Jo Brand’s joke: are we all now disgusted of Tunbridge Wells? | Hephzibah Anderson

An off-colour joke was met with confected outrage, a sign of our times

I don’t know about you, but I’m aghast. Thunderstruck, flabbergasted, jaw on the ground, fists in the air, full body-a-tremble outraged...

In case you didn’t hear, in the past few days, Jo Brand has been catapulted from “funny-in-the-90s” comedian to cause celebre, via a stint in the social media stocks. The trigger was a comment made on Radio 4’s Heresy, a comedy panel show that primes guests to challenge received wisdom on a range of topics via “heretical” comments.

Tuesday’s episode included a segment on the divisiveness of Brexit, in which Brand, referring to Nigel Farage’s milkshake moment, suggested that battery acid might have made a more apt projectile. “I’m not gonna do it, it’s purely a fantasy, but I think milkshakes are pathetic, I honestly do. Sorry,” she added, likely little imagining she’d soon be repeating that last word in earnest.

The early evening programme has perfectly respectable figures but the clamorous backlash that greeted its panellist’s comments sent them viral. I’m willing to bet that in the context of the show – and in the context of Jo Brand being, well, Jo Brand – plenty of listeners registered the quip as nothing more than an off-colour and ill-judged comedic fail. After all, as another commentator has since pointed out, this is the same entertainer who once confessed to having “a soft spot for Nick Clegg. Face down on Hackney Marshes”. Ba-dum.

Of course, that was before an MP was murdered in cold blood and there is now a justly heightened awareness of the very real menace posed by intolerance of divergent viewpoints. It’s ironic, then, that in the backlash to Brand’s joke, any hope of a meaningful discussion hightailed it down the culture wars’ cul-de-sac.

As Brexiters have been quick to note, switch the maker of this particular joke with its butt and Farage would have been unanimously slammed. It’s sort of a fair point and yet it ignores key mitigating factors here. The show is taped in front of a live audience, so is inherently off the cuff. Unlike Danny Baker’s monkey picture post, the gaffe wasn’t premeditated. Most crucially, Brand is a comedian.

While she may not tickle your funny bone (she rarely does it for me these days), her comments about Farage are very different from rape “jokes” told by members of the public at the expense of Labour MP Jess Phillips, say. It’s not about comedians having a get-out-of-jail-free card (albeit one that’s expired in the age of trial by Twitter), it’s about them being part of a tradition reliant on boundary-pushing, on shock and transgression. Everyone should be allowed an occasional miss, if miss this was, and even comedic hits will never have the entire auditorium rolling in the aisles. Comedy is personal. Brand’s joke will soon be forgotten. She has apologised and it has been announced that a police investigation has been dropped. If you tune in to the relevant episode via Auntie’s catch-up service, you’ll find that it’s been edited out, a move that show creator David Baddiel has characterised as cowardly.

What lingers is the ear-ringing moral outrage that greeted it, a kind of ethical tinnitus that cumulatively risks deafening us to nuance and complexity. A culture of echo chambers and trigger warnings is rendering us increasingly ill-equipped to deal with the unpalatable – our response is super-sized and invariably driven by social media, meaning that context and reflection are among its first casualties.

In the age of hashtag morality, we are all now #Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

•Hephzibah Anderson is a writer and critic


Hephzibah Anderson

The GuardianTramp

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