A few years ago, in a moment of mischief, I prank-called my fiancee Julie. Adopting a different voice I introduced myself as her new lawnmower man and asked if she was happy with the job I’d just done on her lawn. I then proceeded to describe a pair of ladies underpants that I’d found in my mower’s catcher and asked her if she wanted them back. Julie handled this nonsense well, and I could have maintained the pretence a bit longer, but the thought of making her genuinely concerned was too much. I dropped the charade, and when she realised it was me she said, “You bastard!”
No harm done, because the prank only lasted a minute and Julie has a good sense of humour. But where is the line drawn when it comes to practical jokes? Or humour itself for that matter?
When the Austereo DJs rang the London hospital pretending to be royalty and were put through to Kate’s ward it seemed like a harmless prank and in many ways it was. Prince Charles even joked about it afterward. The subsequent tragedy however has turned a handful of complaints against the radio station into a full-blown witch hunt. Death is no laughing matter.
The reality is that humour and danger are intertwined, which is why comedy in all its forms is so entertaining. The greater the risk the greater the prestige. If a joke succeeds then it brings applause, fame and fan mail. If a joke fails then it brings boos, infamy and hate mail. There is a lot at stake.
On my first day at the Newcastle Herald the editor said to me, “It doesn’t matter what you do in your cartoons so long as they’re good humoured. Make people laugh and they’ll accept whatever you say about them. If you’re just being malicious then they’ll get you back.”
Sage advice for anybody in the highwire act of political cartooning where a single slip can land both you and your editor in court for defamation. Interesting that the only real legal defence for a cartoon is ‘satire’. It’s the precarious ‘get out of jail’ card that’s been employed with varying degrees of success whenever Aussie cartoonists have found themselves in front of a judge.
In order to play the comedy game well you have to know your audience. That doesn’t just mean knowing how to find their funny bone, it also means knowing their limits. You can’t dance on a precipice if you don’t know where the edge is. An American comedian famously misjudged his audience by making a 9/11 joke. Even though it was several years after the tragedy he was loudly booed by the New York crowd thus proving it was still ‘too soon’.
In the newspaper world this audience limitation is referred to as ‘taste’. Editors strive to make their presentation of news as entertaining as possible while not exceding the boundaries of their readership. If something goes too far then it is regarded as ‘tasteless’. Experienced journalists have a precise understanding of the power of the written word and each day they ‘swim between the flags’ of what can be said and not said. Cartoons on the other hand are a challenge because visual humour is hard to measure. A picture can say a thousand words or a thousand opinions, such is their ambiguity. It’s my job to push the boundaries of social commentary, so I rely on editors to make the final call, based on the constantly shifting sand of public opinion. While I don’t always handle the umpire’s decision well, in the end I prefer their judgement than the judgement of a court – or the acrimony of a society after triggering a human tragedy.