Tom Hodgkinson on why mocking your friends and family is nothing to be scoffed at
I sometimes think that “taking the piss” might be just as effective as magic mushrooms or therapy at reducing the tyranny of the ego. It’s something human beings do quite naturally to each other. David Graeber, in his brilliant book Debt, tells a story about a particular tribe. The young men are sent out hunting. They come back with their fantastic spoils and instead of applauding them, everyone says stuff like, “Expect me to eat that?” or, “I don’t call that a lion, it’s a shrew.”
If the ego is over-stroked, you can create a monster, and that is what clearly happens to certain celebs and CEOs and spiritual visionaries. The piss-takers in their lives vanish into the distance and are replaced by the flatterers with terrible results. In the Divine Comedy, Dante has the flatterers flailing around in merda – or shit.
I grew up in a family where we constantly took the piss out of each other. And it goes on. My friends take the piss out of me and so do Victoria and my three children. My brother and I still take the piss out of each other and we both take the piss out of our septuagenarian parents to stop them getting too big-headed, and they still take the piss out of us. But we’re also generally positive about each other’s projects.
My rich friend Tony Bland is continually taking the piss out of me for owning a crappy old bicycle. But he is very good at being teased himself about being a greedy ruthless capitalist. If it only goes one way it can be a bit like bullying. But if the piss-taker allows themselves to be mercilessly mocked, then it’s equal.
There’s also taking the piss out of yourself, which is actually something Elton John does really well in his biography. He just never seems to take himself too seriously and that self-awareness has probably kept him relatively sane. Morrissey, by contrast, wrote an autobiography that seemed entirely lacking in humour and was essentially a long essay arguing how great he was. It was pretty dull. “Don’t believe the hype,” as Public Enemy wisely counselled.
Of course, teasing and taking the piss are also signs of affection: they mean that we like the person well enough to laugh at them without fear of offence. You wouldn’t take the piss out of someone you didn’t know pretty well and if you did, that could be simple cruelty, not affectionate teasing. Taking the piss should not veer into sneering territory. It’s a big subject. Someone should write a book called The Art of Taking the Piss.