joke in search of a punchline

The internet likes its memes and tropes – giving kittens the language of human toddlers, putting ‘first’ at the bottom of newspaper comment columns, adapting kanji into emoticons (they’re so HIPSTER o(^-^)o)

As anyone who has analysed humour will testify, jokes are fragile creatures. Kenneth Williams would implore the importance of the punchline (“taaag, it’s all in the taaaag”); Danny Baker, Stephen Fry and Dave Gorman have all investigated how much like a fragile plant is the humble one-liner (“Dig it up to examine its roots the plant will die..”). Throw a penny into that particular pond and you’d never hear the splash – the ‘net will merrily permit its users to duplicate, replicate and murder every quip at the moment of birth. Such is humour – the joke you heard at the comedy club is the one you’ve just told at your office canteen, out into the world like so many butterflies. The important thing is the hit, the pay-off, the freshness and unexpected nature of which ensures the impact is never lost: the internet tends to dip the butterfly wings in varnish before setting them free. Up, up and… over by a mobility scooter.

“So Gazza turned up with a roast chicken and a fishing rod!” is one such pay-off which is deeper in the red than most Greek bank accounts. It may spew out from mainstream panel shows like baby sick, on-line communities have long since ruled (in that weird group-think Wikipedia excels in) that there’s more chance of getting a giggle from saying “Your mum!” and running off down the road. There was inherent surrealism, and thus humour, from the tragi-comic image at the time; it’s long since gone the way of most fads. Look out “#winning”, they’re coming for you next.

Like millions of people around the world, I watched the film Downfall in stunned silence – never knowing such an emotional film was to be hijacked by the Internet’s Culture and Humour Committee for a constant series of parodies which would define the phrase ‘diminishing return’. The infamous bunker scene, in which the ailing Hitler begins to realise the figures on his map have more life than the troops they represent, is the thousand-and-then-some duplicated subtitled meme sensation. Want Hitler to comment on your team’s latest signing, the latest film flop or a political scandal? Use Downfall, and watch Hitler garble your own subtitled outrage for much lulz and re-tweets.

Except, in reality, this doesn’t happen. Or it should not happen, at least as much, so successfully, because the Bunker parody is tired and old and unfunny. It has been misused, failing the basic test of humour. The tag, that vital element of a joke, has been flattened and squashed, with all the flavour of supermarket tortelloni. 

The Labour MP Tom Harris has been shunted out of his “Twitter tsar” role (whatever the heck that was) for posting a Downfall parody video related to the ongoing Scottish independence saga. Teh Grauniad calls him a “Twitter expert” which over eggs the pudding somewhat, though he is one of the few Labour MPs (or indeed any MP) who seems to naturally understand the microblogging service. Labour poster boy Chuka Umunna is one of the most high profile users who gives the impression of only typing what he’s told, not once engaging in discussions with people outside an acceptable check-list of contacts. Harris broke through the central party’s behaviour bubble to act like ordinary members of the public expected him to; insofar as ordinary people use Twitter, Harris behaved like one of them. To say he was “expert” is a bit much, to give him a formal role obviously too much as his colleagues continually failed to do more than type out press released. To sack him over a Downfall parody? No, I see no logic either.

The video he posted, as with so many of their kind, was dull, not the funniest, not particularly harmful to anyone’s cause. It was a bit of silly, Internet based japery. The sensitivity police have claimed another victim. However, even with that said, Harris probably could have said as much as he wanted to do with a blog, a series of tweets or even an interview – the video he posted was one of far, far too many polluting memes which damage the message and remove credibility. His sacking is an over reaction from a knee-jerk leadership. His video was a flinch from a dying corpse.

On-line humour has killed off old jokes harmlessly before (“I can see Russia from my…..Oh…”). It should see to the Downfall parodies as soon as it can – couple of gunshots and set it on fire. 


I understand social media, to a lesser or greater degree, enjoying the expansion/development of the Internet into a jamboree of tagging, poking, checking in and checking out.

All the same, there’s a block, a black mark across the mind, bubbled and scratched and defaced by white blobs, like a popcorn’d barcode. This is the QR Code, not “the humble” or “the dear old”, just the straight down the line, aren’t we all fans, let’s celebrate our cleverness QR Code.  It cannot be my age or lack of a decent scanner, it has to be plain old common sense, because I just do not understand the appeal. It’s the worst kind of technological clever-clever, not too dissimilar to using an in-joke at an interview, or eating English food with chopsticks.

The latest company to grind my particularly well oiled gears on this is Heineken. I don’t drink Heineken, preferring beer/ale which tastes of something, rather than fizzy water with a hint of battery acid, so their “Concert goers are all QR crazy” shtick weakens my disposition.

The transformation of a humble logistic company’s tracking device into a gig-goer’s name badge should, by all records of such things, be exactly the kind of development I would welcome with giddy abandon. “It’s the future!” as a wise man once said of garlic bread. But no, alas, I am not convinced. Not even curious – less so when faced with Heineken and their corporate video of doom. I’ve not been to any music festival, ever, so maybe I am wrong in cynically dismissing a QR Tent full of shoulder slapping, wide-grinned strangers as being contrived. Drugs can’t have that much of an impact on people. (“Wow, this stuff is amazing, I’m totally baked and I’ve just unlocked the Munchie Badge on 4squre”).

This is the future

QR codes on the sides of buses (no, really), shop windows, even pub menus (though to be honest, that was spotted whilst drinking a few doors down from Angel tube station so it’s probably considered normal there) – all combine to form a language marginally less useful than Esparanto. Or Canadian French. There’s an implied barrier of snobbery with companies who use them – more so when the box is not accompanied with any explanation to its meaning. Unfortunately I fear the ship has sailed around the world picking up passengers and hosting all day orgies because the dreaded box is not going away; film distributors offer extra long trailers for people who scan in the right code. It’s worth remembering the rule about long trailers mean terrible films.

I want to like the QR code in its new guise as hip and happening password to the future, it’s just impossible to do so. It’s an impersonal and impractical image of style which abandons pretence of function. The “concert friend hook up” wheeze is a desperate act akin to putting casters on a dead horse and pushing it around Ascot.

Wales under review

Much later to the party than their counterparts across the other bits of the country, the Boundary Commissioners for Wales are gearing up to show off how they’ve managed to carve up Cymru under the new parliamentary constituency rules.

Reducing the number of MPs to 600 was never going to be without controversy – the English Commission was accused of treating the exercise like men of Empire armed with a ruler, a sharp HB and northern Africa. Their “Mersey Banks” will go down in legend.

Welsh MPs and commentators have been heavily critical of the consequences of the law, as the country will lose ten MPs,  25% in one strike. Arguments for and against have been oft-repeated – the Valleys seats are too small, the Valleys seats have to be that small, Welsh language constituencies must be protected, there should not be any protection for seats in Wales as there has been in the Highlands. Perhaps inevitably, Labour have been most critical, claiming the new legislation disrespects the Welsh people and their parliamentary history. In one waft of a hand, ten constituencies are removed from the map, Wales loses any influence within Parliament for purely partisan reasons.

These claims are so much fluff and bluster. The loss of MPs everywhere as part of this process does not rob anyone of their voice, influence or supply of green ink to write letters to the local gazette on the matter. Britain has always had too many parliamentarians – the reduction to 600 should be a first-step, not the final destination. Wales has its own Assembly and will have forty MPs shouting very loudly for attention – I don’t believe the loss of influence argument much at all.

The Welsh Commission have left it this late through all manner of confusion and administrative cock-ups. Their Local Government colleagues dropped enough balls to drown the First XI, which impacted on the national review. We’ve finally got whispers and hints on what’s to come this week, putting into motion the very tight timetable which has to end by October 2013.

North Wales should be the easiest for the Commissioners to fathom. Ynys Mon (Isle of Anglesey to you and me) has to be attached to the mainland somehow, which is handy because the Menai Strait isn’t exactly the Amazon (if you allow me to coin a phrase). The towns of the North Welsh coast are compacted together like neat jigsaw pieces, so expect Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and (Aber)Conwy to be largely touched. Good news for the three parties in contention to mop up the seats here – y Blaid will pick up the Anglesey/Bangor seat, Labour and Conservatives will divvy up the rest. One to watch? Wrexham, a dim and distant Conservative target which might yet one day turn blue.

South Wales has a trickier time of it. There’s a fair few mountains and valleys which get in the way, and the small town attitude is not mere awkwardness. The pride and tradition of the industrial and mining past will live on as long as women of ample bosom have enough breath in their lungs to belt out “Land of my Fathers” at fifty paces. This is where the problems start. Cardiff will lose a seat, and this puts the Liberal Democrats under particular strain in holding on to their only bit of the capital city. Swansea will be divided into two – one bit attached to Gower – whilst Newport is likely to be broken up into “doughnut” style into central and outer seats.

What happens to the Labour bankers (if you will) depends on how many mountain passes and mining villages the Commissioners choose to split down the middle.

Mid Wales will see both east and west sides of the country carved up as never before – the statutory minimum constituency size is not kind to sparsely populated rural hinterlands and as a result there will be clumsy rural/urban combinations. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be concerned with how the Carmarthen/Pembroke mathematics work out. Geography may have to mean nothing for the sake of making the numbers work – as the English Commission has so enthusiastically displayed.

For your perusal, a very convincing 30-seat Wales is presented on the Syniadu blog, written by blogger Penddu.

The Boundary Commission will present its initial proposals this week on their website

Ballot papers decide elections though the administrator’s pencil is sharp enough to make points in the fabric of democracy. How Wales is governed in the long-term depends on the decisions of the Assembly and of Westminster – the loss of 10 MPs in one go will colour that debate intensely.

This is London, sponsored by…

The BBC is in a financial bind. Since the election in 2010, the licence fee has been frozen (effectively cut) and both Welsh network Sianel 4 Cymru and the World Service has been brought under its funding responsibilities. Less money, stretched so far, means serious consequences. We almost lost 6Music, and they’ve only gone and axed Something For The Weekend.

Critics of the Beeb always trot out the line “What about showing adverts or go subscription?”, the former of which is now to become a reality. If all goes to plan, the BBC is to broadcast adverts on BBC World Service programmes for the first time.

Auntie’s neutrality means last night’s coverage of this news was as measured as it could be. The phrase “thin end of the wedge” was used only in quotation. There’s probably plenty within the Corporation who think exactly that. Adverts on the BBC? Well, there’s a path now taken and there’s the destination and doesn’t it look NICE? All warm and fluffy and neon lit with advertising types raising their glasses and beckoning us all inside.

The World Service is the most iconic of all the networks prefixed with the letters ‘BBC’. Its legacy is stunning – getting news to places where it was otherwise filtered through genuinely bias sources, if indeed the news ever got to people at all. Famously, Mikhail Gorbachev heard of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union through the Russian language World Service broadcasts.

The BBC is required to source £3m funding from commercial activities by 2014. Adverts can only be the start – and pessimists are meeting with realists to paint what that must mean for the television channels we take pretty much for granted today. Unlike its other radio networks, the World Service is not merely news and opinion; for millions of people, it’s the voice of reason, neutrality and wisdom they are denied at home. It is often the only credible news source they can access all day. Adverts may be necessary because of the new funding rules – but the consequences can only be damaging. The inclusion of commercial messages between BBC programming was always the ‘scare story’ used to shore up support for the licence fee; the scare story is now coming true.

If you’re angry about the inclusion of adverts on the World Service (which isn’t funded by the licence fee, or at least not yet), step away from the Daily Mail website. Its commentators have rubbed themselves to an awkward, disappointing orgasm over this story – “The arrogance of the Bunch of Boring Creeps….” groans one. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tired of paying for left wing biased programming I neither watch or agree with.” faps another. “It’s about time these Socialist parasites funded their own programming.” tugs away one more.  Good old Daily Mail – for whom ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ should be a secondary by-line. Wait until it /has/ gone, DM faithful, you’ll be left with Channel 4 and product placement during the Archers (now broadcast on Virgin Nostalgia).

The “thin end of the wedge” will weaken, compromise and ultimately kill off most of what makes the BBC World Service so important and crucial as a provider of news. Successful adverts will promote the Government to force the Beeb to add commercials onto national television; and with it goes the licence fee and ultimately everything commercial companies would not dare risk paying for. Goodbye to BBC Four, 6Music, the archives of plays and interviews and live music. The World Service was a beacon – it should not be allowed to transform into a billboard.

Caucus envy

So, then, Rick Perry? Excited, aren’t we? He only beat God’s Representative On Earth by the narrowest of margins! And so, the Republican Party begin their long, ultimately fruitless search for a nominee to take on Obama, spending the GDP of a developing nation in their criss-crossing, attack ad developing, podium thumping electioneering jamboree.

(If you’re Rick Santorum, “podium” is “pulpit”, and if you saw his speech earlier this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking CSPAN stood for “Christians Stand Preaching, Americans Nauseous”)

The primary and caucus period in the US is unlike any other election format enjoyed elsewhere on Earth; it is truly unique. Nothing is more bizarre, out dated, over the top or free from policy details and I’ve followed local administration elections in Britain for years. Listen to Michelle Bachmann for perhaps the most outrageous delusion this side of British National Party candidates claiming they will win seats at the next election. “There maybe a different Michelle in the White House next year!” she told supporters today. Maybe there will, Michelle, I understand they are always looking for interns.

David Cameron was instrumental in bringing primary-ish elections to the UK in the run up to the 2010 general election. In two constituencies now held by the Tories – Totnes, and Gosport – anyone who lived in the constituency could vote in a ballot to choose the Tory candidate. Turnout was piddling and strains between the local associations and Tory HQ stretched to breaking point. The primaries did poke the local party members into action, however, and opened the door to the possibility of the UK welcoming them in full in time. Indeed there was talk during the election period of legislation being introduced to allow “Open Primaries” in marginal constituencies across the land.  LibDems in Glasgow, Labour members in Cambridgeshire, Tories in Liverpool – imagine  the fun and games to be had there…

One argument speaks highly of Primaries. The Conservatives struggle to fight Westminster elections in, say, Manchester or Birmingham, so why not open up selection of candidates in the first place to get names and faces out there, and then run with the built-up momentum for the next X months or years (ideally) to reap long-term rewards?

The downside arguments write their criticism in neon lights. Atop them all is the cost: millions across the country compared to barely a thousand per constituency if done the traditional way. And for the avoidance of doubt, the “traditional way” can often be the rubber stamping of a single candidate by a dozen members of a constituency party on a rainy Tuesday night. Britain does not have the same federal administration as the United States or even France where the Socialist Party undertook its own Primary system last year. The consequence of this would be a lack of reporting and explanation, potential alienation between neighbouring regions as one party pours in money at the expense of another.

Political parties are dying in some parts of the UK, which means anything goes in the ideas machine for building up membership and activism. For parties with “black holes” in the national map, Primaries could be ideal. They might not exactly bring back the Hustings of centuries past, though conversations on- and off-line would be at their most political for years. It would remind “those in the know” that ordinary people happen to care about their political representation, they’re just sick of being taken for granted (in safe seats) or swamped for a month every five years (in marginals). Primaries would engage political parties like never before – forced into a contest out of their control beyond traditional election time, some parties might struggle to adapt to candidates they don’t necessarily know.

The “curiosity” factor of the US election process blanks out the rest of the world at this time of the Presidential cycle. We shouldn’t absorb so much from the US, but we do – Blair was much more of the Congressman than he ever was an MP. Primaries are an awkward fit for the UK system, just as The Leaders Debates caused the machinery of British elections to stop/start, reset, wobble at the edges like a cartoon. We were not prepared for the long-term consequences of the Leaders Debates…would we be happy with spending months in the audience of 6 wannabe Labour candidates in Sussex or a handful of LibDems in Dagenham in the form of an Apprentice/Question Time hybrid in the cross-fingered hope of political renewal?

Early last year, I wrote a blog post suggesting that my second preference behind choosing AV was introducing Primary elections. If I was convinced then I am undecided now. There is much wrong with the British electoral system – which is why we needed AV to succeed and why STV is needed for local elections pretty damn quick. Primary elections could be “fun” but not necessarily    useful. Walker’s Crisps ran a competition some years ago which allowed consumers to vote on a new flavour of crisp; thousands of people voted, resulting in Builders Breakfast filling the shelves the next week. Sales were awful and the product was swiftly withdrawn before the month was out. Proof that things like Facebook Elections and Leaders Debates create fire…..they do not necessarily create light.