Is there a more cutting pair of words in the English language?
On the surface, to level the term at someone is to not only insult them, but to trash the genetic lineage that brought them into this world. It insults your family and reduces the most significant relationship many will have, from inception through to adulthood, to puerile gags about obesity and unpleasant sexual acts. But deep down, there's nothing that bad about a "your mum" joke. After all, it is just a joke. The gags are too absurd and predictable to ever really hurt someone. Right?
To find out if these maternal jibes have anything to do with deeper emotional baggage, I contacted Ivan Ward, Head of Learning at the Freud Museum in London – Freud, of course, being a big name in the realm of "boys and their mums". He pointed out that: "The ritualised nature that these insults take actually diffuses tension, so the form of the joke takes away the aggressive intent."
I guess when some joker claims your mum's displaced an entire ocean by wading in up to her knees, it's a) too stupid to offend, and b) too obvious to provoke any reaction bar a chuckle. Look at some examples of your-mum-based pisstakery from the past year or so and it would appear Ivan is right.
At last year's Comic-Con, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston responded to a fan's question about the show's location – Albuquerque, New Mexico – by claiming the only fun he had there was thanks to visits to said fan's mother. Everyone, including the kid who asked the question, laughed. Prior to that, the satirical website ClickHole ran an article titled "I Put On a Fat Suit to Understand What It's Like to Be Your Mom." Everyone laughed.
That said, "your mum" jokes haven't always found a receptive audience – which isn't surprising, considering slights against the mother can be traced as far back as the Old Testament. Even Shakespeare employed maternal epithets, and they continued throughout history, appearing in everything from Yo! MTV Raps to The Inbetweeners. They tend to go wrong, it would appear, when they're totally stripped of all comedic context. According to Ivan, "When the form of the joke isn't enough to diffuse the situation, somebody can jump into another area of reality and take it seriously – take it that you really are insulting his mother."
He reminds me of Zinedine Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final, after the Italian defender allegedly insulted his mother, and explains this violence in truly Freudian terms: "Boys feel they have to protect their mothers from their fathers. This Oedipal dynamic is transposed into the adult situation when you're worried about your mother's reputation." I'm sure we can all picture someone reacting poorly to a gag about his mum. Possibly because he wants to fuck her, possibly not.
Either way, adverse reactions aren't nearly as common as the jokes themselves. Now, thanks to the internet, its "tag a mate" Facebook posts and a noticeable increase in viral news stories about sexual misadventure, "your mum" is seemingly more visible than ever. So what's behind the enduring appeal to so many people? Do they – and I – all have a terrible sense of humour, or is there actually something inherently and objectively funny about "your mum"jokes? I got in touch with author Lucy Greeves, who co-wrote an entire book about jokes with Jimmy Carr, to try to understand the history of ripping on your mum.
"Do you know about the Dozens?"
I do not.
"It's one of the important origins of 'your mum' jokes. It's a kind of insult game that was and still is a big part of African-American culture. It's a semi-formalised way for young men to let off steam. You trade insults, almost like a rap battle, and a lot of the jokes are 'your momma' jokes."
Dozens were clearly more popular in a pre-internet age. Footage of any decent exchanges is hard to come by, but I did fly down a solid YouTube wormhole after searching for the term. Most of the clips are skits from 90s sketch powerhouse In Living Color, although there's a real gem from Yo! MTV Raps, involving Flava Flav and Doctor Dre "snapping" at each other in glorious 240p.
Why, I asked Lucy, is the mother always the target?
"There are various theories about why it's a big thing in African-American communities, and one of the theories is that they are strongly matriarchal communities. Insulting someone's mother is the worst thing you can do."
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So if it's "the worst", why don't people kick off more? Like Ivan, Lucy believes your mum jokes rarely hurt feelings because they are so ritualised. As long as they are creative and told in the right context, they can escalate to a place that erases any feelings of intent. "If I was to say to you, 'Your mother's really fat,' then that's just rude. But if I were to say, 'Your mother's so fat she's got her own zip code,' it's absurd and it's exaggerated and you know it's a joke."
One criticism of "your mum" jokes is that this brand of humour is totally sexist. To my discredit, I've never really considered it when I'm taking the piss out of a friend via his mother – it all seems too impersonal. When I asked Ivan about it, he alluded to that same pointed, saying the joke is "directed at the other protagonist in the conflict", not the mother herself. I asked Lucy what she thought.
"I think the sexism comes because women don't make 'your daddy' jokes; it's a one way street, and it's kind of casually treating these mothers as joke fodder," she said. "So you could definitely make an argument for it being sexist. But the mother isn't present as an individual – the mother's only present as a kind of symbol. So whether that makes it more or less sexist, I don't know."
Before we said our goodbyes, Lucy had a suggestion: "You should ask a female comedian for her take." After few lines of communication between friends of friends and a cavalier approach to CC'd emails, I set up a call with Lolly Adefope, a (female, duh) comedian who made her debut at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 and, more recently, appeared on the lineup at this year's Latitude festival. I mention the whole "it doesn't actually target the mum" theory to Lolly.
"You can still be sexist even though you're not necessarily talking about women," she said. "The intrinsic nature of ignoring the woman herself, it's a bit sexist, I guess. Like, 'It's not even about the woman – the woman can shut up, it's not about her; it's about me and this other guy.'"
Interestingly, Lolly makes a lot of 'your mum' jokes herself. Not during her show, but on Twitter. Far from depicting a faceless mother figure with no basis in reality, they create a character most of us recognise:
We all know this mum. A sort of hapless uber-basic, holding her smartphone in her left hand as her right index finger scrolls through a Pinterest account titled "Sassy Macaroons". Given its grounding in real life, this brand of mum joke works just as well with "your dad". "Do you know Limmy?" Lolly asks. "He has that whole thing with 'yer da'. It's interesting, because the 'yer da' stuff is kind of more specific, whereas with 'your mum' the mum is kind of irrelevant."
Again, we all know this guy. A fist-pounding Brexiteer who signed the petition to ban Kanye and clicks on Mail Online links containing the phrase "all grown up".
"Your mum and yer da jokes 'volume two' are a lot more interesting," says Lolly. "They're funnier because, before, those jokes were just there to be stupid, and now, in the context of social media, they offer a bit more of a social commentary."
While the old jokes deal in the absurd, this new brand of mum (and dad) mocking picks at the worst excesses of being painfully ordinary. Given how nuanced these new gags are compared to the old, Lolly doesn't think she'd be offended by a male stand up telling a "your mum" joke. "I'd think, 'Why are you a comedian if that's the kind of joke you're gonna make?' Not because it's sexist, but because it's just not very funny. It's boring."
Lucy explained that "jokes that take hold are where there are those swampy areas of anxiety around something." Whether you believe Freud or not, we'll never not feel something about our mothers, so the joke will always remain. It may change in form, but it will still be there. As Lolly reiterated on our phone call, "It's a joke that will always exist, and the times that we're in will affect the meaning behind it."
After re-reading this before sending it off to my editor, it couldn't help but feel it seems slightly outrageous to spend so much time on your mum (ayooooo). But then again, if we're not defined by the way we communicate when we're at our most relaxed – with our friends, our family, talking shit, being utterly normal – then how are we? The jokes might not have the greatest linguistic value, or be fully #woke, but a lot of comedy isn't. Plus, I'm sure we can all remember a "your mum" joke that reminds us of a memory we can look back on with a certain fondness. In these troubled times, I think that's pretty important.
And so does your mum. She told me last night.
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