Jo Brand's 'ill-judged' joke and the challenge of comedy

Jo Brand on the cover of her latest book, 'Born Lippy'

I've only ever tried stand-up comedy once. It had been on my "New Years Resolutions" list for quite a few years before I finally took the plunge and gave it a go. Fortunately I wasn't alone, a very good comedian and all-round lovely guy offered me the chance to perform alongside him as a comedy double act at a competition in London. We spent quite a few days writing and rehearsing and then the evening came.

I hated it. Don't get me wrong, my friend Nick was brilliant, the audience were warm and we even got some laughs, but I didn't enjoy the experience. Over the years my job has brought me into contact with some amazing comedians. I've had the pleasure of working with them, writing the odd joke for them and some have even become dear friends. I have huge admiration and respect for what they do, but it's not for me.

It's why I'm hesitant to wade into the events this week involving Jo Brand. I've never worked with Jo Brand, I've never sat in a production meeting with her or briefed her for a chat show appearance. I've always admired her though. Not least because she was blazing a trail for women in comedy in the UK long before the industry caught up or was willing to make space. Her talent and determination made her a household name at a time when not many women were being given that chance.

But this week she got it wrong.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, Brand was appearing on Radio 4's satirical programme Heresy.

Brand was discussing the trend of throwing milkshakes over far-right political figures (something I wrote about here). She said: "Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?." She clarified: "I'm not gonna do it, it's purely a fantasy, but I think milkshakes are pathetic, I honestly do. Sorry."

The Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, who himself had a milkshake thrown at him while campaigning in Newcastle, Tweeted afterwards: "I am sick to death of overpaid, left-wing, so-called comedians on the BBC who think their view is morally superior. Can you imagine the reaction if I had said the same thing as Jo Brand?" He then went on to Tweet that the comments were an "incitement to violence" and should be investigated by the police (something the Met are currently assessing).

It's worth nothing that Brand has since apologised for the joke which she described as "crass and ill-judged". But others have rushed to defend the comments, citing free speech or quoting things Farage himself has said in the past. Some have even found a certain irony that Farage, such an advocate of free speech and a man that has defended some of his own words or the humour of others in the past, should be so incensed by this joke, from an actual comedian no less.

But in the end, I'm still left with the feeling that Jo Brand simply got it wrong.

The show might be about "challenging established ideas and questioning received wisdom" but thought and wisdom are still required.

Farage might have said some awful things in the past (he definitely has said some awful things in the past) but I'm not sure how they're relevant right now. And I'm absolutely sure that this isn't a race to the bottom where we aim only to stay a few levels above the worst thing said so far.

Farage may be responding in a hypocritical manner but that can't be the point. Because, in the midst of everything I can't help but think he's right on one thing. If he'd have said something similar about comedians, that we would, rightly, have been incensed by it. And that means, we have to be sure that our reaction to words isn't entirely guided by our feelings about who is saying them. That our desire to correct isn't only aimed at those whom we already assume are in the wrong.

And, let me be clear. I'm not someone who thinks comedians or athletes or presenters should stay out of politics. I welcome the interventions of these brilliant and funny men and women who enable us to see things differently, to question our preconceptions and challenge our personal "red lines". People like Matt Forde and Geoff Northcott who day in and day out create humour from different sides of our political landscape. Luisa Omielan who tackles all sorts of subjects in her own brilliant way. Nish Kumar, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Mae Martin, Hannah Gadsby...the list goes on. These voices are much needed and very welcome.

But three years on from the murder of a British MP and in a climate where politicians receive daily threats of violence, where milkshakes are thrown at people we disagree with, police are required to accompany political journalists, and commentators are fearful for their safety we've all got to watch our words, no matter how funny they may or may not be.

Because, if I learnt anything from my one-night-only, never to be repeated foray into the world of stand-up, it's that when it comes to comedy, timing is everything.

Matt White is a Northern Irish TV producer living in Essex and working in London. Follow him on Twitter @mattgwhite