“Visiting athletes enjoying their first taste of an East End curry have just discovered a new purpose for their Olympic Rings!” That was the tweet that started it all. Fans of me and my comedy work will know I am an inescapable presence on the Twitter social networking site and have more than 900,000 followers. It’s not an ego thing. Drip-feeding a few gags every 20 minutes helps me to maintain my customer base and the discipline of being humorous in 140 characters or fewer forces me to develop different kinds of comedy from the multi-award-winning, long-form, idea-driven monologues I am best known for. When you’ve won two British Comedy awards, a Bafta and a Chortle award all in the same year, it’s easy to rest on your laurels and I find that grappling with Twitter’s stylistic limitations helps me keep my wits sharp and my comedy muscle match-fit.The throwaway Olympic Ring gag isn’t among my best work, admittedly, drawing as it does a simple and direct comedic comparison between the Olympic Rings themselves and the perhaps inflamed anuses of visiting Olympians who might perhaps have gone out for a curry in the East End of London, maybe around Brick Lane, and who might then perhaps have ordered a dish that was somewhat hotter than advisable, perhaps leading to soreness later when defecating. I’m not saying this did happen or ever will happen. It probably didn’t and probably never will. What I am saying is that if it did happen, and the information that it had happened were somehow to leak out into the public domain, then there would be more than ample opportunity for we satirists to use the word “ring” in both its Olympic and its rectal sense.
Anyway, the gag, which I made on the Twitter network three days ago, wasn’t intended to be analysed to death. It was just supposed to be a bit of spur-of-the-moment fun, something to keep my fans in the loop and my follower numbers up until the next pithy bon mot, although I noticed David Baddiel had re-tweeted it to Jonathan Ross, who in turn had re-tweeted it to United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who in turn had re-tweeted it to Ricky Gervais, who had then sent it to all his followers, without clear attribution, sadly. But what I could not have anticipated was the Olympic ring of fire that the gag would cause to surround me over the next 48 hours.
I wasn’t aware of the extent to which unauthorised use of key Olympic phrases is being policed during the Games this year. Nearly 300 “Advertisement Enforcement Officers” are on hand to ensure that only the Olympics’ official sponsors get sole commercial use of a list of Olympics-associated phrases so extensive it even includes “summer”, “bronze” and “London”.
Astonishingly, an independent butcher, Dennis Spurr of Weymouth, has already been told to remove a sign showing his bespoke sausages in the shape of Olympic rings. Had I known this, I perhaps wouldn’t have been so surprised when, on Friday at 5am, a team of a dozen Olympic Advertisement Enforcement Officers dressed in matching McDonald’s- and Coca-Cola-branded NBC suits battered down my door and pinned me up against a bookcase while my wife and children looked on in horror.
Once the hoo-hah had died down and I had tweeted my near-million followers to tell them I was OK, we all sat around the conservatory table with a pot of tea. While the Olympic Advertisement Enforcement Officers regretted their heavy- handed entrance, it transpired that the problem was that there was already a precedent for action against an Olympic Rings/anus comparison.
Last week, a cheeky chemist in Truro, Paul Deakley, put up a humorous handmade sign, written in marker pen, saying: “This summer, why not soothe your Olympic Rings with Anusol.” Even though the haemorrhoid ointment manufacturers had not asked Deakley to advertise their product in any manner at all, let alone such a controversial one, it was decided that Deakley’s business, which is not an official Olympic sponsor, was profiting by association with the Olympics. (Obviously I hadn’t known this Deakley guy had already done an Olympic Rings/anus gag, and if I had I wouldn’t have done mine, but it is difficult for professional comics to stay ahead of the pack now that any amateur clown has access to Twitter, online blogs, cardboard and marker pens.) But either way, Deakley’s Olympic Ring joke counts as “ambush marketing” and it’s just the sort of thing the Olympic Advertisement Enforcement Officers are cracking down on.
“But hang on,” I said. “My Olympic Rings tweet was just a joke. It had no commercial application.” “Well, we would argue that it did,” offered the lead Olympic Advertisement Enforcement Officer, Leslie Macintosh, and asked me what I thought the point of my Twitter feed was.
Without thinking it through, I answered: “Well, to flex my comedy muscle and to maintain links with the people who come and see me live and buy all my DVDs.”
“Exactly,” she said. “So in other words your appropriation of the Olympic symbol served the purpose of furthering your own business interests. We’re not monsters. We can’t, and wouldn’t, stop an ordinary member of the public using the phrase ‘Olympic rings’ to another member of the public, even if they were using it as a euphemism for anuses, but the fact that you can generate increased income by using the phrase means you are in contravention of our sponsors’ agreements.”
I packed a bag and said goodbye to my children. Leslie had explained the official questioning process might take some days. “I don’t understand,” said my son through his tears. “Am I allowed to say ‘Olympics’ or not?”
“Yes,” I told him. “I think you are allowed to say ‘Olympics’. But I’m not sure that I’m allowed to quote you saying the word ‘Olympics’ in a piece I might write for money. It’s all very confusing.”
I spent the next 48 hours waiting to be processed, sitting on a stone bench in a damp cell in Newham. By the end of the ordeal I had Olympic Ring problems of my own but realised it wouldn’t be appropriate to tell my million-plus Twitter followers anything about that!
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