Can a Joke Truly Be Funny if It Is Not Offensive?

In Patrick Rothfuss’ much, much better second book The Wise Man’s Fear, his protagonist is drugged in such a way that all of his social inhibitions and groundings are entirely lifted; any and every action becomes suddenly permissible and attractive, no matter how potentially embarrassing or offensive. Aside from being a means for Rothfuss to rather crudely re-emphasize just how physically attractive one of the many, many, many beautiful women who seem to flock to Kvothe truly is (the repeated theme is “I would give anything to see you naked for five minutes”; not something a reader normally wants to admit to reading), it results in a rather interesting tangent: Kvothe loses a sense of what is humorous, because the truly funny jokes straddle the border between what is socially permissible and what is not.

I wonder if that is actually true. I rather suspect it is, knowing what I find continually funny and what the rest of the populace seems to find equally funny. The truly groundbreaking and popular shows and comedians and movies of my personal history bear this out: they have all pushed the envelope of what is considered proper and polite. Monty Python (British men crossdressing as British housewives), the Simpsons (remember, there was once a considerable uproar over exactly how much time Homer spent choking Bart in each episode), South Park (Kenny dying horrifically each episode and the truly filthy mouths of 3rd graders is astonishingly tame compared to what they are doing now), Dave Chappelle (and his forebears: Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. I mean, the very first episode of the Chappelle Show featured a blind, black, white supremacist), Arrested Development (one of the smartest shows I’ve seen, but also one of the “wrongest” ethically; I still cringe at the thought of Michael dating not only a supposedly blind woman but then a supposedly mentally challenged one, and making a mess of both), even things like The Royal Tenenbaums (which is funny because Royal is a complete ass), and the Daily Show (which makes light of absolutely heartrending and serious things: Jon Stewart has said that they make each show with a deep sense of outrage and hurt; they laugh so as not to cry).

What I apparently find funny are things that, if I was truly a good person, I should not laugh at. From another perspective, it’s NOT funny when someone like Glenn Beck marginalizes the gay community and John Oliver points out the absurdity. It’s NOT funny to see Indiana Jones bent over and forcefully raped by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It’s NOT funny to have an extended conversation about whether a parrot is actually dead or not. To be morally good is to find these things morally repugnant. And yet even as I type out mere summaries, I am still chuckling just over the memory of them. The fact that they make me think about what is actually ethical and what is not, that you can take something on the border and push it so far past the realm of human decency that it becomes truly macabre and thereby absurd, that is why these shows and stories and people are brilliant.

In a sense I truly believe that either everything is “in bounds” and should be available for mockery and parody, or nothing should be. If I feel free to deride exactly how cruelly insensitive and self-righteous and stupidly blind conservative talk radio and television punditry can be, I really cannot feel offended when it does the same to its liberal counterparts. Why cannot we make fun of Islam if we freely acknowledge the right to make fun of Christianity and Judaism? What happens when we say things are out of bounds? On the other hand, perhaps the more firm the boundaries are, the funnier things will get when someone shockingly crosses them.

And yet I am conflicted, because I DO want to respect someone else’s personal boundaries, and I DO feel guilty for laughing at things that cause others hurt. This was crystallized in a short-lived but virulent internet debate a month or two ago. I’m not going to go into the entire thing, because too many people who were far, far too emotionally involved have already done so, but suffice it to say that Penny Arcade, an online webcomic I have followed for nearly a decade now, made one of their habitual casual uses of rape as a joke in one of their strips. Some rape survivors took offense, noting that the mention of the word acted as a PTSD trigger for them, and requested that PA refrain from doing so again in the future, or at least apologize. PA refused, and the entire thing exploded out of control, as such things on the internet often do. I fell on the side of the makers of PA, but I feel guilty for doing so. If I were a truly good person, wouldn’t I do more than merely recognize the validity of the opposition’s perspective, and not only in this particular instance but in my own personal experiences as well? Isn’t refraining from supporting institutions that make light of rape but also refraining from referring lightly to rape myself the morally right thing to do? I am nearly positive that it is, or should be. Yet there is also a part of me that wants to scream that while such words have power, it is only a power that we choose to give to them, and god damn it, I still think the comic was funny.

I guess that makes me a bad person, but at least I’ll have a lot of things to laugh at in Hell.

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One Response to Can a Joke Truly Be Funny if It Is Not Offensive?

  1. UT says:

    I’ve had a similar thought. My contention that in every form of humor, even self-deprecating, some one is being hurt, mocked, made to look a fool, or embarrassed in some way. When I’ve thought about this, I can’t think of a joke or type of humor that doesn’t fit this description. If this premise is correct, as you suggest, this is quite an interesting paradox about humor.

    Frank DeLima, a “Portagee” comedian in Hawaii who is famous for his ethnic humor, has an interesting take on the topic. He thinks we *should* engage in ethnic humor. He argues that we should revel in and enjoy our differences, that those differences are interesting, what make us who we are, and are something we can all learn and benefit from. I’ll add the caveat that of course he’s not talking about mean-spirited humor. Now what constitutes “mean-spirited” is of course, an incredibly difficult thing to define (unless you by Justice Stewart’s contention that “we know it when we see it”), as well as a very slippery slope.

    If all this is correct, what does this say about the human psyche? That we need to be hurtful and destructive? That somehow being so is helpful to us (I think we can all agree that humor is mostly a good thing)? Shrinks (analysts) say that humor is a psychological defense mechanism, and a constructive one at that (i.e. a healthy way to deal with negative emotions/inner conflict)…

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