Silverman on Twitter for joking that Shatner should apologise for playing a Nazi in Star Trek in case it upset sensitive people.
I am not judging the merits of any of these jokes. I’ll express my opinions, but humour is subjective. My concern is the responses to the jokes, which are disproportionately hostile and sometimes defamatory, and the stifling effect that online mobs can have on the expression of humour.
John Cleese’s joke was part of a surreal Twitter exchange in which he joked about Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, guillotines, people from South Kensington, left-handed people, obese people, vegans, cyclists, Facebook, and the pronunciation of Irish names.
I’ve no problem with jokes about the pronunciation of Irish names, or jokes about Ireland not having an empire, coming from a man who made his comedy name mocking middle-class little Englanders and upper-class English Twits of the Year.
But this led to a predictable Twitter pile-on, as if he had made a standalone political statement supporting empires, rather than one of many silly jokes in the middle of a surreal exchange that different people might find funny or not.
The Irish Times then trawled his comedy CV to expose old Irish-themed jokes, including O’Reilly the bumbling builder in Fawlty Towers, a recent transferable meta-joke about Irish jokes, and Cleese asking Síle Seoige why we Irish don’t spell our names properly.
Claira Janover’s joke was on TikTok, where she was promoting the Black Lives Matter message. In a short video, she joked:
“The next person who has the nerve, the sheer entitled Caucasity, to say ‘all lives matter’… I’ma stab you. I’ma stab you and while you’re bleeding out, Imma show you my paper cut and say, ‘my cut matters too’.”
The structure of this joke is funny, contrasting the gravity of being stabbed with the triviality of a paper cut. She had previously expressed it with a cartoon of a fireman ignoring a burning house and saying ‘all houses matter.’
I think it was an irresponsible joke in the current context. She delivered it deadpan, using an aggressive voice while threatening to stab someone, during a volatile time in which protesters are violently attacking people in real life.
However, the response was wildly disproportionate. Claira should not have got vile abuse or death threats online, and she should not have lost a job offer for publishing a dark satirical joke.
David Silverman’s joke was on Twitter, where he wrote that William Shatner should apologise for playing a Nazi in Star Trek in case it upset sensitive people. This is both the least worrying and the most worrying of the three incidents.
It is the least worrying because there are no real consequences to one public figure blocking another on Twitter, other than celebrity gossip.
It is the most worrying because David’s tweet was so obviously satirical, and so obviously intended to satirise the absurd idea that an actor should have to apologise for playing a role in a television series decades ago.
The fact that so many Star Trek fans, and indeed William Shatner himself, took David’s joke seriously shows how many people are in danger of online mobs misunderstanding their jokes.
The John Cleese joke in context
The exchange began when Cleese tweeted: “I wonder what Putin will do, now that he realises that he can no longer hope that his poodle will be re-elected? Will he be able to hang on to any of the favours Trump contrived for him, like G8 or hushing up the bounty story? I forecast a lot of secret phone calls between them.”
Among the hundreds of replies to this, @ZebFinlay wrote: “Trump will be reelected and he and Putin will take a ride to the Space Station together. At least this is what my psychic advisor just told me! At $5 a minute how could she possibly be wrong? She also spilled the beans and told me that you would be launching a new business.”
John Cleese replied: “Yes. I have a small guillotine emporium in South Kensington that I’m opening for people who’ve had enough. Thousands of bookings already!!”
Among the many replies to this, @Keeva wrote: “Are you accommodating left-handed people as well? Is there a surcharge? Asking for a friend who is asking for me.”
John Cleese replied: “Yes. The cubicles have old-fashioned hanging toilet chains. One of them is left handed. There are extra large blocks for obese people, and we offer a special July 4th discount for vegans and cyclists. Facebook is accepting our advertising.
Among the other replies to this, @randybruin8 wrote: “Keeva is my Dog’s name, but it’s spelled Caoimhe.” And John Cleese replied: “No wonder the Irish never had an empire.”
This led to the predictable Twitter pile-on, followed by an Irish Times article titled ‘John Cleese has a faulty sense of humour about the Irish,’ which claimed that the Monty Python star has a nasty streak, and has mocked us and our names since 1975.
The Claira Janover joke in context
Claira Janover is 22. She graduated in May from Harvard with a degree in government and psychology. She was offered a full-time job as an analyst with consultants Deloitte.
Based on her videos, she is not a violent person. She is a normal and ethical young college graduate, making her way through relationships and life during and after college, who is sincerely angry at the injustices faced by black people in the United States.
She joined Tiktok in March, and her early videos were jokes about relationships and life at Harvard. In May she addressed claims that she only got into Harvard because she was Asian, and she soon added her first video about Black Lives Matter.
After graduating her videos got more political, including criticising white people, before she published the video in which she joked: “The next person who has the nerve, the sheer entitled Caucasity, to say ‘all lives matter’… I’ma stab you. I’ma stab you and while you’re bleeding out, Imma show you my paper cut and say, ‘my cut matters too’.”
During the next month she started to go back to doing mostly videos joking about relationships, her family, eating cereal, and buying roller shoes. She then started to criticise Donald Trump, and Trump supporters started to be abusive to her. Then they found the earlier ‘I’ma stab you’ video and it went viral.
Whatever you think of her joke in that video (and I think it was irresponsible), the abuse that has received is worse by far than the joke. Also, she should not have lost a job offer because of a past video that people abusing her had resurrected and made viral.
The David Silverman joke in context
David Silverman has been an atheist and secular activist for years, and he has recently become a vocal opponent of cancel culture.
Yesterday David joked on Twitter: “Does anyone think we should demand an apology from William Shatner for wearing a nazi uniform in that episode of Star Trek? Maybe make sure the offending episode is pulled forever? Someone sensitive might see it and feel oppressed, maybe? Or is Golden Girls worse than this?”
I immediately saw the satire, and I assumed that most reasonable people would realise that nobody would be seriously calling on an actor to apologise for playing a part in a television series.
But William Shatner missed the humour and responded: “Apologise for exactly WHAT? Did you see the episode? I’m a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust. The episode did not glorify that regime at all. The episode reinforced how totalitarian regimes were not welcomed in the future. Are you a sympathiser? With that name I hope not.”
This resulted in more than a thousand comments, with most people not recognising the ironic intent of the original tweet. Any chance of directly clarifying the misunderstanding was gone when William blocked David.
These three online storms make me concerned about the future of humour online, and the leaking of online mob outrage about jokes into real lives in the offline world.
The fact that the attacks on John Cleese and Claira Janover have leaked into mainstream media and real-life employment show that misunderstanding jokes can have serious consequences in today’s cancel culture.
And the fact that so many Star Trek fans, and indeed William Shatner himself, took David Silverman’s joke seriously shows how many people are in danger of online mobs misunderstanding their jokes.