Have you heard how weak vegetarians and vegans are? That joke isn’t funny anymore, as mainstream mockery is slowly giving way to admiration. Well, sort of.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” —Oscar Wilde
Targeting vegans is amongst the “low-hanging fruit” of comedy, says comedian Jack Whitehall. The cheapest shot is to say they’re weak — they can barely clap or cheer.
For example, when Camilla Ainsworth, with her premium vegan milk brand MYLKPLUS, didn’t win The Apprentice final back in 2018, comedian Russell Kane pissed off a lot of people with his attitude: “There’s going to be a lot of angry vegans out there. If only they had the strength to type a complaint.”
But this is a tired trope of comedy, and reflective of a mainstream attitude towards vegetarians and vegans, wilfully and unimaginatively mocking people based on a myth.
Kane is largely unapologetic in attacking, for example, certain types of vegan social media posts, which can be annoying for other reasons other than merely someone declaring ”I’m vegan!”. Of course there are annoying vegans, posing as influencers on social media, constantly blogging and bragging, but there are so many different types of vegans, they just don’t necessarily make for good comedy targets.
Whitehall, in a segment of his recent standup show I’m Only Joking, kicks things off by launching into an exasperated plea: “We have got enough milks now!”
He rather hilariously has a go at how many plant-based milk choices there now are, shouting; “Would everyone stop milking shit?” He describes trying to order a white coffee in Notting Hill, where the barista asked: “Okay sir, what kind of milk would you like? We’ve got coconut milk, we’ve got almond milk, we’ve got hazelnut milk, we’ve got cashew nut milk, we’ve got macadamia milk. We’ve got oat milk, rice milk, hemp milk, soya milk; you can have it from a bean, a pulse, a grain, from an oat, from a leaf, from a seed, from a tree!”
His answer? “I’d like it from a nipple please.” Whereas vegans would celebrate this as a great range of choice for their flat whites, Whitehall, like so many people, adults and babies alike, wants it from a nipple: “I don’t care what type of nipple, but preferably a cow’s.”
Hearing that, he jokes, made the barista look at him as if he’d almost requested it from one of hers. He may not be after milk from her, but he is a 30-something looking to drink some form of breast milk, the human form of which he was presumably weaned off decades ago.
It’s baffling when people, as adults, often get squeamish or feel weird, even repulsed, about drinking a woman’s breast milk, say, accidentally when going through the fridge, or when it’s controversial to make ice cream from breast milk — but drinking a cow’s breast milk isn’t weird?
Whitehall goes on to say he’s “not the weirdo”, the real weirdos being in the back room “milking cashews”. He’s a comedian, after all, and this is a clever and, I think, funny routine. “May I remind you that we currently do not have a cure for cancer, and there are 12 readily available milk substitutes on the market, which I would argue is 11 more than we need?”
Here is a comedic version of an aggressive rhetoric, a stance a lot of non-vegans take, in some ways similar to Kane’s: on the offensive, feeling challenged, looking to trivialise the vegan message by conflating it with a serious issue — in this instance, looking for the cure for cancer.
Vegan comedian Romesh Ranganathan put it this way in a short BBC video: “It’s sort of a sense of guilt, when you see a vegan. That vegan is a reflective surface showing you your own inadequacies and you can’t handle it.
“It needs to get recognised — veganism is the future, and if you want to join the clan, it’s not like you know everybody wants to be an Avenger, but you can’t be an Avenger. Okay? You need to have a special power. The point is that vegans are like Avengers — they’re gonna save the world. Except you can join. Why would you hate that?”
Whitehall goes on to objectify an almond: “Milk must come from a tit! Last time I checked the almond? Pretty flat-chested — you are drinking nut juice!”
He then asks if there are any dairy drinkers in the house. There’s a big cheer. “You do realise we are the smokers of 2020.” Now, Whitehall is on the way to being a little kinder towards the nut juice drinkers, imagining a future where dairy drinkers may have to go outside with the smokers to drink their “dirty titty milk”.
But he adds: “There’ll be warnings like on cigarette packets — you’ll pick up a carton of milk and it’ll say ‘may cause healthy bones and teeth’.” Do dairy products actually strengthen bones? Not conclusively, as found by a number of studies examined in this BBC article.
“But of course we should all be going vegan,” Whitehall admits, but he also makes digs at annoying types of vegans — there are plenty of annoying ones, whose existence is easy pickings for the savvy quick-witted comedian. His flatmate Hugo identifies as “plant-positive”, saying: “I’ll live 10 years longer than you!”
To which Whitehall mumbles: “Not if you keep using “plant-positive” around me, you won’t. I’ll smother you in your sleep. Actually, I won’t need to smother you, Hugo — I’ll just place the cushion on your face. You’re a vegan — you’ll be too weak to lift it off.”
But he apologises: “That was vegan-bashing. There is no denying what you’re doing is good for your health, good for the planet.” However, like the points Ranganathan made, and in a similar vein to Kane’s ranting videos, Whitehall reflects on the fact that it’s human nature “to take a pop at anyone who exercises self-control”.
“Giving up smoking, doing a marathon, going vegan. Your mouth goes: ‘Good for you!’ Your head goes: ‘Cunt!'”
This attitude is reminiscent of parents delivering fast-food to their children, in defiance of Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school dinners. In other words, that’s cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
Of course people do not like being told what to do, and even if you don’t say anything, you may be seen as a walking reminder of another path to follow. Vegans are largely not humourless, not self-righteous, and not weak. We can’t tell people what to do, but we can invite them to join us.