Opinion: Rule of thumb

POSTED: 01/8/13 11:48 AM

Standup comedians are constantly exploring the limits of their territory. What is funny and what is not? A good rule of thumb is this one: everything is funny as long as it happens to somebody else.

The master of politically incorrect jokes is without competition the British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen. His film The Dictator contains so many politically incorrect jokes that it becomes hilarious. If any politician in any country would just utter one of them in public he (or she) would be burned on the stake.

So context is important for humor and the theater has always been to the Netherlands what cable TV is to Americans. If Americans wants to get their fill of four-letter words they simply tune in to a comedy show on cable TV. The same shows on public television would be so full of bleeps that nobody really bothers to watch them there. In the Netherlands, the theater is the place to be for the rudest and most politically incorrect forms of humor. But humor it is.

When Belgium was terrorized by the Nijvel Gang between 1982 and 1985 whereby 28 people were murdered (mostly in Delhaize), the Dutch comedian Freek de Jonge used the crimes in his end of the year show with a line like: “If I’d wanted to commit suicide, I could always go shopping at a Delhaize.” Some of the victims were still above the ground at that time, and De Jonge’s audience managed an embarrassed snigger. Nobody thought the comedian was really out of line.

Zap to 2012 where another comedian, Theo Maassen, presented his show With all due respect. Apart from the almost standard sexually colored stories (no comedian seems to be able to do without them) Maassen also came up with an evenly almost standard attack on Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party PVV,

He used Volendam, a fishing village outside Amsterdam with just 22,000 inhabitants, as the butt of his joke, saying that the number of PVV-voters in this municipality was excessively high.”

That whole village is one hundred percent white, Maassen said. And then came the punch line that is causing him some trouble now: “The only variation in skin color they have there are the victims of that pub fire.”

On New Years Eve of the year 2,000, a pub called De Hemel (The Heaven) in Volendam burned down to the ground. The place was packed with revelers, and 28 of them died. There are 240 survivors, many of whom suffered severe burn wounds.

Nobody thought Maassen was out of line with his joke – at least, not among the people in his audience in the theater. But Johan Bond (half of Volendam’s denizens are called Bond) the manager of a local cultural center aptly named The Joseph was outraged.

He invited Maassen to do his show one more time. In Volendam of course. Bond promised the comedian that there will be at least 240 people in the audience – the survivors of that fire twelve years ago. Maassen has not reacted to the invitation yet and we have the feeling that he won’t be going to Volendam any time soon. So maybe, we’re thinking, Volendam will come to Maassen one day – 240-strong.

While the reaction from the manager in Volendam is up to a point understandable, it is also an unnecessary one. It’s a bit like when somebody who is not even a comedian starts calling someone else in public a sick you-know-what: it says more about the one who makes the remark then it does about those on the receiving end.

And then there is of course the rule of thumb we referred to earlier: everything is funny as long as it happens to somebody else.

One more thing: is it a coincidence that Maassen is also called Theo?

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