Still of Zo is 't toevallig ook nog 's een keer
Still of Zo is 't toevallig ook nog 's een keer

'It was just a joke': literary scholar Ivo Nieuwenhuis' take on humour scandals

From Johan Derksen's statements to Thierry Baudet's roast, each of them gave rise to hefty media scrutiny in recent years. So, are we not allowed to joke about anything these days? According to literary scholar Ivo Nieuwenhuis, this is not the case. In his book Het was maar een grapje (It was just a joke), he shows that humour scandals are of all times.

In his book, Ivo Nieuwenhuis discusses Dutch humour history. Is there such a thing as 'Dutch humour'? ''It is always difficult to say that something is typically Dutch because there are always international influences,'' says Nieuwenhuis. Yet he does see something typical of Dutch culture in the coarse humour of Hans Teeuwen and Jiskefet, among others. ''That hard, blunt style also fits the image of Dutch directness.''

Where does that blunt style come from? According to Nieuwenhuis, it can largely be explained by the social changes in the 1960s. ''In the early sixties, authority was sacred. You were not allowed to mock the church, the royal family or political authority figures. But then a new norm emerged: we were all equal, and everyone should be able to make fun of everyone. Whether you are a peasant or the king, you should be able to joke about anything.'' According to Nieuwenhuis, people actually started making crude jokes and engaging in a certain kind of humour to reinforce this new norm, much to the annoyance of those who still find this humour outrageous and disgusting.

New consensus

According to Nieuwenhuis, crude humour was mainly fought for in the media, with television as an important battleground. ''There was a satirical television programme in the 1960s called Zo is het toevallig ook nog eens een keer (It just so happens), which was very much out to provoke,' says Nieuwenhuis. ''At one point, they wanted to do a skit about the mayor of Amsterdam. VARA, the broadcaster, thought this skit was too controversial and banned it. Then the editors said: it's all or nothing; either it's allowed or we stop it. Well, it wasn't allowed, so they stopped. A clear statement was made here that we will no longer bow to censorship. In the end, you can see the difference this made as the boundaries shifted very quickly for what is allowed and of how coarse humour has become.''

Thanks to this kind of action, a new consensus is emerging: that you should be able to make jokes about anything - especially about authority. ''You would think: the coarser the humour, the more scandals, but that is not the case. In the 1990s, on the contrary, there was a lot of coarse humour, but few scandals,'' says Nieuwenhuis. According to him, scandal sensitivity is due to the spirit of the times: in times of changing norms and values, there are many scandals, whereas only few in times of consensus.

Minority jokes

Not surprisingly, Nieuwenhuis saw another scandal spike in the past six years. He says this, too, can be explained by changing norms and values. ''The new discussion is more about the fact that harsh jokes can trigger something negative in society because they come at the expense of more vulnerable groups,'' observes Nieuwenhuis. ''You can make a harsh joke about a powerful authority, such as the king or religion: in their position, they have to be able to take a hit here and there. But there is also a lot of harsh humour that is not directed against powerful groups, but rather against minorities, such as gay people or Moroccans.'

As an example, Nieuwenhuis cites the so-called 'pisnicht affair'. In 2018, a commotion arose because comedian Youp van 't Hek used the word 'pisnicht' (a slur for a homosexual man) in his jokes. This gave Nieuwenhuis a reason for going into the history of 'the gay joke' in his book. ''These jokes were also made in the 1990s, but less negative focus existed around them. The fact that there has been extensive discussion about it in recent years says a lot about changing power relations,'' Nieuwenhuis claims. "In the nineties, gay people didn't necessarily find this funny either, but perhaps had less of a voice or confidence to make a statement because they didn't want to be considered a whiner. Now, there is the space and self-confidence to say, 'We don't take this anymore'."

These contemporary discussions on humour expose the current activist zeitgeist. At the same time, Nieuwenhuis actually sees many similarities between discussions about humour in the 1960s and now. ''Only the subject has changed. Then it was about making a joke about the royal family or religion; now, it's about a homophobic or racist joke.'' So, he says the idea that you are not 'allowed' to joke about anything these days compared to the past is absolutely not true.There are sensitivities in every era; the topics of sensitivity only shift.''

Het was maar een grapje (2023) by Ivo Nieuwenhuis, published by Atlas Contact, is now available in bookshops.


Contact information

Diversity, Art & Culture, Society