Monday, 27 September 2010

Guest Post - Mark Phillips explains how Paul's #TwitterJokeTrial tweet was very clearly a joke.

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

I had an email today from a very bright guy I've previously had some dealings with about the Paul Chambers case. Mark Phillips is a linguistics expert who became intrigued by the implications of this case and made numerous comments under articles in The Guardian's online Comment-Is-Free section back in May using the screen name 'justasillyjoke'. It is Mark who deserves the credit for formulating the line of thinking that suggests Paul was frustrated by a situation beyond his control and made an exaggerated remark assuming powers that he does not have in order to compensate for his feelings of lack of control. A very astute observation, I'm sure you'll agree. Mark was trying to post a comment to my previous entry but ran into some problems. With his permission, I am publishing what Mark had wanted to say:

This tweet was a joke. Not only was it a joke, it was very clearly a joke. Is a joke ‘menacing?’ Maybe, taken out of context. The point is, the CPS is trying to convey Paul as being knowingly ‘threatening, menacing’ etc. But, Paul is a joker, and he’s not pretending or even trying to be anything else.

Here is a linguistic breakdown of the joke. It is in ‘cartoon’ style. It builds on an exaggerated bluff, with the basic force of the joke being a stooge, the device being a bluff, and the special force of the joke being an ‘irony’. I’ll explain everything below. Enough to say, the bigger the bluff, the bigger the irony, and the bigger the joke! That is the linguistic recipe.

There are four very visible cartoon elements in the joke:

First, 'Crap!' This is derived historically from the interjection 'Holy Crap!', meaning unbelievable. As an interjection, it has been used extensively as an ‘entry’ into jokes. Think of ‘Wow!’, or ‘D’ya know what…?’, ‘You’ll never believe this…’, or more recently ‘I don’t believe it…’ (One Foot in the Grave). But it is perhaps best remembered in its cartoon form in Robin’s ‘Holy smoke!’ catchphrase from Batman and Robin. This 'unbelievable' meaning sets up the whole joke. After all, it’s not a joke if you believe it! The interjection is therefore the first ‘marker’ that it is a joke.

Second, the jokes main ‘device’ is the weapon bluff, the ‘banana passed off as a gun’. In Paul’s case, it was some imaginary TNT, one might assume. This is hugely important, because it sets up the ‘stooge’ of the joke. The stooge has been somehow duped into believing the banana can pass for a real weapon (maybe they believe they can hypnotise people or some such dupe). Their ‘stupidity’ is therefore the essence of the joke; they cannot see that they appear ridiculous waving around a banana.

Third, the bank robber takes his bluff weapon (the banana) and threatens to 'blow everyone's brains out' unless he 'gets the dough'. The exaggerated toughness (‘get your shit together’) gives the joke extra force, because it sets the stooge up further as a ‘fake’, as a weak character.

Fourth, 'Sky high' is what we might call ‘the hyperbolic flourish’; it serves two functions, it ends the joke with the required flourish, i.e., a punch line, and it reinforces the ‘cartoonish’ nature of the joke, just in case you missed it (pay attention CPS!).

The irony behind the joke is simply that although Paul sets himself up as the stooge, he knows that everyone knows that he knows the ‘banana is not a gun’. He happily sacrifices any appearance of intelligence (tweeting a bomb threat!), in order to set himself up as the stooge for his own joke.

Of course, language doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All communication is ‘primed’, in the way that mention of the word ‘dog’ will invoke ‘cat’. It’s therefore correct to mention that ‘the times in which we live’ create some of the context here: travelling by plan[sic] brings up thoughts of terrorism, as does mention of Northern Ireland. No doubt, if Paul had been writing to a Thai girlfriend, he might have plumbed for a good joke about riding a Tsunami wave, if he was brave. You see, good comedy does require bravery, because it skirts the borders of acceptability and social embarrassment. More than that, it reveals our tensions about things, and by so doing, helps to alleviate them somewhat. Hence, all the jokes about marriage, about our boss, about travelling, about sex, and about terrorists etc.

In fact, if we didn’t live in a world where we are more afraid of terrorists than ever, there probably wouldn’t have been much material there for Paul to joke about.


  1. I'm going to be the first to comment here by asking Mark a question. Is it your opinion that "the times in which we live" are indeed relevant to the context in the way the CPS would like us to believe?

  2. The BBC posted the message and censored it with no reference to having censored it by removing Crap! thus taking away the initial setup of the joke, and get your shit together taking away the exaggerated toughness - and making the message seem more serious

  3. As they say, the best way to kill joke is to analyse it therefore, following this masterly deconstruction this is obviously no longer a joke therefore guilty as charged...

    However, when it comes to deadly jokes, I am reminded of this

  4. Hi Matt
    Thanks for posting this, Matt. I'm sure most people 'got the joke', but perhaps it’s good to try to articulate how the ‘joke’ works. I have a couple of points I want to add to my first comments, and then I'll give my opinion in answer to your question.
    I mentioned the 'duping' in the first analysis, because it’s important for setting up the joke whereby everyone gets it except the guy in the middle. Paul sets himself up as being much more powerful than he actually is. In that sense, it’s funny because he’s feigning a kind of megalomania.
    Stupidity or helplessness is the essence of jokes that exploit a ‘stooge’. But underlying this joke is also the thread of heroism, the little guy up against a corrupt state, the Robin Hood kind of terrorist. Indeed, transport is used constantly in comedy, whereby trains, planes, taxis, horses and any kind of transport leave the poor protagonist stranded on the pavement, so to speak. The little guy up against the machine, literally. One fantasy of retribution is to take a shotgun, march into the manager’s office and force him to right the wrong.
    I can see a whole One Foot in the Grave episode play out in the same way, though with Victor Meldrew, the shotgun is his caustic tongue. I can hear his verbal tirade now: “I don't believe it. A few ruddy snowflakes on the runway and they've closed the whole damn airport! What next, a leaf falling from the sky? A fox has peed on the tarmac? The sun has got his hat on and he isn’t coming out to play? I've a good mind to go down there and blow the ruddy airport to smithereens.' At which point, the postman who just happens to be dropping a letter through the letterbox hears the very last part, and is convinced he’s happened upon a cell of fanatical terrorists , calling in the police. And so on and so on!
    We like Victor. He’s a spokesperson for all our grumbles at beaurocracy, and we like his verbal outbursts, as he’s a kind of tragic Robin Hood, trying to get even against the system, but always failing somehow. A tragic comedy.
    In answer to your question Matt, I don’t think that ‘the times in which we live’ as it’s understood by the CPS is the correct interpretation of context here. The times in which we live are indeed one of very real threat. But to say that Paul was exploiting that threat as a way of gaining some kind of revenge, as they seem to have implied, is just plain silly. He wasn’t sending the text to them, even as a joke. In fact, the joke makes no sense if its sent to the airport directly, because they wouldn’t see it as characterization. They would take the words literally, in the same way that if you take Victor Meldrew’s tirades out of his living room, then he becomes a much more menacing character. The essence of the matter here is whether a joke is sufficiently set up to be taken as a joke. You cannot say ‘I’m going to murder you’, and then claim it was a joke if there is nothing at all to suggest that it was. In this case, there is plenty to suggest it was a joke, and so the question becomes, is it illegal to make a joke about terrorism? And of course, it isn’t. Or wasn’t.
    The times in which we live, as interpreted by the CPS, is that your living room and your friends circle on the internet are somehow a public space, whereby all communications have to be reinterpreted in that light, and where jokes have to be literally ‘spelled out’ so that no-one misunderstands. Although, according to the CPS, if they don’t think it was a joke, tough, you are now a criminal. It’s plainly ludicrous, but fear does strange things to people, and I’m very interested to see what the eventual outcome will be.

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  6. Mark: It seems to me the CPS are in no doubt that the tweet was menacing. It was menacing because of "the times in which we live." The CPS have now accepted that intention to menace is also required. In order to show intention, they need to show that Paul was at the very least aware that he was being menacing. Their opinion is that the additional instances of "menacing" communications serve to lessen the likelihood that he didn't know what he was doing. In fact, it shows just the opposite. He was so unaware of how the content would be received that he "offended" repeatedly. And why not? They seem to think that he meant to appear threatening. This might be some form of revenge as you say. They are arguing against their own case though, and the police interviews strongly support his position that he had no idea and no intention.

    Mike: Fortunately this case will not be decided by either the BBC or the British public. There may be a case for the BBC to answer when this is finished though.

  7. Yes, CPS are out to smear Paul with 'previous' and thereby gain a conviction. It really seems they need a lesson 'humour'.

    The fact the joke was a 'running joke' just underlines your point.

    Of course, another side of jokes is the 'pretence of evil', pulled off brilliantly e.g. by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder and often in Mr Bean too. I can just imagine Blackadder remarking with plottish devilry to Baldrick, 'I think I'll become a TERRORIST!'

    Of course Paul meant to appear threatening. If he didn't the joke wouldn't work. But the point is that it was pretence. I think its the timing of the elements and the rhythm in Paul's tweet that is one of the most obvious things that make it a joke. He's pretending to be duped by his own megalomania, or put another way, he's pretending to be all powerful, like some Bond arch-enemy.

    The original judge followed the same line of reasoning, trying to show that Paul must have been aware that his statement was menacing. He seems to have been leading Paul on this one, incredulous that Paul would deny it, even. If you ask, is a joke supposed to be funny, the answer is 'yes'. If you ask, is a bomb threat menacing, the answer is yes. If you ask can you make a joke about bombs without being menacing, the answer is also clearly yes!

    I'm reminded of the countless scenes in cartoons where some 'baddy' is left with the bomb about to explode, sending everything 'sky high'! It's even 'funny justice'. But even as we laugh, we don't think, blowing up people is good!

    Funny, there is nothing funny about the justice that Paul has received so far.

  8. what a waste of time - didnt EVERYONE already get this - thing is - he shouldnt have written it - if he had said it near me i would have thought it a shit joke - but online i thought it was a a throwaway tweet. you have to prosecute for this otherwise terrorists would be using twitter to coordinate attacks without fear of reprisal if the evidence wasnt considered valid. this is the precident for this in future

  9. This is your last warning, Martin... one more word out of you and I'm blowing the Precident's nose sky-high.

  10. Martin don't be such a wanker.

  11. Martin, I'm not sure whether or not you're serious. My sense of irony is perhaps not as sharp as yours. This is a precedent for the future that the British people cannot allow. If you're serious I'd suggest you do your homework before posting here again.

  12. The other thing the CPS seem to have willingly missed is that the threat was not immediate (no present danger), but gave the airport a week to "get their shit together". This means that if they chose to interpret it as a serious statement rather than as a joke (a reasonable move where airport security is concerned) then they would in fact have acted differently, in that they would have spent that week tracking down and neutralising the threat. They did not do this, therefore by their own actions they treated the tweet as something other than a threat, i.e. as a joke.

  13. Mike makes a very good point, though it should be noted that it was not until several days after the tweet was made that it was detected by Duffield. Nevertheless, it took the airport two full days to refer the matter to the police if I'm not mistaken.

  14. Is this what we have come to? Humour by-pass.
    We would never get through World War 3 with this attitude or any kind of collective horror.
    Repressed and suppressed by unBritish ways.
    Now I know we have had everything taken from us, even our sense of humour.
    Sob, sob, sob.

  15. Brilliant stuff from Mark Phillips

  16. I agree. Mark has done stellar work here. He will be disappointed about this verdict I'm certain.


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