Can’t you take a joke?

15 Feb

“When I said that I’d be faithful

When I promised I’d be true

When I swore that I could never

Be with anyone but you

When I told you that I loved you

With those tender words I spoke

I was only kidding

Now, can’t you take a joke”

–    Weird Al Yankovic

Comedy and tragedy are old bedfellows. They are the very symbol of the theatre, the two sides of the human coin. Being human, we flip between them – and I believe it is essential that we do so. I am a strong proponent of comedy, of laughter, of a basic need for the silly, happy and cheerful in our lives. I believe comedy can serve many purposes, from lighthearted entertainment to thought provoking boundary pushing satire.

I particularly believe that we need laughter in hard times. When Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator” he said “we must laugh at Hitler”. We need humour to help us survive. To give us perspective. To feel less alone. To give us hope. To remind us what it’s like to be happy. We need humour to cope. When I am feeling miserable, one of the things that helps me most is this picture:


But that basic human need for comedy doesn’t mean we should turn everything into a big joke.

What many comedians, jokers, and assholes seem to forget, is that just as you have the right to make a joke, I have the right not to laugh. Or even to be offended by it. Yesterday I tweeted that I couldn’t take the Oscar jokes, and I was going offline (which I happily did). That was my personal response to the situation, and it is just as valid as saying that some people cope with death or tragedy by making jokes. Absolutely, people do. Warren Robertson makes this point eloquently in his article on the same subject , where he looks at John Cleese’s eulogy of his friend and colleague Graham Chapman.

There’s a world of difference between joking in a context of friendship, knowledge, a career forged in comedy that treads the line of taboo, and making crass jokes about women “forcing” their boyfriends to kill them, or being “taken out” for Valentine’s Day. And these jokes, piled endlessly on top of one another, in a context of a country grappling with horrifying rapes and domestic violence, should not go unprotested. Too often any complaint about a joke being distasteful is dismissed as the complainer not having a sense of humour. In some instances, it may be the “joker” who is devoid of humour and compassion (or even a basic grasp of spelling).

Humour is one of the most subjective things there is. Sometimes I don’t find jokes funny because I think they’re weak jokes, or jokes I’ve heard before. Sometimes I don’t understand them. Sometimes they piss me off. Because often humour, especially black humour is very close to the bone. And the thing about bones is, my bones are different from your bones.

As the incomparable Weird Al so delightfully illustrates for us: not all jokes are funny. And this is particularly true of those which are at someone’s expense. If you want to make those jokes, great news, you can, you are free to. But don’t be surprised if someone has a funny bone to pick with you.


Character Exercise

23 Jan

There’s an exercise I often do at workshops to emphasize the importance of character. I give a few lines of dialogue, and show how drastically the meaning of them can change depending on who is speaking them to whom. A typical example is:

A: Hey

B: Hello

A: What are you doing here?

A could be friendly, happily surprised that B is there. A could be aggressive. A could be scared. I’m simplifying here, but this is the essence of the exercise. I had never really thought about applying this to real life, until this happened:

A: Hey

B: Hey gorgeous, it’s so good to hear your sexy voice

Again, these lines are different depending on who is speaking them. If B is in a relationship with A, this could be a fantastic thing to hear, and make A feel incredible. If B is a friend of A, this could be a friendly exchange, a bit of banter between friends. If B is a colleague of A, however, this becomes uncomfortable. This is not about the words themselves, these are not the lightning bolts of language like bitch, cunt, or whore. This is the insidious acid rain of casual sexism.

And it brings us neatly to subtext. Again, a vital tool for a writer to consider. When writing a script, we know exactly what the character means – and that what they mean is seldom exactly what they say.  Typically, the argument is that subtext is the realm of drama, and not of real life. But anyone who has stood in a doorway late at night and heard “So…do you want to come up for coffee?” can tell you that this is nonsense. Subtext is a part of everyday life. Nicknames have a subtext – they indicate a level of connection and familiarity, the use of them signals to others that a bond exists.  There’s a subtext in the way adverts are written. We humans go through life seldom, if ever, saying exactly what we mean.

This can of course be exploited. An immediate defence to an accusation of sexism (or racism, or any other ism) is “I didn’t mean it that way”. I would like to argue though that generally, offence is in the eye of the beholder. And this is particularly true for these subtle, everyday forms of sexism. It might not be horrible if your male colleagues call you darling one day. But if it happens every day, and they are all called by their given names, then it starts to get a little odd. And let me tell you that when you spend day after day, year after year, having your gender being responded to as of primary importance, being your most defining attribute, you get a little sick of it. Some people are genuinely surprised when you tell them that you find their behaviour inappropriate, and this has been a huge lesson to me – if you don’t tell people, they may never know. We are too often silent, too often gossiping behind people’s backs rather than confronting them and stating our unhappiness.

A standard suggestion for gauging sexism is “would you say the same thing to a man?”. Can you imagine A and B being male colleagues? This is another writer’s trick: context. There are no rules here. If you work in a context where everyone has a nickname and everyone feels comfortable with it, then all power to you. If you and your colleague have a friendship or rapport then obviously the dynamics change.  Where the problem comes in is when there is an inequality in the equation.  This is why we so seldom confront people, we already feel at a disadvantage, we feel we are taking a risk in speaking. We judge and condemn ourselves based on a lifetime of being judged.

Another question scriptwriters ask time and again is “who has the power in this situation”. There are organisational hierarchies – the boss has power over his or her employee – and then there are societal hierarchies. Traditionally, these favour strong white men. But it is never that simple and neat. And while it is an interesting thing to consider and debate as a writer – who would have power in a situation with a white homosexual male and a white woman, what if one character is black, what if the other character is black, who’s older, who’s stronger, and a hundred more permutations, each of which may add depth or nuance to your writing – it’s achingly difficult to navigate when it is real life.

So…complete this dialogue:

A: Hey

B: Hey gorgeous, it’s so good to hear your sexy voice


What can A say? If B is A’s boss, do they just let it go? Change the subject? Does A reply factually “I’d prefer it if you called me A”? Does A say “please don’t talk to me like that” or “I don’t find your tone appropriate”? What about “grow up” or “hey don’t take that tone with me”? And what if A does say something, and the next day this dialogue happens again? Repetition is powerful in drama, but in drama, there’s the rule of three. The first two times something will happen with a predictable response, the third time we will break that expectation. At what point does A say “fuck off”? Or stop talking to B at all? At what point does this erode you beyond repair?

Only this is not a theoretical exercise. This is life. And while it might seem like a fairly minor example, it may be the straw that breaks my back. And is further proof that in life, as in writing, character is everything.

Cultural Elitism Sux

10 Oct

I know this is a fairly horrifying thought, but some people don’t like chocolate. Breathe. Some of them have fairly legitimate reasons, like, oh I don’t know, allergies. Others don’t really mind it, like my bizarre offspring who prefer spinach.

And yet these chocolophobes don’t go around remonstrating about our curious and distasteful obsession. They might quietly like that there are other snacks available. The same way I might consider carob bars to be a stunning disappointment, but I’m not compelled to spend my hours lamenting the deplorable decline of the snackfood aisle.

Why then, do people think it’s not just okay, but some sort of social imperative, to loudly, frequently and rudely disparage the choices others make about the music, books, theatre, film and art they want to consume? Almost on a daily basis I hear that Shades of Grey is the downfall of all good literature; Gangnam Style is a portent of the apocalypse; and Justin Bieber is the antichrist. It is not a requirement of the human race that we all like avant garde and indie, or read Neruda. And guess what? Sometimes people who like chocolate like vegetables too. Just this afternoon (don’t faint now) I listened to Ludacris while writing articles in which I quote research on the “19th Century Literature genome”. This doesn’t make me better or worse than you.

Y’all need to chill out. Why all the judgement? Why do people need to talk about their “guilty pleasures”? Why are people buying books with secret covers for fear of the scorn of strangers? Or terrified their friends might one day discover what’s REALLY on their iPod?

Mainstream is not necessarily mindless, soulless, and worthy of scorn. Unusual is not always the harbinger of cool.

Not even I could eat chocolate every day. There’s a whole snack aisle full of choices, and that is fantastic and amazing and splendiferous and wonderful. And if you want to be snarky and judgmental, leave the Coke in the fridge and take your imported lemon iced tea and go and be superior in the corner. Don’t stand by the fridge screaming in the face of everyone who just wants a damn drink.

Do Something FFS

18 Apr
‘I would just delete it.’

‘If it was my friend, ja, I’d tell them.’


A few weeks ago I was part of a process where teenagers were being asked to improvise scenes. The given scenario was that an incident of horrible bullying had been filmed on a cellphone and was being sent around. The response, overwhelmingly, was that the teenagers wouldn’t do anything about it. They would delete it from their phones, they said. No one admitted they might forward it. A few were bolder, stating that it was not their problem, and that getting involved would only cause more problems for them.

Fast forward to this morning and the horror of the rape video. The disgusting calls for a link to it so people could watch it. The litany of excuses for rape. And then the international attention and the onslaught of despicable, racist, phobic comments about South Africans.

I told those teenagers about the bystander effect in that workshop. The theory is that the more people there are, the less the likelihood is that anything will be done. So say you’re home alone and you’re hungry. Chances are high that you’ll eat something – whatever is in the kitchen, or pop out for a snack. But maybe the family is all hungry – getting four people to agree on what to eat might take a bit longer. Inevitably he who whines loudest wins out. Now put eight friends in a room trying to decide what to eat. Your best chance of being fed is to LEAVE IMMEDIATELY and find your nearest cafe.

The same principle applies in times of crisis. How many of us have driven past a fire and thought ‘I’m sure someone else has reported that by now’? Walked past a crying child. Done nothing. This is the bystander effect, and it’s insidious. It tells us that there are “other people” doing what needs to be done. Making the decisions. Making dinner.

A few of the teenagers got to talking about what they perhaps could do if they were sent a video showing some incident of bullying. One angry young woman was full of ideas. The first of which was reply to whoever sent you the video and tell them that they are “a stupid asshole”. The second involved telling authorities. The third involved telling everyone “as loudly as possible” that the bullying, the videoing, and the distribution were all “cruel and dumb”.

Be grateful we have people like her in this world. I am.

We can’t afford to do nothing any longer. We, as a society, have given the okay to bullying, to rape, to abuse of power in all its forms, because we would rather not say no to it. We are sure “someone will do something”. We think we are powerless to effect change. I’ve seen lots of suggestions online today about what should be done. They can be summed up as: castrate the rapists, kill the rapists; women should not be provocative or sexy or beautiful; and a few beautiful voices speaking out  – support Rape Crisis, tackle rape as men and women together, report abuse and seek justice, keep talking about it. For this alone today I am grateful – that we have continued to talk about it.

There was another tweet that got my attention today. It was a call from @squidsquirt for a little kindness. And at the very least, that’s what I would love to see. A little more proactive kindness in the world. And that is something all of us can do.

What have you done?

Deck of Cards

12 Mar

It started out as a bit of a joke. “I’ve got a documentary about poker on the cards”. Then it became a fascinating thought which wouldn’t fade away. I read about cards, and the myriad ways they pop up in our lives and in history – how they’ve played a part in feminism, and political movements. The social easing of cards on family nights, the high tension of bridge, the elite world of poker, the simple nuance of magic.

And so I DO have a documentary about cards on the cards. And in order to promote the concept and generate some interest, I thought I’d develop a “Deck of Cards” from pictures of people all round the world, each holding up a card. When I’m done, I’ll turn it into a collage.

So, I’m looking for simple pictures of people holding cards. Like this, of Daniel, via the delightful Amy:

Or perhaps like this, by the gorgeous Lilly:

So can you help me complete my International Deck? Below is a list of the countries I have so far (I’ll continually update it). If you’re not on it, or you know someone in a country that isn’t on it, and you’re willing to help, please comment or tweet me @karenjeynes and I can let you know which cards are still available. Oh, and if you’re keen to take part but your country is already taken, I’ll happily take as many Jokers as I can get!




















Saudi Arabia



South Africa









22 Feb

I received an email yesterday from someone I’m honoured to call a friend. He has encouraged my writing career since I was around 14 – publishing my poetry, and later editing my novels, and still later publishing my play, and coming to my opening nights, and bringing constant wisdom to my life. Honestly though, Robin Malan is a friend to everyone who loves words and books and writing. He is dedicated to producing, promoting, and protecting words. Is it any wonder then that he thought up a scheme like this?

“Would you like to help me celebrate my fifth rebirthday?

Let me explain. It was on palindromic 29.2.92 (that’s the 29th of February 1992, for those of you calendarly challenged), it was on that leap-year day …

that my heart ♥

very nearly stopped ♥

me dead

in my tracks

… but – happily – it decided: ‘Not Yet.’ ♥

I was nursed back to health by a loving sister and cardiologists and dieticians and friends. I’m very glad that happened, because I’ve been able to do a whole whack of work in these 20 years that I wouldn’t have done otherwise! For instance, there wouldn’t have been any of the post-1992 Robin books! And there wouldn’t have been any Robin involvement in any of the following: No Triangle Project! No GABYS (Gay and Bisexual Youngmen’s Support-group)! No Gay & Lesbian Helpline! No Young Gay Guys column in Exit! No editing of English Alive! No Siyagruva Series! No IBBY SA! No Cape 300 Foundation! No Arts & Culture Trust! No Junkets Publisher! No Playscript Series! No Collected Series! …

So each leap year I sort-of celebrate my rebirthday. And 29 February 2012 will be my fifth rebirthday, 20 years after the heart attack.

I’m not having a party – that could be tempting fate!

Instead, you can help me celebrate this way:

§         Take a book – any book of any sort – that you’ve read and leave it in some public place for someone to pick up and read.

§         Before you do that, write this inside the book:

Pick me up

and read me.

Then drop me

for someone else

to pick me up

and read me.

If you feel like doing that, that would be good!”

I want to take Robin’s appeal wider. Such a simple one.  So I want to declare the 29th  #pickmeupandreadme day.  Won’t you do just as Robin says, and then send me a tweet with #pickmeupandreadme or write a comment about where you’ve dropped your book – you could send a photo, or a title, or make it cryptic. Let’s give books legs this Leap Day, the same way Robin was given legs 20 years ago.

5 things playwrights should tattoo onto their eyelids

15 Feb

Having spent hundreds of hours readings scripts for three different contests over the last few weeks, here are my top 5 tips to writers when submitting. My experience in this instance is with reading plays, but I imagine the rules apply to other genres too.

1. For the love of sweet kittens, put in page numbers
2. Unless specifically told NOT to, put your name and the title on the script (You’d be amazed how many don’t. I am no longer amazed. I am sadly despondent.)
3. DO NOT develop your own bizarre code which you then try and explain, like “if you see a double // then it refers to the character remembering and reflecting an earlier scene, and an {L} means that the mood lifts”. Stick to standard formats and KEEP IT SIMPLE.
4. Put character descriptions at the beginning. Please. Oh do. I find it rather disconcerting to discover on page 50 that a character is a man who humorously has a woman’s name, and not, in fact, a woman.
5. Meet. The. Deadline.