‘Norbert’s Nails’, revisited

It seems to me that the source of the outrage is not the concept of Jesus actually eating a pizza but the fact that there is no longer any legal protection against our inherent hypocrisy being dragged out into the open for all to see

All that remains is for someone to actually make those Norbert Nails adverts and broadcast them on national TV
All that remains is for someone to actually make those Norbert Nails adverts and broadcast them on national TV

The whole ‘Last Supper’ brouhaha last week reminded me of a joke that was doing the rounds when I was at school. It usually started with something like: ‘Have you heard the one about Norbert’s Nails?’ (Note: the name might have been different – bear in mind I last heard this joke 30 years ago – but it definitely started with an ‘N’). 

Anyway: let’s agree to call him Norbert. And his line of business was the manufacture and sale of nails. (As in, things you hammer into walls to hang pictures on, etc.) Let us also assume that, for whatever reason, ‘Norbert’s Nails’ was going through a slump at the time. People just weren’t buying nails anymore... or at least, not from Norbert’s.

Frantic, our hero picks up the phone and calls up the leading advertising agency of the day, with a view to commissioning a TV commercial. His instructions to the agent are to ‘make Norbert’s Nails a household name’. Not being the imaginative type, he leaves the details entirely in the hands of the advertisers. 

“Don’t worry,” comes the reply. “When people see your advert, they will think of nothing but Norbert’s Nails from now till Kingdom Come!”

On the day when this ad was finally due to appear, Norbert settles down in an armchair in front of the TV with a stiff drink, and waits. The screen goes blank. Norbert leans forward in anticipation. A picture slowly materialises on the screen. At first, there is nothing but mist and vapours; but as they clear, we see the image of Jesus Christ dying on the cross. 

Norbert slumps back in his armchair, assuming it was some kind of unrelated ad for the local Passion Play. Then the camera zooms in on Jesus’ hands and feet, one by one. An advertising slogan appears at the bottom of the screen:

‘For a job well done, make sure you use Norbert’s Nails!’

The screen is splattered as Norbert chokes violently in mid-sip. After an apoplectic fit of rage in which he demolishes half his own living room, he picks up the phone again and screams at the advertising agent for half an hour.

“I’m sorry the advert wasn’t to your satisfaction, sir... but don’t worry, the next one will set everything right!”

Norbert is temporarily mollified, and once again the time comes when he sits in his armchair to await the second ad.

It starts exactly the same way. But this time, when the mist clears, all you see is an empty cross. The camera then pans away, and we see Jesus in the distance, legging it towards the horizon at full tilt... with an army of Roman legionnaires in hot pursuit.

The slogan then appears at the bottom of the screen: “See what happens when you don’t use Norbert’s Nails?”

Ok, I’ll concede that it might not be the last word in sophisticated humour – though I can assure you it was a heck of a lot smarter than the other (mostly scatological) jokes we shared on the playground.  

But personally, I found it hilarious at the time... and to be honest (unlike any of those other jokes), it still brings a smile to my face today. I can’t put my finger on exactly why: part of it, I suspect, is that the irreverence is so outrageous that you can’t possibly take it seriously.  And besides: even from the point of view of the devout Christian (if you minus the ‘devout’ part that included me, at the time) the butt of the joke isn’t really Jesus at all... it is actually Norbert, and all he represents. 

At a stretch you could even interpret it as a subtle dig at the advertising profession in general: how it shamelessly appropriates the most cherished cultural icons for purely commercial ends, etc.

So already, you can see a certain relevance to last week’s billboard bust-up. But there was another reason that joke came forcefully to mind. You will surely have noted I took pains to stress that it came from my schooldays, back in the early 1980s. This is because Malta has changed a tiny bit since those days. And the joke comes close to illustrating precisely where and how. 

At more or less the same time, there was the ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ controversy. Martin Scorsese’s movie never made it to Maltese cinemas, as I recall; nor, for that matter, did Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ some years before. 

Later, there would be the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ issue: a foreign production of that Webster play was censored, to remove a scene where an actress kicked a crucifix across the stage.

Yet at the same time, as schoolchildren we told some of the most irreverent jokes imaginable. And we weren’t the only ones, either. There was (and still is) a streak of irreverence running right through the fabric of Maltese society. I heard similar – sometimes much worse – jokes told by adults, too. I can repeat one in full, because it’s pretty short. St Joseph and St Peter go on a hunting outing in Heaven:

St Peter: Don’t shoot that dove, it’s the Holy Spirit!

St Joseph: You mean the one who got my wife pregnant?! [BANG!]

(Note: the punch-line is somewhat punchier in the original Maltese version)

Then, of course, there is the small matter of Maltese blasphemy, which we have lovingly transformed into almost an art-form in its own right.

None of this is coincidental. I suppose it is part of an inevitable reaction: on the one hand, you had the sheer enormity of the reverence we usually reserve for religious icons – God, Jesus, our Lady, etc... which, I need hardly add, was felt much more keenly in the 1980s than today. On the other, there was the active and peremptory suppression of all things deemed ‘immoral’, precisely by failing to observe the ritual sanctity associated with those icons.

It’s a fatal combination: whenever irreverence is repressed, it always tends to come out as a form of counter-culture. And because the things we were all meant to revere had been placed on such high pedestals for so long, this counter-culture would inevitably take even more perverse pleasure in knocking them off... even if figuratively, and (as with most examples of ‘dagha’) almost unintentionally.

Yet officially, all the bans and taboos remained firmly in place. It was illegal to swear and ‘vilify religion’; irreverent movies and plays were banned or censored; and of course, people still swore like devils at every opportunity, and continued poking fun at Jesus, Mary and the whole hierarchy of Catholic angels and saints... so long as it was done in private, and certain limits were not crossed.

Today? Not quite the same thing. That ‘Last Supper Billboard’, for instance – like the Norbert Nails ad – would never have seen the light of day up until only a few years ago. But it was exactly the sort of thing we’d have joked about while no one else was listening. Jesus eating a pizza or a burger at the Last Supper? It would actually have been considered fairly harmless, compared to some of the others.

But to see it ‘in the flesh’, as it were... ooh, that would have really created something in the 1980s.  Fire and brimstone all the way...

Yet look how curiously the pendulum has swung the other way. There are no more legal impediments to that kind of advertising. The authorities will no longer come down on you like a tonne of bricks for using the image of Jesus Christ to sell anything from burgers and pizzas, to mobile phones, to life insurance, etc. Yet our tolerance for such matters has evidently not increased since the removal of those laws. If anything, some people are even more outraged by that billboard today, than they would have been by any verbal equivalent when the ‘real thing’ was actually illegal.

It seems to me, then, that the source of the outrage is not the concept of Jesus actually eating a pizza – which (let’s face it) is at best just plain silly – but the fact that there is no longer any legal protection against our inherent hypocrisy being dragged out into the open for all to see. We can no longer disguise our irreverence by over-doing our religiosity. And this also means that the irreverent will only become more irreverent, and the offended more offended. It has to be that way, for the two sides can only ever feed off each other, till Kingdom Come.

All that remains is for someone to actually make those Norbert Nails adverts and broadcast them on national TV. Boy, oh, boy, I wouldn’t want to miss the fireworks display...

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