AN INCONVENIENT JOKE | March 10th 2008

Global warming


Saving the planet is deadly serious business. But why can't it also be funny? Environmentalists have a reputation for being too earnest, Robert Butler writes. Perhaps everyone just needs to hear a good lightbulb joke ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008

What is the shortest book in the world? "The Environmentalists' Book of Jokes", of course. It's not a hard point to prove. Pick up the 550-page book Man Walks into a Bar, which claims to be the biggest joke book in the world with more than 6,000 entries. The jokes are divided into more than 400 themes that run from accidents to zoos.

Look under C and the index goes from civil servants to cloning. (No mention of climate change.) Look under G and it goes from giraffes to golf. (No mention of global warming.) Look under E, and there's no earth or environment; look under P and there's no planet. This is the future we face: rivers dry up, sea levels rise, animals become extinct”and there won't be a single blonde joke, or lightbulb joke, or three-men-walked-into-a-bar joke about any of it.

There are half-a-dozen reasons why this could be the case. The first is, climate change is too serious for humour. But 'Man Walks into a Bar' has jokes about death, lepers and suicide. The second is, climate change is simply too boring. But there are jokes about accountancy. The third is, climate change is too preachy and earnest. That probably comes closest. The comedian Marcus Brigstocke travelled on a boat to the Arctic, with the novelist Vikram Seth and others, to see for himself what was happening (Intelligent Life, Autumn 2007). In an article in the Sunday Times, Brigstocke admitted: 'The environment is frankly dull, boring and worthy, not always a great source of comedy.'

The American satirist and talk-show host Bill Maher says the environment is 'one of the hardest subjects to do in comedy'. He identifies a simple technical problem: 'It doesn't have an obvious, easy, funny target.' Climate change is particularly tricky because it's 'a slow-moving disaster'.

Cartoonists have an easier job picking up on the incidentals. One New Yorker cover pictures a man on a tiny desert island with a single palm tree, surrounded by more than a dozen recycling bins. The changes in weather allow for plenty of comic reversals. Pugh, the pocket cartoonist of the Times, has a middle-aged man looking out of his suburban house, saying, "Next door's fish is in our garden again".

With parody, climate change fuses with other subjects. The American mock-newspaper the Onion treated autumn as television. The headline ran: "Fall cancelled after 3 billion seasons. A beloved classic comes to an end". The text said: "In recent years the Fall has been reduced from three months to a meagre two-week stint, and its scheduled start time has been pushed back later and later each year."

The most effective comedians on climate change adopt the indifferent attitudes of the polluters. Another American satirist and talk-show host, Stephen Colbert, interviewed the presenter of a CNN programme called 'Planet in Peril'. Colbert asks, 'Are you talking about Planet Earth?' ('Yes.') 'Could that eventually affect Planet America?'

The comedian Will Ferrell plays George Bush, leaning against a fence on his ranch in Crawford, doing a broadcast about global warming. The folksy, reassuring patter has to go into overdrive to compensate for the president's very shaky grasp of the subject. Larry David, star of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and co-creator of 'Seinfeld', tells an audience that his conversion from "radical narcissist" to "radical environmentalist" was caused by one word he saw in a newspaper: tuna. Or rather three: mercury in tuna. Every day he used to have tuna for lunch, it was the one thing in his life he never had to think about; now, he doesn't know what to order.

An "obvious, easy, funny target", to use Maher's phrase, is environmentalists themselves. The American comedian Sarah Silverman spoofs the apocalyptic tone of Al Gore's film 'An Inconvenient Truth', reeling off a list of catastrophes that are about to happen, before pausing and adding, 'I think it's awesome.'

The most sustained joke about the environmentally conscious is the South Park episode "SmugAlert!", where the 'smug' from all the hybrid-car owners in South Park begins to merge with the smug from hybrid-car owners in San Francisco. One character tries to point out that hybrids would be a good thing if people were prepared to drive them without being so self-satisfied about it, but everyone accepts that would be too much to ask - and people go back to driving their SUVs.

A second volume of 'Man Walks into a Bar' brings together 550 more pages of jokes and one-liners. Not one of these is about climate change either. If the publishers ever plan a third edition, here's my modest contribution (someone has to get this thing started).

Q: How many climate sceptics does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: None. It's too early to say if the lightbulb needs changing.

(Robert Butler is a theatre writer and a regular contributor to Intelligent Life magazine. He blogs about the arts and the environment at ashdenizen.blogspot.com)