The Dissected Frog: or, Man walks into a bar, offends everyone…

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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184 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    My conservative friends sometimes respond to my claim that there is no such thing as conservative comedy with a joke of their own:

    Q: how many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
    A: hey, that’s not funny!

    And there’s a whole lot of meta behind why that is, indeed, funny — and why I think it proves my point about conservative humor! demonstrating the same process at work on the other side of the aisle.

    In this case, I still don’t see why something can’t be funny and sad at the same time. In the other thread, I referred to Bengini films. You mentioned the first Arthur. There’s all sorts of other examples: M*A*S*H comes immediately to mind; One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Bull Durham… People are genuinely in mourning at a wake, yet they tell jokes about the deceased, and laugh even as they console one another and cry out their grief.

    We can laugh at the astonishing inappropriateness of nonsensical pleadings even while we feel sorry for the likely mentally troubled author. I do wonder, still, how she might be steered to determining if she needs help. But I don’t apologize for venting frustration about dealing with similar litigants in similar situations; nor about suggesting to prospective lawyers that they might need to consider how much of an appetite they might have for that sort of thing before getting into the profession.

    All of which is to say — laughter is not necessarily mockery; humor, compassion, sorrow, frustration, anger, and even hope all come together into a cocktail concocted in response to challenging circumstances, a cocktail called “being human.”Report

    • Burt,

      Despite my comments at your OP, I do agree with this comment here.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Burt Likko says:

      A person who checks their sense of humor against their politics & other assorted ideology must live in a depressing place. Something is funny, or it isn’t (& yes, for jokes, who is delivering it matters somewhat). Honestly, I stop taking seriously people who can not find humor in a joke told at their ideologies expense. I mean, you don’t have to laugh at the cheap shots, but one should be willing to laugh at the artfully tweaked absurdities, at the very least.

      Perhaps this is why we tend to sort heavily, so we don’t forget to turn on the ideology filter & commit the faux pas of laughing when one shouldn’t.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Here’s the thing though.

        A sexist joke isn’t told at the expense of my ideology. It’s told at the expense of women. Mutatis mutandis racist jokes, homophobic jokes, etc.

        I’m not sitting there with a checklist to see if a joke is appropriately polite and non-offensive. But the whole point of a joke is to evoke a humorous reaction from an audience–and if you tell a joke that demeans women, you won’t evoke a reaction of humor from me–you’ll evoke anger or melancholy. It’s not a failure of politics, it’s a failure of comedy.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        The issue is not that people say “that’s not funny”. The issue is that people say “you are morally inferior for having made that joke whether anyone thought it was funny or not”.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Really? Your sense of humor is so finely tuned that you never find sexist/racists/etc jokes funny? Never crack a grin, nary a chuckle or a guffaw? Can’t slip a subtle one past you? You know, the kind that you laugh at out of impulse, but after a moments reflection, you realize it was pretty damned *-ist after all?

        Wow, that is some epic level … something, right there.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist , of course not. I’ve laughed at all sorts of jokes that are racist, sexist, etc. I’m sorry that you interpreted my comment that way.

        My point isn’t that those jokes can never by funny. My point is that many of them aren’t funny. Either because they require some kind of buy-in belief that I don’t have (for example, if the premise of a joke requires me to believe that black people are stupid to find it funny, I won’t find it funny), or because it simply calls up other connotations that spoil the joke.

        In a recent episode of Doctor Who featuring Robin Hood, there was a scene with a beheading that was removed in light of the recent ISIS beheadings of Journalists. They didn’t do it because there’s something morally wrong about depicting a beheading, or even because there’s something morally wrong about depicting a beheading when terrorists are engaging in beheading campaigns. They did it because they don’t want people to be reminded of distressing current events in the middle of a Doctor Who episode–if their audience draws that connection, it kills the purpose of the scene.

        A lot of jokes, particularly sexist jokes, are like that for me. When someone tells a certain style of joke about women, I’m reminded of sexism in a way that depresses me and pulls me out of the realm of the joke, such that I’m not in the right mood to laugh at it.

        I’m not saying that racist or sexist jokes can never be funny. I’m saying that when people say “That’s not funny”, they’re not engaging in some politically correct humor-suppressing conspiracy–they actually don’t find it funny.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Some things just cry out to be laughed at, to be pilloried, to be hoisted on their own petard.
        And some days we just laugh through the tears.

        … that’s my feelings on holocaust jokes — when they’re funny.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Exactly, and that is pretty much the whole point of the OP.

        There are some jokes that are just not funny, for a variety of reasons. Some because of the need for an underlining buy-in assumption (the tool of the oppressor, as Lee expressed down thread) that the listener doesn’t have; some because the listener is missing critical context (I expect many of my Engineering, or Navy, jokes would fall flat around here, because I would have to explain the joke); some because the joke teller is Nemo’s Dad (although to be fair, Albert Brooks ad libbed the whole bad joke bit & made it awesome, but you get my point). Finally, some jokes are well done, and can be downright horribly *-ist, but still trigger that sense of humor before your rational brain can glom onto the offensiveness of it. The question is, once you grok the offensiveness, do you keep laughing because it was a really good effing joke, or do you shut down because the offensiveness runs right up against some ideology you have?

        Humor often has an offensive component to it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I have a friend from college who I watched slide into the pattern of not finding humor in things. During school, she was a very happy person, laughing at everything. Now, I have to watch my jokes around her, because if they aren’t the right ones, I get a stern look or talking to.

      She’s not a lot of fun anymore.Report

  2. A few, somewhat disjointed thoughts:

    1. I was one of those who took Burt to task, and on some level, I just have to admit that I didn’t find it funny and therefore was willing to go after the low-hanging fruit and tsk-tsk’ing to him, “shame, shame, shame.” In the case of Burt’s OP, there seemed to be something unfunny that was/is hard to put my finger on. Perhaps because it’s regarding a real person? Perhaps because while I don’t know Burt’s situation personally, the tone of that OP seemed to evoke for me the spectacle of a healthy person making fun of an unhealthy one, in the similar way that a person with all four limbs might make fun of a person who’s undergone an amputation. But also, Burt is one of my favorite authors, and even though I was kind of harsh on him, he remains so.

    2. I do find hilarious and entertaining some humor that others find distasteful and offensive. “Dumb and Dumber” hilarious, with some exceptions (I’m not big on the bathroom humor aspect). But the exceptions are the offensive bits. For some reason that works for me. Same thing for Family Guy (and ditto about the bathroom humor). And I’ll admit, I laughed, and would probably laugh again, at the Family Guy joke where Jody Foster admits to John Hinckley Jr. that she was wrong about liking women and really does love him. There’s a lot that’s wrong with that joke–and part of it is that it’s about Mr. Hinckley’s mental illness–but I found/find it funny.

    3. I’ve made and still make jokes about certain ethnic groups. Even though those particular groups are white and non-Jewish, I do feel pretty guilty and somewhat ashamed about them…at the very least, I feel uneasy. I don’t, however, usually make fun of others’ mental illness. In part, that’s because I know a couple people deeply affected by schizophrenia.

    4. I think it’s true that we can’t fully control what we find funny. I think it’s also true that we can’t fully control what we find offensive. There’s a frequent commenter here who makes jokes that *could* be interpreted as rape jokes, and I’ve called him out on it once. (I’ve also on another occasion said something that he thought was accusing him of being pro-rape, although that wasn’t the message I had intended at the time.)

    5. Sometimes a rebuke, properly offered and from the right person, might a be good thing. I’ve once made a joke here quite a while ago that I’m quite ashamed of now. One reason I am ashamed is because after I had said what I said, you wrote “what a bizarre thread this is.” It probably wasn’t in direct response to my comment–and it wasn’t nested as a response to my comment–but it was made after I did my own comment, and it prompted me to reconsider what I had said.Report

    • I should complete my #4 (not that I haven’t written enough already). I meant to follow up with this: there’s a “rape joke” in “Dumb and Dumber” that I found funny. I think it’s kind of a “meta joke,” but of course, most people who cop to finding such jokes funny probably claim they’re really laughing at the “meta” and not the offensive part.Report

    • Let’s think about that amputee for a second. Do you think it’s possible for a person with all four limbs to laugh at a joke involving an amputee? I just met a man today who lost half of his leg below his knee. While talking with him, he let me know it was okay to discuss by making a joke about the leg: specifically about how it can be difficult for him to get through airport security. That could have been framed in a serious tone, but he chose to frame it as a joke. I asked him if it was possible to get a bottle of liquor inside part of the limb to enjoy a free in-flight cocktail, and he thought that was pretty funny too, or at least he laughed with what seemed to be genuine good humor. (No, that part of the limb is solid, it turns out.) I sure didn’t feel like I crossed any lines. Maybe my new friend is unusually easy-going.Report

      • I don’t think you crossed any lines.

        I was actually thinking of an acquaintance of mine, who is able bodied, and he once made a limping motion to make fun of people without a leg, although he wasn’t making fun of a particular person. That case, in my opinion, crossed the line.

        Context matters. I have a friend, actually the guy who presided at my and my spouse’s wedding, and he could say stuff that on its face would seem offensive. And I’ve known some people who do take offense. But as a general rule, he can say stuff and just not be offensive. Some people can’t.

        If the person you describe was a complete stranger, and you went up to him and did the in-flight cocktail joke. It might or might not have been offensive.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “If the person you describe was a complete stranger, and you went up to him and did the in-flight cocktail joke. It might or might not have been offensive.”

        This is kind of like the “Trust” thing that Doctor Jay brings up in a comment further down. You can talk utter shit to your friend and you both know that he means it as good-natured banter. If a total stranger comes up and says something horrible, you don’t know whether it’s good-hearted teasing or a vicious attempt to attack you psychologically.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        yeah, that’s part of my response to the CK bit about Palin above. I didn’t hear his delivery, so i don’t know how well it worked. Read in plain text, it’s freaking offensive. But that’s why comedians hone their acts. and I hear Louie’s a good guy, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.Report

      • Mo in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @gabriel-conroy There’s definitely a “how much do you think the person is serious” factor in whether people can get away with telling a joke. When I was in high school, I would tell some tasteless/moderately offensive joke and people would laugh. At another date, another guy would tell a similar joke and be told off. When he asked why I could tell the exact same joke and get away with it, the response was, “Because we know Mo is joking, we think you might be kinda serious.”

        I think part of situational humor for offensive jokes comes from the calculus of, “Is this person actually joking or are they using a ‘joke’ as a cover to say something offensive that they believe?”Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    Having never seen either Arthurs, I can’t comment there but there are certainly jokes in movies from the early 80s which would not fly today. My primary example of this is Airplane. There are multiple jokes which would get in trouble today but the one I always think of is when the two nine-year old white kids are talking and it is clear that the boy is hitting on the girl. He offers her coffee and she accepts. He then asks if she wants milk and sugar. Her response is “No thanks. I like my coffee black like my men.”

    There are so many ways that this joke would not fly today. Fly might or might not be an intentional word choice.

    On the other hand, I do think TV (including network TV) has edgier and smart comedy than would have been allowed by the networks in the early 1980s. From the Files of Police Squad was famously cancelled because it required the audience to pay “too much attention.” Can you even imagine HBO in the 1980s running a show like South Park? Or even Futurama? How about Family Guy which airs on network TV?

    There are also the careers of people like Sarah Silverman and Larry David who base comedy on making the audience be uncomfortable in many ways. Another young Jewish comedian has a song where she is playing a Hebrew school teacher that is theoretically going to allow a young pupil to touch her breasts. I think the song is called “You can touch my boobies” or something like that. The opening is really funny because it is an inverse of the Hot for Teacher video with a middle-school boy fantasizing about his overly modestly dressed junior high school kids.

    Comedy is hard. Talking about what is and is not funny is even harder because while almost everyone can probably agree on the concept of “punch up, don’t punch down.” We will always have very strong debates about who is up and who is down and these will always be tied up with our never ending culture war and political divide. I am not impressed by P.J. O’Rourke’s sentiment because it is a typical “liberals are so PC…” kind of thought, though he might be the first to make the alleged observation. What conservatives call being PC, I call treating people with dignity and decency even if they are different from me. There is an element in conservative humor which is nasty and seems to be used to actively maintain the status quo or reestablish the old paradigm of white Christian dudes get first, second, and third dibs, everyone else out back.

    There are jokes that can be made against liberals that are pretty funny. PCU was pretty funny IIRC but it was also an equal opportunity offender and ripped into the uptight Republicans on campus as well. One of my favorite jokes from the Simpsons is when Lisa is offered a scholarship to the Seven Sister school of her choice if she agrees to throw a spelling bee. She has a fever dream of the Seven Sisters as the Seven Muses and each Seven Sister tries to entice her to attend. Each Seven Sister is given their stereotype. Barnard is nerdy, Mount Holyoke is boozy, Bryn Mawr and Smith are about Sapphic exploration. Vassar invites Lisa to “non-conform with me” and raises her arms to show her unshaved armpits. This joke is very funny but it also comes from love because Matt Georing’s mom went to Vassar. He probably has a soft spot for all the Seven Sisters. There is a conservative version of this joke which is probably much more mean-spirited and kick down.

    I also differentiate between what is truly edgy and what is “edgy” (TM). A lot of anti-PC humor is in the edgy (TM) category and the purpose seems to be more about tribal alliance then anything else and announcing that you are mainly trying to piss or liberals or middle-class people rather than get any laughs.Report

    • This joke is very funny but it also comes from love because Matt Georing’s mom went to Vassar.

      And yet, he is mysteriously funny about his father’s side of the family.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Airplane is still awesome.

      Oh, and Blazing Saddles!Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “There are so many ways that this joke would not fly today. Fly might or might not be an intentional word choice.”

      Really? Why?

      No, seriously, I want you to dig in and explain this one.

      Because, y’know, there’s a level on which we could say “cultural shifts have moved the notion of mixed-race attraction from an impossibility to, if not commonplace, than grudgingly accepted as a reality, and therefore the idea of a white woman being interested in black men is no longer so shockingly taboo as to serve as a punchline”. But I kind of don’t think that’s where you’re going with your criticism.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        She’s a nine-year old girl talking about having sex with grown men.

        Did you really need that spelled out?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        Why is that Not Something That Can Be Funny Now?Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Things like pedophilia and child abuse were just getting on the social radar in the early 1980s. You can make a joke about a little girl having relationships with grown men because very few people talked about things like rape culture. People are more socially aware of sexual violence and that makes the joke rather difficult to pull off these days.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        @saul-degraw @leeesq

        Did you by any chance happen to watch the embedded videos? Because CK actually does do a bit about pedophelia. So clearly, you can do jokes about it. On the other hand, I would argue (and I do, in the OP!) that it wouldn’t have been acceptable for Adam Carolla to have done that exact same bit. And yet both are white males who present themselves as regular joe working stiffs.

        So I’m not so sure that it is in fact simply a case of greater awareness of pedophelia in society.

        There’s a lot of talk here of how liberals don’t “punch down” with humor, but I call bullshit. As I said in explicitly in the OP, there is the dynamic today of who we can and can’t find humor in, but there is also another dynamic that (to me, anyway) seems to be primarily liberal domain: Who is allowed to “punch down” and who isn’t. Liberals are actually generally pretty cool with with punching down for laugh so long as it’s someone that’s seen as being inside the tribe. Like CK.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        I did not. I would say that Louis CK and Adam Carolla might both have working stiff personas but the cultivate that persona in very different ways or at least to different audiences.

        And in my post, I mentioned that punched down is relative and very hard to define. We had a debate here a while ago about whether Rush Limbaugh in a miniskirt was a punch down joke or not or offensive to transpeople and dragqueens with non-feminine looks. I think plenty of liberals thought it was funny because it took Rush down a peg or five but one of our ex-posters did not and ex-poster was no conservative.

        Punching Up is like Privilege and it exists on a continuum. You can probably make jokes about me that are punching up because I am an upper-middle class suburban/urban liberal with definite examples of bourgeoise morality and taste. However that joke would become punching down if it started to include things about how Jews control the world economy and what not. So making fun of me for being a snob, probably punching up. Making jokes about me for being upper-middle class because I am Jewish, probably punching down.

        I think the joke from Airplane (and I do love Airplane) comes from a very specific place and it is mainly the idea that the 1970s was a relatively to very amoral time depending on who you asked and allegedly everyone was swinging and stuff and people did not mind their kids too much because they were busy liberating themselves and whatnot. There is a scene in Sunday Bloody Sunday where Glenda Jackson is babysitting the kids of friends for a weekend. She is a bit shocked that one kid (probably about 6-7) does a wake and bake with marijuana. The parents were not crazy hippies but respectable middle-class professionals.

        On a more dramatic side, I don’t think you could get approval to make Taxi Driver or Pretty Baby anymore either.

        I don’t know how true this is or not but I’ve certainly read people describe the 70s as being a very hands-off style of parenting (these were essays by people who grew up in the 1970s) and this is partially what brought Reagan into power as President.

        Congress did not officially outlaw child pornography until the mid or late 1970s and based on the Supreme Court case I read confirming the ban, it was not too uncommon to have people selling child pornography (or at least stuff featuring 14-18 year olds) in a somewhat casual manner. I can’t confirm or deny this. The case is called New York v. Ferber.

        So I think there was a whole culture at the time that made the Airplane joke part of the times.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        What I think is interesting is that the line necessarily implies “sex with grown men”, not just that she’d rather play house with a nine-year-old African-American. (A racial element that could still make the joke not fly today.) Is it that comparing humans to consumables in a romantic context is necessarily sexual?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        People Of Walmart seems to be one of those humor thingies that strikes me as punching down but not necessarily conservative punching down. SWPL punching down, if you will.Report

      • Obesity is an example of where people of all stripes punch down. Like People of Walmart, the targets are considered the deserving down.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Please don’t use that term anymore. We prefer “people of substance”.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        @jaybird I actually disagree with you here. People might get angry at Walmart for various kinds of corporate polices, but when I hear people make fun of Walmart I always hear the barbs levied at the customers. And all of that humor is punching down at people who are of lower income, in the same way people used to make fun of K-Mart shapes when I was in high school.

        I just think it helps that because it’s somewhat arbitrarily perceived as both rural/suburban and conservative, people who normally argue against punching down are really OK with it.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        People of Walmart was something I found hilarious for the first few months after the site’s existence. Then, when I perceived a shift in the content – more directed towards punching at folks who exemplified certain partisan-based/class-based stereotypes of a typical Walmarte – I soured on it a bit. I haven’t checked it out for a while now, but I eventually became really neutral on the whole topic, even approaching a more sympathetic view of it all: I realized that I am also a Person of Walmart. The people in those photos? They’re my people!Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        I can make fun of my cousin to my other cousin, but it’s tacky for me to make fun of my cousin in front of other folks.

        I don’t get the feeling from People of Walmart that this is someone like me, making fun of my cousin, to my other cousin, when we know that people who ain’t family ain’t in hearing distance. This is someone else making fun of my cousin to someone else who isn’t my cousin.

        The “hot ghetto mess” website, by comparison, seemed to be a website by people inside of the group, making fun of other people inside the group, for people inside the group… and then when outsiders (people like me!) found out about it, it changed tenor considerably.

        Or maybe that’s just me.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        @saul-degraw A few responses…

        1. FWIW, your interpretation about the child porn laws passed in the 70s is somewhat backward.

        Child pornography wasn’t OK until the 1970s — it’s always been against the law in this country. The difference is that prior to the 60s/70s, all pornography was illegal — and the ability for local governments to dictate what did or did not constitute pornography was incredibly broad.

        It was less than a decade before the case you’re talking about, for example, that a lot of what are now considered to be classics in literature (Ulysses, Lolita, Catcher, etc.) could be legally sold throughout the country. Even the Autobiography of Malcolm X was declared pornography in various places of the US, on the basis that X copped to having sex with white women. The events you’re describing took place not because we changed our mind about child porn, but rather because we collectively said, “Fine, we’ll start allowing all this other stuff, but this is one line we just won’t cross.”

        2. I’m not sure why you believe we wouldn’t make Taxi Driver or Pretty Baby, because in fact we do. Gardens of the Night was made in 2008, and so was Poker House. Young and Beautiful might have been French, but it made a really strong art house showing in the States last year. The reason Pretty Baby isn’t constantly remade is the same reason Gardens of the Night and Poker house won’t be — it really didn’t make that much money. The only reason it really pierced our national psyche is because it was made just prior to one of the stars becoming a mega-star.

        3. I’m sounding like a broken record, but of course you’re allowed to punch down. It’s just that you are allowing yourself the ability to define who is down and who is up in a way that is far more arbitrary than you are wiling to admit.

        Consider: No one on this site is going to to slap you down for mocking someone in the news who is a white, illiterate, Evangelical Christian hick living off of food stamps in the rural South. They just aren’t. (Well, maybe Dwyer, in a really nice way.) And I think you’d be hard pressed to make a non-transparently Orwellian, self-serving argument that you — and really, anyone here at this site — really didn’t have access to the privilege that whichever cracker we’re talking about had.

        But we don’t classify mocking that person as “punching down,” because we’ve all agreed that that person deserves mocking on the basis of having been born white, poor, rural, and into a Evangelical household.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        You are right that there was a brief window in the 1970s that was post-Miller and anything or almost anything went during that period. The ban on Ulysses ended in the 1930s. And I know Lolita was shocking at the time of release and Hollywood capitalized on it when making the Kubrick movie “How can they make a movie of Lolita?” the advertisements ran.

        I ultimately can’t prove or disprove whether a movie studio would make Taxi Driver or Pretty Baby today and I can very well be wrong on the joke from Airplane. I don’t think Network would get made today because the satire is too biting and the movie studios and TV networks know own each other in multi-conglomerates (there was also a lot of foretelling truth in Network). I do know that Brennan and Marshall issued partial dissents in Ferber and the case was decided in 1982 and their dissents were about movies with artistic merit that potentially depicted child nudity and sexuality and they probably had movies like Taxi Driver or Pretty Baby in mind.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Nitpicking, but I think you’ll find that US v. 1BC Ulysses applied to a federal ban, not local ones.Report

      • @tod-kelly

        No one on this site is going to to slap you down for mocking someone in the news who is a white, illiterate, Evangelical Christian hick living off of food stamps in the rural South. They just aren’t. (Well, maybe Dwyer, in a really nice way.)

        I don’t agree, at least not completely. Mike Dwyer isn’t the only one. I for one am usually pretty quick to call out people for doing such things, when I notice them. I suspect Will Truman and probably at least a few others would, too.

        I do agree that such mockery is more acceptable t the OT than some other kinds of mockery are.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Per @gabriel-conroy ‘s quote of @tod-kelly , I’m reminded of one of Tom’s post wherein he highlighted that some sizable portion of Hispanic/Latin@s believed in a higher power’s influence over Tim Tebow’s games in Denver. I think a few of us were having some fun at the expense of this belief and Tom wanted to paint us into a corner, essentially insisting that we mock Hispanic/Latin@s for being Hispanic/Latin@ and then arguing that we were being a bunch of hypocritical PC cops when we refused to do so.

        I think Tod would see more pushback than he imagines if the individual in question were being mocked simply for having the listed characteristics.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        I heard that Tim Tebow beats the ever living shit out of his illegitimate children.

        I heard that from a Raiders fan.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    I have a friend that I debate this topic with occasionally. His point of view is that the nature of comedy is subversive and seeks to disrupt the established order. In order to do that, it can’t have any
    reservations about its subject matter. There can be no such thing as “too soon” or “Dude, not funny.” To me this is a view that only somebody from a background who hasn’t experienced persecution or social marginalization of any sort can have. A certain type of humor has long been a weapon in the oppressor’s arsenal. I won’t go as far as others in making this statement but comedy can be used as a way to advance something not good at times.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Except the oppressor can have it turned right back around on him.Report

    • Patrick in reply to LeeEsq says:

      To me this is a view that only somebody from a background who hasn’t experienced persecution or social marginalization of any sort can have. A certain type of humor has long been a weapon in the oppressor’s arsenal.

      This framing doesn’t make sense to me.

      I understand the idea that marginalized groups are the targets of humor that can be hurtful, but generally speaking I think the folks that use it are operating out of ignorance far more often than they are malice.

      This framework loads up on malice.

      Everybody made gay jokes in the 80s. That was oppressive to gay folks, I don’t doubt for one second. That was a terrible environment to be in, I don’t doubt that, either. But.I don’t think most of the folks who were making gay jokes really deserve to be called “the oppressor”, and I really don’t think that gay jokes were regarded as a tool in their arsenal of oppression.

      I also haven’t met anybody who has never experienced social marginalization. I have met a couple of staggeringly unaware privileged folks who haven’t realized that they’ve experienced social marginalization, but it’s a ridiculously small minority.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Patrick says:

        I’m thinking of all those racist and anti-Semitic souvenirs and nick-hacks that used to be very common in the United States, against Blacks, and Europe, the anti-Semitic ones. Many of them were intended to be humorous but they also served the purpose of keeping minorities on the outside and margins through comedy.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        I think the “used to be” is important to note.Report

      • Kim in reply to Patrick says:

        those gay jokes really did burn a lot of people. Did they keep them out of the halls of power? No, that’s why we have legal gay marriage today. Because we thought the gay folks were more marginalized than they actually were.

        But it really did stop a lot of folks from admitting who they were. And that was INTENTIONAL. “Men aren’t gay” was what folks were selling. “It’s funny if a guy acts gay, because men don’t do that.”Report

      • RTod in reply to Patrick says:

        I have to say I find this a really weird argument.

        Yes, it’s true that allowing people of one group to mock and disrespect another has sometimes been part of a systematic oppression. But this point is being brought up as if it’s never been part of systematic oppression to tell one group they are not allowed to mock or disrespect another.Report

      • Kim in reply to Patrick says:

        Are you willing to stake your freedom to prove that point?
        It’s surprisingly easy to find places where that’s the case, up unto this very day.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Patrick says:

        Everybody made gay jokes in the 80s.

        One of the striking things about 90’s television is the Mistaken For Gay Character. The character struggles to clarify a misunderstanding that, heaven forbid, he likes to have sex with men. It’s uncomfortable to look back on.

        Seinfeld of course had their classic episode on the matter, but prior to that there was no “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

        Then, of course, in the newest decade, sexual orientation jokes or Mistaken For Gay are either non-descript (The deposition scene in Better Off Ted) or something the characters roll with (Darrell in The Office).

        And that’s Hollywood, to which the gay rights community owes a debt for how they helped grease the wheels in the next decade.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Patrick says:

        “One of the striking things about 90?s television is the Mistaken For Gay Character.”

        As I said elsewhere, there’s Mistaken For Gay and there’s also Surprise, He’s Gay. How much humor in the 80s and 90s involved He-Man Superbro inadvertently getting into a situation where another man comes on to him?Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Comedy is always subversive, and half the time you’re laughing to remind yourself why you don’t have time to cry.

      Comedy is not about shaming, and it isn’t about bullying people into good behavior. That’s what a certain brand of conservative calls “humor” and they’re wrong about it. Everyone else hates when they start trying “humor” because we “can’t take a joke”… if you know what I mean.Report

  5. Doctor Jay says:

    You know, reading this makes me wonder if there isn’t some sort of trust required for humor to work.Report

    • @doctor-jay

      That’s a good point, I think. Can you expand on what you mean?Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        What it means is that the audience, particularly if the audience can relate to the subject matter of the joke, must be able to know that the comedian doesn’t really mean it. The Zucker Brothers and Mel Brooks could get away with a lot in their movies because everybody knew they were nice Jewish men at heart and everything is in good fun. Larry the Cable Guy comes across as mean because you aren’t really that sure how serious he is about the entire thing. His jokes might reflect some really unpleasant views he holds.Report

      • Zac in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @leeesq “Larry the Cable Guy comes across as mean because you aren’t really that sure how serious he is about the entire thing. His jokes might reflect some really unpleasant views he holds.”

        You know that he’s doing a character, right? That’s not what he’s like in real life, that’s just a stage persona.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        You have to do your homework to know that Larry Whitney isn’t the same person as Larry the Cable Guy. It’s a little bit more obvious when you’re looking at Mel Brooks wearing a swastika.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        What Alan said. With Mel Brooks its obvious that he doesn’t really mean it. Larry the Cable Guy, not so much.Report

      • @leeesq Can I ask you to at least try to consider the possibility that this is because Larry the Cable Guy represents himself as stereo typical poor, white trash Southern Evangelical(esque), and Brooks as stereotypical upper-middle class New York Jewish?

        In other words, is it possible that the difference between the two has less to do with Brooks and Whitney, and more to do with @leeesq and what kinds of human beings he does and doesn’t find acceptable?

        I’m not arguing that’s the case, mind you. I’m just asking if it’s worth you asking.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        Mel Brooks grew up rather poor in Williamsburg among immigrant Jews.Report

      • sigh…


        Please go back and mental edit my previous comment to read, Can I ask you to at least try to consider the possibility that this is because Larry the Cable Guy represents himself as stereo typical poor, white trash Southern Evangelical(esque), and Brooks as poor in Williamsburg among immigrant Jews?

        Doesn’t really change the important part of the question.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        In other words, is it possible that the difference between the two has less to do with Brooks and Whitney, and more to do withand what kinds of human beings he does and doesn’t find acceptable?

        Also, to bring it back to the specific content of the OP, what kind of humor they find acceptable. Apparently the thought that Larry the Cable Guy fun of people rather than making fun with renders his jokes unfunny as a matter of principle. Or something, I don’t really know. I’ve never been too receptive to the logic employed by the humor police. For example, I still think Andrew Dice Clay was pretty dang hilarious even tho he was, well, a comedian who got blackballed for being “offensive”.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Well, I know of a mixed-race couple wherein she (being the white one) calls him “nigga” in private, and I’m sure he uses rude names for her. They find this funny and intimate, rather than toxic, because they trust each other.

        In any case, @leeesq has captured my meaning quite adequately. And the discussion about whether Larry the Cable Guy means or not merely demonstrates the point. I get that Larry is a stage persona, and love him in sketches, or with other people, but I don’t really like his solo stuff. He touches things that are just too painful to me, and I don’t trust him enough to be sure he’s joking.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Yes, I’m perfectly aware that Larry the Cable Guy might be just a person. Perhaps the better example would have been Andrew Dice Clay. People were never shore if he was mocking sexist men or whether his sexism was genuine. The difference between either Larry the Cable Guy or Andrew Dice Clay and Mel Brooks is that with Mel Brooks, its apparent that its all in good fun on the face. You know you aren’t supposed to take him that seriously. The former, its more of an open question.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Proposed: Redneck is the new blackface.

        Entertainers dress up in exaggerated styles and affect comically absurd accents? Got it. People who’ve never been near that culture pretend to it as a method of performance, even in nominally-serious pieces? Yep. It’s seen as acceptable because They Really Are That Dumb? Oh yeah.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        In a way, it’s the old blackface, too. “Hillbilly humor” was very popular during the height of blackface. I would guess that it lacked the political/religious connotations it has today, whereby the hillbilly/redneck is considered the epitome of Christian conservatism; that notion probably started with the “cowboy” images of Reagan and later Bush II.

        Whether it’s “just as bad” is another story. I don’t think it is, but I still wince at an awful lot of it when it’s not self-deprecating, and sometimes even when it is. I can’t even think of an example I genuinely enjoy, except for Cold Comfort Farm. (I’ve seen the movie, not read the book, and I only enjoy some parts, like Ian McKellen sermonizing “Thar’ll be no butter in hell!”) Usually, though, I’m in an awkward position in my liberal cliques, where rural people can be a target of choice.Report

      • LWA (Liberal With Attitude) in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I agree, that red***k is an insensitive slur. I think a bit more cultural sensitivity is in order, along with a deeper understanding of the social pathology that wracks poor white Southern culture.
        Its this cultural pathology that causes them to listen to honky tonk music, reject schooling and hard work, to be poor and ignorant, and cling to guns and Bibles.

        Unfortunately, all too often their poverty and thuggish violence is blamed on bigotry in society, when they should look inside their own culture and lift themselves up their bootstraps, quit molesting their sisters and eating dirt, and become like educated people who listen to NPR and drive Volvos.Report

      • We had our Toastmasters humorous speech contest recently. Half the contestants affected “redneck” accents. TM tends to be a very “conservative” group in terms of what will fly as humor. People don’t generally take risks there, and I’ve never heard a single profanity in my years attending. If people feel comfortable doing redneck affectations, then they must think it’s completely inoffensive.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Wait, we’ve had our “R” word privileges revoked? When in the heck did this happen?Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Except that from what I’ve seen of it, the intended audience of redneck humor is those who identify with or as rednecks. Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy aren’t playing to coastal elites.

        In contrast, Minstrelsy was always performed for white audiences.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        “the intended audience of redneck humor is those who identify with or as rednecks. ”

        “They’re laughing so it can’t be that bad” is not considered a valid defense against charges of racism.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @jim-heffman , it is the strongest defense against racism.

        If your joke about Black people gets angry stares from Black people, it says something about that joke. If elicits plenty of laughter from Black people, it says something else about that joke.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Doctor Jay says:


      Great point. There probably is.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Consider Chapelle’s retreat from performing — because he kept running into audiences where some members laughed at the wrong part of his jokes, and he thought “Oh. They’re not laughing at racism. They’re racist and think I’m serious”. That wasn’t what his joke meant, that wasn’t what it was supposed to convey .

        In any case, I recall the immediate furor over the Tosh rape choke — one noted feminist said “Rape jokes can be funny, here’s [x] examples and why — and Tosh’s wasn’t”.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      @doctor-jay I think I would that it’s often helpful — and certainly preferred — but not required. We often laugh at inopportune moments when we are feeling uncomfortable precisely because we feel uncomfortable.Report

  6. Saul Degraw says:

    There is also the fact that a joke can be really funny depending on who tells it.

    David Chapelle can get away with telling jokes that P.J. O’Rourke cannot because of Chapelle’s biography as a Black-American male. I can get away with telling Jewish jokes and jokes about Jewish people in ways that would make William Worthington IV seem very boorish. Life is unfair that away and a lot of conservative dumbstruckness seems to be that they can’t comprehend this fact. There also jokes that are funny coming from Larry David but not David Chapelle and vice-versa.

    Here is a joke:

    A Plane crashes in the Sahara and strands a German guy, a British guy, a French guy, and a Jewish guy. They are wandering around and trying to get to civilization. The German guy says that he is so thirsty that as soon as he gets to civilization he is going to drink some beer. The English guy begins talking about how he is thirsty and is going to drink a gin and tonic when he gets to a bar. The French guy joins in and begins talking about his thirst and he is going to a nice glass of wine when he gets back to civilization. The Jewish guy then mentions that he is also thirsty and when they get back to the city, he is going to make a doctor’s appointment because he might have diabetes.

    What would be your reaction upon hearing:

    A. Larry David tell that joke?; and

    B. Sean Hannity or P.J. “Liberals aren’t funny” O’Rourke telling that joke?Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      You’re telling the joke wrong.

      An Englishmen, a German, a Frenchmen, and a Jew are wandering through the desert. The Englishmen cries out, “I’m so thirsty, I must have tea.” The German exclaims, “I”m so thirsty, I must have beer.” The French says, “I’m so thirsty, I must have wine.” The Jew complains, “I’m so thirsty, I must have diabetes.”Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

        My version is a rift.

        Also funnier.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Yeah, but what about the Scottish pilot, with no independent home to go to.

        (Too soon?)Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @gabriel-conroy, the Scottish pilot has decided that he would still rather live with his parents and isn’t ready for independence.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The shorter version is funnier because of the wordplay. The longer one sounds like a misremembered version of it.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to LeeEsq says:

        On second thought I take that back. I still think the wordplay version is funnier but I was a little too harsh on Saul Degraw’s.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I actually like Saul’s better. I think it depends partially on whether the joke is written or told aloud. Lee’s, in my opinion, works better when told aloud. But even so, I think Saul’s works better for me all around.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Lee’s is funnier. Not only because it’s quicker to tell, but because the Saul’s drops the punchline… you have the “doctor’s appt” and then you have the “diabetes”. And the doctor’s appt isn’t even dropped on your head. You’ve already broken the parallel words by that point. Saul could improve his joke by switching the words to “going to get” rather than “going to drink”, then the doctor’s appt. would properly fall on the unsuspecting audience, and the diabetes would function as a capoff or extension of the humor.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      That’s a really interesting one, in that I’m not sure it’s something one is likely to find funny unless they are Jewish or are immersed in Jewish culture. When I read it, I was confused, had to do a little bit of mental calculation, and then realized “oh, there must be some connection between hypochondria and Judaism of which I am not aware.”

      Which really gets at the heart of the matter. Jokes are funny because of how they interact with the prior knowledge and experience of the audience. Which means jokes about people of a particular race, gender, or other cultural group basically come in two categories:

      1) Jokes in which the audience must believe “People who are members of group X have trait Y” is true in order to appreciate the joke.
      2) Jokes in which the audience must understand that “People who are members of group X have trait Y” is something that is believed of group X but isn’t necessarily true in order to believe the joke.

      A lot of the accusations of “over-sensitivity” are the result of people telling type 1 jokes to those who don’t share the belief in question. Accusations that people are suppressing their sense of humor because of some sense of political correctness are missing the mechanisms at play. When people say that they don’t think they don’t find sexist jokes funny, it’s not because they’re offended by sexism–It’s because they literally don’t find the jokes funny.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Alan Scott says:

        “Accusations that people are suppressing their sense of humor because of some sense of political correctness are missing the mechanisms at play. When people say that they don’t think they don’t find sexist jokes funny, it’s not because they’re offended by sexism–It’s because they literally don’t find the jokes funny.”

        I agree. It’s weird that some of the same people who understand how others can arrive at different tastes in music or fiction don’t understand it about humor. Of course, its possible for one’s views on sexism to affect one’s humor, but this is different from the hypothesis that someone finds something funny but is afraid to laugh.

        In another comment I analyzed additional reasons for saying “That’s simply not funny” rather than saying something like “Funny or not, that’s offensive”, but the core reason remains that people are honestly reporting their own reaction. The counter-accusation of self-suppression is interesting. Maybe it’s meant to deflect the accusation of heartlessness on the joke-teller’s part by implying the humor of the joke to be universal: “You’re laughing on the inside, so you’re not so high and mighty.” Or maybe it really is a failure of perspective.

        It’s a little like when some religious people “accuse” atheists of being religious in their atheism — it’s odd as an accusation, but makes sense as an attempt to level the playing field and say “We’re the same, I’m just honest about it and you’re a hypocrite.” (Some atheists do the same thing, saying “You’re an atheist too” and pointing out all the gods a monotheist disbelieves in.)Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The problem is that humor is inherently transgressive, and these days we’ve defined certain things as Not Allowed To Be Transgressed.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Isn’t the presence of such definition a requirement for anything to be “transgressive”? It seems self-contradictory to suggest that it used to be okay to violate societal sensibilities or kill a sacred cow or two, but now it’s not.

        The definitions change with society, of course. In Shakespeare’s time, religious oaths could often be more transgressive than violence, sex, or scatology, so to stay in business he wrote more of the latter three, both as explicit plot events or in his jokes, and he only used euphemistic versions of religious oaths. (Not that he would have been inclined to make religious jokes at all, but there was a major disincentive anyway.)Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Alan Scott says:

        It used to be okay to kill the sacred cows of The Others.

        Now we realize that we shouldn’t Other people. So all cows thus become sacred and the only people worth making feel bad are carnivores.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Alan Scott says:

        And carnivores aren’t really people so it’s okay to hate them!Report

  7. LeeEsq says:

    My theory is that early 1980s movies like Arthur or Airplane could get away with some rather inappropriate jokes was simply because they were made in the early 1980s. They were far enough after the social revolutions of the 1960s that the older and even more offensive jokes, the really actively racist ones that used a lot of ethnic slurs and stereotypes were no longer acceptable but still close enough to the time of acceptable social bullying that you could make some rather wild jokes involving things like alcoholism, racial minorities, and other people on the margins of the mainstream. It was a sort of half-enlightened, half-barbaric era in terms of how we think about certain things that allowed for a certain brand of humor. As more people from the old era died off and has certain social beliefs advanced, many of these jokes became less enlightened.

    Considering the opening segment of Airplane, where than man and woman are arguing about where passengers should be picked up. Eventually, the woman bursts out “we know what this is about, you want me to have an abortion.” This joke could only be made very early after Roe v. Wade when abortion rights were firmly in place and the Anti-Abortion forces did not begin to mobilize in full strength. A joke like this could not work today because the Anti-Abortion forces are very strong politically and because the Pro-Choice doesn’t feel secure in their political position. Nobody is going to find it funny.

    The line between acceptable offensiveness and true offensiveness in comedy is blurry and depends a lot about the particularities of the time.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    For what it’s worth, you told the “nacho cheese” joke wrong.

    You have to tell it to the same person every couple of months for a year or two (“an unwilling audience”, Maribou points out) and then not tell it for two or three. Then, at the grocery store, get some of the fancy cheese from the fancy cheese section and then, when asked “what kind of cheese did you get?” answer “I’m pretty sure it’s nacho cheese.”

    As you are being yelled at in the middle of the store, you can think “nailed it.”Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

      And yet you are still alive….Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

      For whatever it is worth, I’ve heard the nacho cheese joke told as a traditional Q&A:
      “What do you call cheese that isn’t yours?”
      “Nacho cheese!”

      It never even struck me that there was a racial element to it. This may be the result of going to a predominantly African-American high school and the pattern of speech required to make the joke work was fairly ubiquitous and used by both blacks and whites.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

        @kazzy There’s actually an ad for cheese crackers that runs all the time on sports shows where that joke is said (in Q&A format) by a hunk of cheese.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Kazzy says:

        Nearly every version of the joke I’ve heard has spent most of it’s time painting an awkwardly racist picture of it’s protagonist, with the actual pun as little more than an afterthought.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I’m not denying that.

        My experience with many of these things tends to be different than that of most white people. Again, going to a school that was predominantly African-American, my baseline experiences are atypical (and often in ways I don’t realize). For instance, I only really use “shorthand” in text messages. A common term I use is “Ima” (pronounced “Ime-uh”), as in “I’ma go to the store.” I say this term a lot when talking casually. It’s derived from “I’m gonna”, itself derived from, “I’m going to”. I have come to learn this is not how most white people from the north east talk as I often have to explain it to folks. To me it seems clear as day.

        What I’m saying is that if you asked me about the Nacho Cheese joke, I would have said it just as I offered it above and if you responded with, “That’s racist!” I would have looked at you like you had two heads. Now, if you explained it as Tod did here, I would have said, “Shiiiiiiit.”Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Until reading this thread, I had never realized the racial implications of the “nacho cheese” joke, and the only version I had heard was the one Kazzy related here.Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    Bill Cosby has an absolutely brilliant piece on prejudice. This is from 1971 and it’s positively mesmerizing.

    I don’t think he could do it today.

    I mean, he’s smoking.Report

  10. Lenoxus says:

    I’ve never seen the entirety of either Arthur, and I think the Russell Brand excerpt is funnier than the Dudley Moore one (but perhaps the intention in choosing those clips wasn’t to suggest the reverse?). The Dudley Moore scene is just sad/dramatic, except for the bit where he’s trying to assemble those plastic parts, but that’s only sort of amusing. By contrast, the dialogue of the Russell Brand scene is in tune with my Millennial sense of humor, not that it’s terribly funny in its own right — it’s about as good as a modern commercial. (I can imagine a logo hovering after the closing line, with an accompanying narrated slogan.)

    If I had to make a choice to watch one or the other based solely on the clips, I’d still probably choose the first but only for the film-history value of knowing it. If the whole of the Dudley Moore movie is like that, I don’t think I could enjoy it. And not in an “alcoholism is no laughing matter” sense, just in a “what’s so funny about drunken lethargy?” sense.

    Meanwhile, I basically agree with the principle Saul Degraw mentioned, “punch up, not down.” And insofar as society is stratified in various ways, this can make it very hard to achieve “equal-opportunity offensiveness”, despite so many attempts at such. That’s one of the things I appreciate about the Daniel Tosh clip — without saying so explicitly, he’s illustrating the fallacy there. You generally can’t tell a black joke and a white joke and say “There, I’ve treated everyone equally”, not unless you very carefully curate the jokes involved. It doesn’t work that way for a lot of reasons, one of which is that as a white person, “white jokes” have zero impact on anyone’s perception of me, nor do they involve a larger poisonous cultural narrative. I’m not sure he intends it that far, but nonetheless his material stumbles in that direction.

    Also, a self-proclaimed “equal-opportunity offender” is basically announcing that they punch everywhere, maybe at random — that their comedy has zero purpose</em< except to hurt. Purposeless comedy can be great (I love absurdism) but purposeless offensive comedy isn't really purposeless. At some level, jokes against X resolve to a normative statement against X — that X shouldn’t exist, or should change into not-X. Of course that doesn’t apply to X-jokes told by X, or told out of sympathy with X, so my thinking here isn’t entirely thorough. Anyway that’s one reason there was an uproar about Tosh’s rape joke — even if we allow for hyperbole, he was basically saying that dislike of rape jokes is shameful in itself.

    Given all this, it says something sad about society that feminism has this reputation of being anti-humor, because the unspoken implication is that “humor” is necessarily sexist. (Does anyone literally believe that feminists have a problem with humor that has zero to do with sex/gender?) And I can sort of see the point there, because there is a lot of sexist humor out there. Back in the beginning of the twentieth century, a huge component (perhaps the vast majority) of American humor was minstrelsy-related, with the occasional “funny foreigner” stuff to spice things up. I wonder if anti-racists then had a reputation for being buzzkills. Perhaps not, because their voices might not have been part of the cultural tapestry at the same time as blackface was the norm (and because another component of that stereotype about feminists is simply “women aren’t funny”).

    I have to add: man, just how out of date is the “hungry an hour later” joke about Chinese food, anyway? It made sense way back when the American diet was lots of carbs and starches (meat and potatoes, etc) so that normally you’d eat and full tremendously full for hours, but nowadays Asian cuisine tends to be just as filling by weight and/or volume as anything else we eat. (Plus, it should be noted that the parent joke itself isn’t original. In one form, it’s that a clown would “taste funny”, then there’s a kid-friendly version where Roald Dahl’s BFG explains that Turkish people taste like turkey and Greeks taste like grease, and I’m quite sure I heard the “hungry an hour later” version from some sci-fi with human-eating aliens.) But those are irrelevant quibbles insofar as it’s meta-humor — he may as well have started out with a bit about airline food (a joke which sadly became cliché before it became obsolete, though I admit I don’t fly much and may be wrong).Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Lenoxus says:

      I’m a white man, but I went to college and grad school in a technical field so I basically didn’t interact with a woman my age until I was in my late twenties. I own a house but I make just above the poverty level income for my area. I’m not obese but I also suffer from several chronic medical conditions. Where’s my “up”? Am I only allowed to tell jokes about white male athletes?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        It’s “punch up not down” only “if you actually care about staying on the right side of liberal sensitivities,” Jim, so I’m guessing you’re fine whatever you want to do.

        This is the conservative advantage in humor to which O’Rourke refers.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        “Where’s my “up”? Am I only allowed to tell jokes about white male athletes?”

        Don’t you have the flow chart?Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        If you have to ask, then you shouldn’t even be telling the jokes about the athletes.

        “Punch up, not down” is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not a list of people you’re allowed to make fun of. It’s an attempt to describe which jokes that are told actually come off as funny.

        The fact of the matter is, most successful comedy isn’t punching up or down–it’s punching inward. Comedy requires a spark of (perceived) truth, and in the “write what you know” sense, the most successful jokes are ones where the comedians are making fun of themselves or people like themselves.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        I agree with Alan Scott. Even if I have in mind some sort of social pyramid of “up and down”, I usually prefer self-deprecating humor. It’s entirely possible to punch up in a way that’s just stupidly mean-spirited, or down in a way that’s not. The idea is just a guideline regarding “liberal sensitivities” as Michael Drew put it.

        Although I should add that most people (not just liberal) actually somewhat agree with it already, and the dispute is more over the structure of the pyramid. To some conservatives, the most beleaguered people are white men, so liberal humor about white men being racist and sexist is in fact a case of punching down. By a certain mindset, telling jokes against disabled people would be “punching up” against the humorless PC establishment, and is in favor of the disabled because it doesn’t coddle them by treating them as “down”. I disagree, but in a sense the disagreement isn’t about humor anymore.Report

      • I’d argue that when people say “don’t punch down” they mean the “undeserving” down, and “undeserving” being where there is not much consensus.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Good point. When a political figure is imprisoned, they join the “down” in one sense, but no one on the opposite political side suddenly becomes sympathetic. And the deserve/undeserve divide is one source of contention on whether prison-rape jokes can be funny.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        ““Punch up, not down” is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not a list of people you’re allowed to make fun of. It’s an attempt to describe which jokes that are told actually come off as funny.”

        Except that it’s not. Hell, in the threads here people are told they aren’t allowed to make a remark intended to be humorous about person X because person X belongs to group Y all the time.

        “The fact of the matter is, most successful comedy isn’t punching up or down–it’s punching inward. Comedy requires a spark of (perceived) truth, and in the “write what you know” sense, the most successful jokes are ones where the comedians are making fun of themselves or people like themselves.”

        Except that they don’t, or at least they don’t necessarily. Life of Brian makes fun of Christianity pretty much from start to finish, and it was written by a bunch of atheists. Book of Mormon was written by guys who aren’t remotely Mormon. Louis CK makes jokes about women despite the fact that he’s a dude.

        Yes, there is a lot of comedy that’s mined from within. And it might well be that this is the ind of comedy that you feel most comfortable with. But it is far from the only place comedy comes from.Report

      • I liked “Life of Brian” for the most part, and the parts I didn’t like wasn’t because I was offended, just that the particular jokes didn’t work for me. I didn’t see it as punching down or otherwise bad.

        I will probably decline to see “Book of Mormon,” mostly because theater is not my thing and usually too expensive, but also because I suspect it’s a way to punch down against a certain group I have some sympathy for even though I really don’t share what I presume to be their beliefs. Maybe I’m wrong about “Book,” and Tod’s review of the play quite a while ago suggested that I might be wrong. But I have a hard time shaking the feeling.

        Not that I don’t laugh at punch down jokes, mind. I’ve given examples in this thread of times when I’ve laughed, mostly unapologetically, at jokes that have to be considered “punch down.” So there is a sort of temptation to priggishness that I have to overcome when I think about what offends me. But again, I probably won’t be seeing “Book of Mormon.”Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        I think the funniest jokes in Life of Brian are not the ones that make fun of Christianity but the ones that make fun of leftist squabling (The People’s Front for the Liberation of Judea vs….) and British boarding school Latin teachers (when Brian is writing anti-Roman graffiti and gets in trouble for not declining his nouns properly).Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Well, I suppose I’m talking about how I’ve seen the terms used by actual comedians. I suppose that in political discussions about humor here and elsewhere, I’ve seen it morph into something more like what you describe.

        Also, I haven’t actually seen “the Book of Mormon”, but from the descriptions I’ve read, it’s pretty strongly in “punch up” territory. I have seen the South Park episode about Mormons and Mormonism, and it’s pretty nuanced in terms of how and where it does it’s punching.

        My point when I say “If you have to ask, then no”, is that “am I allowed to make fun of group X?” isn’t the question that gets you to a funny joke. The reason a lot of so-called conservative humor falls so flat for me and so many others is that it clearly stems from that question, as opposed to, say, “What sorts of jokes about group X will my audience find funny?”Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Heck, “Life Of Brian” is actually respectful of Jesus. There are only two times he’s in the movie and they’re both pretty straight. LoB goes after the modern form of evangelical religion.

        Um, and Jews. Watching the deleted scenes gives a whooooole big different look on that movie.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Jim, what are the deleted scenes in the Life of Brien that came across anti-Semitic?Report

  11. greginak says:

    People can make what ever jokes they want and we laugh for all sorts of reasons. People can make all sorts of offensive, vile jokes. But the disconnect is when people make offensive jokes then whine when people are offended. Make your rape or holocaust joke, they might be funny, but when you push the edges, aim to poke at foibles, point out things people miss about themselves, touch sore nerves that is very often going to hurt. Very possibly because the joke wasn’t funny to some or it was to far. Just don’t whine about getting burnt for going to far, if you want to explore that is the risk you take. You want to go to the mall, don’t whine about seeing the same old thing everyday.

    The great comedians who pushed and pushed the edges, Hicks and Carlin come to mind first, never whine, that i’m aware of, about pissing people off. They did they thing and let the chuckles fall where they may.

    Other thoughts: Arthur, the original, was very funny. However it is hard to laugh at wacky alcoholics today. I can live with that loss.
    PJ ORourke was last funny close to the time Arthur came out.
    We all need to laugh at ourselves.Report

    • El Muneco in reply to greginak says:

      I gotta stand up for my cousin P.J. here – when he was still relevant, even my favorite band at the time, Big Country, who were famously championing Scottish workers in the post-1980 malaise, got the joke. Republican Party Reptiles – who like a solid military in a Cold War context, minimal regulation (he liked the NHTSA, for example), but drive fast and do drugs. As a college student from WA in 1987 who had idolized my Senator, Scoop Jackson, growing up, I was totally receptive to that…

      In that time and place, the Left wasn’t what it is today, the Right wasn’t what it is today, and O’Rourke wasn’t what he is today (More’s the pity on at least the latter two). In Congress, it was still possible to cross the aisle and it was still possible that a coalition might crystallize around a seed that was laissez-faire both socially and economically. In retrospect, he was unduly harsh on the liberals who backed out of this, and didn’t really see the post-Clinton God Squad coming (it was still commonly thought around where I was that “Moral Majority” was mere boasting).

      I was class of ’88, and having been there I can say that it’s not incorrect to broadly characterize the Left of the time by “earnestness”, which can easily be exaggerated into “humorlessness”. Which is why “PCU” was so funny in the middle of the next decade. What no one really foresaw was that the Right would transform itself from vaguely privileged stuffed-shirt Chamber of Commerce types to an unholy alliance between the heirs of the Moral Majority and the heirs of the Southern Strategy.

      Remember O’Rourke like an insect in amber. Preserved in the ’80s, when great events weren’t happening, but seeds were being planted, and it’s not necessarily the right ones that flourished. That takes a toll on a man, especially one who has already shifted paradigms once in his life. Greater men than he aged badly – don’t forget that Isaac Newton ended up searching for the 18th Century version of chemtrails…Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to El Muneco says:

        “Remember O’Rourke like an insect in amber. Preserved in the ’80s, when great events weren’t happening, but seeds were being planted, and it’s not necessarily the right ones that flourished”

        What seeds? That seems like placing an awful lot on the 1980s. Or to put it another way,

        What you talking about Willis?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to El Muneco says:

        O’Rourke’s problem was that he got married, had kids, and stopped being angry. Humor can come from anger, as the writer roundly damns the world about him; but once that anger goes away it’s hard to keep being funny.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to El Muneco says:

        I disagree. I don’t think O’Rourke was particularly angry. I actually think the opposite.

        I do suspect you hit the nail on the head with the rest of it though. I think that most of his writing when he was a humorist was pretty youth-driven, and most of his writing in his really influential period was when he was still young enough to travel the globe and spend time in dangerous s**tholes. I think his brand of writing didn’t translate that well into a grown up desk job.

        I do think, however, that he’s still a fabulous writer. Or at least, i do when I run across something he’s written, which is admittedly pretty rare these days.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to El Muneco says:

        @Saul Degraw – From what I can remember of what I was trying to say, I think it’s mainly that the 70s were defined by the reaction to the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War, but by the mid-80s a lot of that had played out (even if it played out in the way the Western Front in WW1 played out, with everyone staring at each other out of muddy trenches, it was still pretty static).

        But there were transformative processes in play. The Moral Majority was a joke in most (by population) of the country. Tipper Gore championed music censorship (which was yet one more factor that, considering how close Florida was, probably cost Al the 2000 election). “Political Correctness” was a term still used ironically within the academy. There was a hardening at the edges, but compromise was still possible – the last liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats (in an absolute sense) were still in office.

        The NFL moved the goalposts in 1974, but it took years for that to have an effect on coaches’ strategy, because the science of strategy was relatively primitive compared to today. I think the goalposts of left and right have been moving pretty much constantly but in the 80s we just really didn’t notice because the crises were minor between the US leaving Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It really was all about MTV and both sides were optimistic specifically because things were so good.

        Thus “seeds” – we didn’t see the left of the 90s and the right of the 90s coming, but in retrospect the demographics were what they were, and the ideologies were getting started, they just hadn’t ossified yet. I’m thinking that the splits that manifested in the 90s in no small part came from shifts we didn’t notice in the 80s because how can you focus on boring politics when there’s Talk Talk, U2, and ZZ Top (two of which can be proud of what they’ve done since 1991) on the television? And no war to cause Walter Cronkite to be a distraction?Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to greginak says:

      + a lot of 1s to @greginak here.Report

    • Kim in reply to greginak says:

      and a decent comedian understands people’s offense. Yes, some of what they’re saying is gonna sting, sometimes. It happens. You apologize, and move the hell on.Report

  12. Murali says:


    Does this mean I can guiltlessly laugh at or tell any racist or other offensive joke if I want to? Cause I’ve got a few…Report

      • Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Awww man, now I’m all dull and boring… At best I can make bad puns and lawyer jokes.Report

      • Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        More seriously, I’m not getting your point here. So, there are certain things I find funny. And these are things that I am not supposed to tell (at least in mixed company or perhaps not at all). It is appropriate to feel guilty about telling these jokes. Since finding something humorous often involves the urge to reproduce that humour, there is a sense in which it would be better for me not to be tickled by that joke. If that is the case, then there are certain types of jokes which we are not supposed to find funny.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @murali “More seriously, I’m not getting your point here.”

        Well, my simple “no” was pretty obtuse, so that’s on me. Let me try it again.

        Allow me to remove the baggage of most people here with this joke:

        Me: Knock knock.

        You: Who’s there?

        Me: Dwayne.

        You: Dwayne who?

        Me: Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning!

        Now let’s say that in these threads, 60% of the commenters find this joke funny. J’Bird, Pat, and Burt, however, don’t find it funny. Not because they find it offensive, they just don’t find it funny. And let’s also assume for the moment that unbeknownst to me, you had a younger sister who once drowned, and so this knock knock joke is unsurprisingly and justifiably intensely painful and not remotely funny. Indeed, you are truly offended by it.

        None of this is particularly out of the ordinary when it comes to things that make us laugh, and there are a number of ways it can go:

        Possibility A: You explain your situation, I and the other commenters realize we have crossed a line for you, and make mental notes not to be so cavalier about people drowning in front of you, and try to work on our radars with others in the future. However, we still find the joke funny, and we still tell it in other contexts when we feel we’d be safe from criticism by doing so.

        Possibility B: You explain your situation, and we all just ignore you. Why should we listen to a killjoy — why can’t you just move on with life and stop obsessing over your dead sister, we ask you before forgetting you exist.

        Possibility C: Myself and everyone else act defensively, tell you that you’re not really offended and that you’re just being politically correct, and we encourage one another to tell even more jokes about people drowning in from of you because “we speak truth.” In this case, it is likely that not only will you think we are assholes, but J’Bird, Pat and Burt might as well.

        Possibility D: You, J’Bird, Pat and Burt begin to attempt to build a consensus that any humor related to drowning at all is not funny by definition. You explain to those commenters that do find it funny that either their are mistaken, or that they are simply not allowed to find it funny any longer. Those who confess to finding it funny, or who simply wonder why there’s all this fuss over what they see as a simple knock knock joke, we editors begin to ban from the site.

        These are all overly-simplistic scenarios, of course, and it reality what occurs in almost any situation where jokes are told is some combination of all of the above. Still, the OP is primarily about the folly of option D.

        Now, let’s put that baggage back on.

        Replace the knock knock joke with a truly offensive joke about black people — something so bad that I would edit it out of the threads the moment I saw it. Were you to tell that kind of joke here, you would still have to live with the social consequences of telling such a joke: people wouldn’t like you, you’d lose their respect, you’d be thought of as a racist, and if you kept doing it we might show you the door.

        All of that, I would argue, is good and well, and even necessary in pluralistic society if we’re going to learn how to all get along.

        What works out less well in the long run, however, is for Erik, Burt, Mark and I to make a rule that because some people were offended by your offensive joke, no one is allowed to find any foible of any black person at all humorous. And this works out not so well for a lot of reasons, the first and for most being that in real life no one actually ever makes it entirely about black people and white people. (In real life and on actual sites where they have such rules, for example, we’d still allow all the white commenters to make “funny” and borderline racist observations about Ben Carson or Allen West.)

        I realize I’m in danger of (or way past the border of) rambling, so I’ll just stop and ask if i’ve made what I’m saying clearer, or if i’m just muddying the waters even more.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @tod-kelly , I think those are great illustrative examples.

        I think the reason I’m replying the way I am is because I’ve seen very few case D incidents, but plenty of case B and case C incidents that many of the people involved insist are examples of case D. (I don’t mean to suggest that your photoshop lawyer post and responses are anything but an example of case D, though. I read and enjoyed the post, but didn’t read any of the comments)Report

      • Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        Thanks for the reply. Let me try to wrap my head around this and get back to youReport

      • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        The humor scenario that I’ve seen more than once is “I am offended on behalf of a third party (who may or may not be present).)”Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @jaybird This is true enough, but I think there are different reasons for that. One, of course, is that certain people are nosey, busybodies, and “PC police.” It’s true, I’ve seen plenty of those people in my day.

        But another reason (and the one I feel like I’ve witnessed the most) is because when someone from X tribe are laughed at and another person from X tribe speaks up and says they’re offended, they’re often treated with hostility in a way that the person from the joke-teller/joke-laugher’s own tribe is not.

        Speaking as a die-hard Portlander, I’ve never seen an evangelical get anywhere with a group of liberals when he or she points out that whatever the liberals are mocking about his or her tribe hurts or offends them. In fact, more often that not I see the jokesters take that protest as a sign that it’s really high time to lay into that person for all the crimes of their tribe. But I’ve seen situations where another liberal steps in and says, “dude, not cool,” and everyone kind of takes it back sort of a little and has a nice little chat about how stereotypes are not cool, even if the other side just can’t see that.

        Same thing with African Americans and the kind of white people who like to tell jokes about African Americans.Report

      • greginak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I think the “third party” thing is sort of weak. Why is racism not offensive to me if there isn’t a black person around? Is using a racial epithet about blacks not offensive to me if i have black friends? Why is a offensive rape joke not offensive if a women isn’t’ around? Not saying there isn’t some point there, just not much. Maybe it’s in how people phrase their offense. If i think something is out of line i’ll own that as my belief even if it relates to someone not present.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Greg, you *SHOULD* be offended by those things.

        I’m talking about something that doesn’t offend you necessarily but would offend a third party… and you being offended on behalf of that party.

        Now perhaps you can’t imagine a situation where someone might be offended and you wouldn’t be and neither of you is wrong (I mean, you might say that if you wouldn’t be offended by it, this other person shouldn’t be… or, if this other person is right to be offended then you’d already be offended because, of course, you’re a right-thinking individual).

        But, run with me here, I’m talking about a situation where you can imagine someone saying “*I* am not offended, personally, but I’m offended on behalf of others.” Is that a bridge too far? Not something that you can see ever happening?Report

      • greginak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Oh i can picture it happening but i’ve worked with a lot of people who have said far far crazier things. So i can see it. Just seems sort of like a rare thing said mostly by clueless and inarticulate people. Of course i can see the point that there are many clueless and inarticulate people in the world.Report

  13. Michael Drew says:

    Pontificating about what’s funny is a doomed endeavor. It’s impossible to get right in any substantive way because humor is about harnessing the unexpected. At best, only skilled practitioners can tell us about techniques, and my guess is that even then, they’re not really talking about anything essential about humor per se, but just basically trading peripheral performance notes. The question of what’s truly funny, and what’s funny about it, is almost certainly too ineffable to expound upon.

    Don’t trust anyone who’s trying to tell you what’s funny and what’s not and why. If people are laughing, it’s funny, even if it’s mortifyingly offensive. The worst thing is when people try to tell you that something that’s clearly funny that’s also offensive isn’t funny when it’s clear that their problem is really with the offensiveness, but they’d rather pose as the arbiter of True Humor than admit that they’re just too PC for the joke. Ugh. Some things are funny and just terribly offensive: deal with it. Or, if you don’t want to deal with it because it’s too offensive, admit that’s the issue.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Yeah, but that only works if people are laughing.

      I’m reminded of that dinner scene in the pilot episode of Firefly, where Jayne is making “jokes” and everyone else is desperately wishing he’d just shut the hell up. A lot of the time, when people are talking about their humor being too “edgy” for the PC crowd, the jokes are a lot more Jayne Cobb and a lot less George Carlin.Report

    • Lenoxus in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Don’t trust anyone who’s trying to tell you what’s funny and what’s not and why. If people are laughing, it’s funny, even if it’s mortifyingly offensive. The worst thing is when people try to tell you that something that’s clearly funny that’s also offensive isn’t funny when it’s clear that their problem is really with the offensiveness, but they’d rather pose as the arbiter of True Humor than admit that they’re just too PC for the joke.

      This somewhat contradicts itself. Given that humor is indeed subjective and not objective, why does “funny” always trump “not funny”? You can’t both rely on subjectivity to make your point and then talk about something being “clearly funny”.

      That said, there is something fascinating going on with not only the whole “look how edgy I am” thing, but also the common response to it that you point out: “Hey, humor can touch on hot topics and be funny, but your problem is that you just aren’t funny.” I think there are several interrelated reasons for this. For one, no one wants to be a square (especially not a “PC” type, which has become its own insult), so we have to emphasize that our problem is with the specific joke lacking humor, not the offense-taker. For another, it’s obvious that calling something offensive won’t discourage the Jayne Cobbs out there (or the George Carlins, or whoever), but rather encourage them — so to hit ’em where it hurts, you have to say they fail at their attempted humor

      And thirdly, calling a joke funny is to praise it, so there’s not any easy coherent way to say “Yes, that’s funny, but it’s bad and you shoudn’t say it.” Indeed, just imagine someone saying that without a smirking subtext of “But please keep saying it, you naughty person, tee hee.” Would anyone today say that a typical blackface routine truly is as funny now as ever (after all, people laughed), it just happens to be morally wrong independently of its hilarity?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Lenoxus says:

        Whether people are laughing is an objective indicator, not a subjective one. It’s also not dispositive of funny, but it is a positive indicator. If people are laughing their asses off, it’s clearly funny, whatever else is true. If they’re not, then it might not be, but maybe it is. But if they’re laughing their assess off, then it’s definitely not not funny.

        “Hey, humor can touch on hot topics and be funny, but your problem is that you just aren’t funny.” I think there are several interrelated reasons for this. For one, no one wants to be a square (especially not a “PC” type, which has become its own insult), so we have to emphasize that our problem is with the specific joke lacking humor, not the offense-taker. For another, it’s obvious that calling something offensive won’t discourage the Jayne Cobbs out there (or the George Carlins, or whoever), but rather encourage them — so to hit ‘em where it hurts, you have to say they fail at their attempted humor.

        This is great is no one’s laughing, so that the joke or person is plausibly not funny. But it’s all apologia for BS if what we’re talking about is funny (i.e. people are laughing their asses off at it). “no one wants to be a square (especially not a “PC” type, which has become its own insult), so we have to emphasize that our problem is with the specific joke lacking humor, not the offense-taker” when the joke doesn’t lack humor is exactly the BS I hate. I’d be interested in hearing how uncommon you think it is, because it’s in fact really common.


        “thirdly, calling a joke funny is to praise it, so there’s not any easy coherent way to say ‘Yes, that’s funny, but it’s bad and you shoudn’t say it.'”?


        That little sentence in the inverted commas is awesomely coherent, and quite easy to just go ahead and say for anyone who feels that way about a joke. If we want to draw lines around what humor to engage in in the interest of not hurting (certain) people (which we should do), these are the terms in which we should do it. Doing it by pretending to be the humor critic par excellence just gets you ignored at best or dismissed as pretentious or worse at worst.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Lenoxus says:

        One stumbling block here is the way humor is both subjective and objective. A joke elicits lots of laughter, therefore lots of people find it funny… therefore it “is” funny? So then you turn around to the people who find it not-funny and say “Clearly, you’re wrong, I’ve proven it.” How does that work? Why does the laugher’s existence cause the non-laugher to not merely have a different mindset, but be objectively incorrect — and why it doesn’t work the other way around? (“The entire population of Freedonia is unamused, therefore your joke is not funny, despite what you may believe.”) Is it similarly mistaken when a film critic calls a box-office hit, one that lots of people clearly enjoyed, a “bad” film? Does he have to say “I hated this great movie?”

        I also think it’s possible for someone’s prior codes of decency to, over the course of their life, influence their genuine taste in humor, and there’s nothing wrong with this. The notion that we are all obligated to label anything anyone laughs at as “funny” in an objective sense, by extension praising it even if we personally dislike it, is silly. It even indicates a thin skin on the part of the joke-teller — why can’t he take criticism?

        Our culture has a related confusion about beauty. It’s “in the eye of the beholder”, but it’s also not insofar as you can get a lot of consensus about who is and isn’t beautiful. The subjective element means that an assertion that someone is beautiful (or not) carries subtext about how you feel about that person. There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch that captures what I’m saying well, where a groom’s best man makes a speech about how the bride is obviously not the most beautiful woman in the world, but the groom said so anyway, and isn’t that nice?

        I appreciate what you mean about that sentence (“Yes, that’s funny, but it’s bad and you shoudn’t say it”) being coherent, but I don’t think it works in the long run. When you call something funny, you are giving it a thumbs-up, not just making some comment without implication. Furthermore, I’m not sure very many people have actually had the reaction they’re accused of — secretly finding something funny but being too afraid to laugh. I think they genuinely don’t find it funny, and that they have every right to call it not-funny in contradiction to others’ opinion. Just what happens the cause of their difference of opinion? It could be a lot of things, including their personal identity or experiences or politics.

        And in a lot of cases, what’s going on is that the joke itself is making a point (such as “X-type people have trait Y”), and the funniness of the joke is necessarily tied up with the truth of the point. If you have reason to dispute the point (whether those reasons are good or bad) then you have a reason to dispute the whole enchilada. That’s why it’s a cop-out to say “Don’t be offended, it’s only a joke.” One may as well say “Don’t criticize him, it was only a speech.” Jokes are frequently “saying something.”

        Are you comfortable saying that you believe 1920s blackface was hilarious, but independently of that, it was wrong?Report

      • Kim in reply to Lenoxus says:

        I’m pretty sure you could write a killer blackface routine, right now.
        Of course, part of the humor would be how far fucking off the edge falling down drunk you’d have to be to do it on stage.

        … maybe @UCB?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Lenoxus says:

        “I’m pretty sure you could write a killer blackface routine, right now.”

        Congratulations, you invented Tropic Thunder.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

      It “is” funny because people are laughing… and that’s all there is to “funny.” There’s no more “is” to funny: that’s it.

      It’s people who make the disingenuous argument that something “isn’t” funny, even though people are laughing, and that’s why it’s not okay to make the joke rather than the offensiveness itself being the reason, who are going down the road of some kind of essentialist Aristotelian aesthetic explanation of humor. All just so they don’t have to own not liking the offensiveness of offensive jokes.

      On the “my morals have excised a big chuck of my sense of humor over the course of my life” tack, spare me. It’s exactly as you say: so you’re not laughing, so what? If lots of other people are, it’s funny – because that’s what funny means. It doesn’t mean anything more.

      The problem with “the problem with this offensive joke is that it’s not funny” is that it just don’t state what the problem is. Fine, your morals have influenced your sense of humor somewhat, but do we want to go so far as to say there won’t be any very offensive, funny jokes? That’s aesthetic Stalinism and it does’t do you any good when you run across very offensive, funny jokes in the wild. You ned to go into The Sky Is Purple mode then, when al along you could have just been in, “Look, this hurts people don’t do it mode.” People actually listen to that. Hell, that might even affect their sense of humor. But you haven’t actually affected their sense of humor until you have. Pissing on their leg and telling them that the joke that got a legitimate gut-laugh out of them isn’t, as it turns out, “actually funny” is not going to affect their sense of humor. It’s just going to make them think you’re pretentious.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Sorry, misthreaded.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I guess I have two central points I feel are unresolved, in part because I might not have expressed them clearly.

        One is that insofar as humor is subjective, it makes no sense to objectively declare anything funny or not-funny on the basis of anyone’s reaction. Perhaps some people are insisting that something is objectively not funny, but I’d suggest that their language really means “I myself don’t find it funny”, because that’s usually what we mean by applying a label of quality to creative pieces. But you have explicitly said that when a joke elicits laughter, it’s objectively funny, and therefore any wording to to effect of “That’s not funny” is objectively wrong. Do you see what’s so lopsided about that? Given enough time and/or nearby stoners, every statement becomes “objectively” funny, now and forever. Conversely, I could define a statement as funny if and only if every possible listener finds it funny, and hence cause all jokes to eventually be not-funny, given enough time and/or humorless people.

        My second point is that the offensiveness and non-funniness of something can be tied together — they’re not neatly distinct. And the response to it will also involve those two things being tied together: “Your joke was hurtful, and this indicates simultaneous problems with your sensitivity and your sense of humor.” Attacking the one and not the other isn’t always straightforwardly possible. Furthermore, even while jokes have points to make, funniness is their prime objective, so to attack them solely on the grounds of offense is to not attack them at all.

        I’m still curious about your answer to my gotcha question: Is blackface funny, or if not did it used to be funny? My intention isn’t really to trap you into saying something nasty on the Internet, it’s to get at the question of whether or not an approach of “That’s funny, but it’s wrong” is workable, given that (in my opinion) the statement “That’s funny” entails a general “agreement with” the joke, and hence implies that it’s not actually wrong.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        It was too dumb a gotcha for me to feel I needed to address it, but if it’s important to you, blackface clearly was funny.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …Assuming a critical mass of people legitimately laughed their asses off at some aspect of the “joke” (as opposed to just laughing at the idiocy of the person doing it), which actually I have no knowledge is true. So the actual answer is I have no fucking idea. But I take it you’d like me to make that assumption, which I’m willing to do to get you to realize that this isn’t actually a gotcha example at all.Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Are we allowed to say “You’re laughing because you’re racist, you dumbass mofo?”Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Thank you for answering. I appreciate what you’re saying and do not consider you racist for it. This has been helpful for my understanding of the varieties of language use in this domain.

        For what it’s worth, while I suppose it’s possible that minstrelsy was sometimes enjoyed “ironically” or in mockery of the actor rather than the character (especially if the character and audience was black, which probably happened at times) for the most part it was just conventional racist humor, playing on exaggerations of what white America really believed.

        And yes, if being found funny makes something “actually” funny by definition, then minstrelsy was funny. I just don’t think it’s useful to apply subjective labels in that way, because that’s not how they’re applied in practice — no one says “That movie was excellent and I hated it” except with a kind of smirk at the irony of their own statement. And if we do have to talk about art that way, then the terms “overrated” and “underrated” become sort of meaningless.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I appreciate what you’re saying and do not consider you racist for it.

        I wasn’t open to finding out that you did, but, gee, thanks.

        for the most part it was just conventional racist humor, playing on exaggerations of what white America really believed.

        You just flat-out know this? You’re a close scholar of the culture of the era?

        Besides, the nature of the humor was not the question. The question was, how funny did people find it, in that non-ironic, non-contemptuous-of-he-performer way. I don’t know that you know the answer to that.

        no one says “That movie was excellent and I hated it”

        I’m always on the lookout for exactly that movie, and though it rarely splits as starkly as “t was excellent and I hated it” (though it has), frequently my response to a movie will go something like, “I think that was a very great movie but I didn’t enjoy watching it very much.” People do say that, non-ironically and without a smirk, and everyone should be open to finding that to be their response to a movie.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:


        Sure, you can say that. Does that mean you’re weighing in on whether the thing they’re laughing at is “funny”? If the vast majority of people in a given context or era are laughing their assess off at something but they’re doing it due to having their racist sensibilities activated in some way by the humor, does that mean that the subject matter is not funny? When does it mean that? Maybe we need to get into some kind of control for having a representative room or something, so that in a given room the reaction may not reflect the reaction of society at large. I would allow, for example, that, even if we were to locate one of these fraternity slave auctions where for some reason what was going on had more than half the room laughing hysterically (I don’t know that you could locate that), we could say that what was going on was nevertheless “not funny” from society’s perspective, because the context of that room was so far afield from the broader context of society. But even then, to me funny remains simply a matter of whether a representative enough part of society finds subjectively something funny (which can be objectively positively indicated by a critical mass of people hysterically laughing, though not ruled out in absence thereof). It’s a function of prevailing cultural assumptions and sensibilities, i.e. relative to era and society.

        Do you have some standard by which you conclude that certain subject matter that gets people to laugh at it is not “actually funny,” because to be funny you have to be racist to think it’s funny? What’s the standard? And can flashing into a comedy club Quantum Leap-style the moment a joke is completed and the audience starts to react and finding the whole room doubled up in laughter ever tell us that there’s a pretty damn good chance that the preceding joke was funny? When not? In what eras or places? What jokes that would precede that would be excised from “funny” on account of a racism or other PC concern? How do we know them?Report

  14. Jim Heffman says:

    A really big moment in my life was when I took a trip to Europe and the tour bus driver started telling Irish Peasant jokes. They were exactly the same as the Polack jokes I’d heard my whole life, only with “Irish Peasant” instead of “Polack”.Report

  15. Michael M. says:

    First, good post! Second, how the hell did you write an entire post about humor and offense without mentioning the recently deceased Queen of Insult Humor, Joan Rivers, who managed to offend everyone at various points in her long career?

    Third, I got interested in a minor debate recently that erupted around Chris Lilley’s latest show, Jonah from Tonga, in which the white Australian comedian once again dons brownface to play a Tongan character he created on Summer Heights High. The reason it interested me is that it made me look at what I find funny and what I don’t, taking into account what I do and don’t find offensive. I loved Summer Heights High, which brings together a bunch of stereotypes in a mockumentary look at a “typical” high school. The three main characters are played by Lilley, and part of what I found engaging about the show is how good Lilley was at fleshing out his archetypes in unique, idiosyncratic ways that individualized each of them but never lost sight of the archetype they represented in their milieu. His characterizations were so skillfully rendered that at times it was almost possible to forget that the same person was playing all of them. But beyond that, it was just hilarious — racist, sexist, homophobic, offensive and funny as sh*t. And finding it funny, for me, circumvented any offense I might have otherwise felt. What I mean is, I could see that it was consciously offensive, but I wasn’t offended by any of it. In fact, “Mr. G,” the effeminate and outrageously egotistical drama teacher, is that character I (being a gay man) perhaps might have been most offended by and was also the character I always wanted more of.

    Lilley has now done two spin-offs, each based on one of those characters. I watched Ja’ime: Private School Girl earlier this year and thought it was a dud. Ja’ime (“Ja – may” and not “Jay – me”) outside of the Summer Heights High setting didn’t have enough to play off of. Lilley didn’t create an environment where her own self-obsession and megalomania could butt up against limitations imposed by other characters’ self-obsession and megalomania. It was every bit as sexist –relying on, playing with and exaggerating stereotypes about girls and women, to an even greater extent than in SHH — but it wasn’t funny and consequently seemed that much more offensive. And contrary to what @michael-drew says above, I didn’t find it unfunny because it was offensive, I found it unfunny because it wasn’t funny. I don’t think I was actually offended by it, I just noticed the offensiveness more.

    So I’m not interested in watching Jonah from Tonga because I suspect it would suffer from the same problems. But I find it interesting that the controversy over Lilley’s brownface is so much more heated now than it ever was, because Lilley’s not doing anything he hasn’t done before, quite successfully. That suggests to me that people of all political persuasions are much more capable of reacting to context than many give them credit for, and that people taking actual offense at humor that is calculated to be offensive is not as knee-jerk as partisans like to maintain it is.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Michael M. says:

      You found it unfunny because it didn’t make you laugh. And it doesn’t really prove much to reflect on the fact that there are offensive things that fail to make some people laugh.Report

    • Kim in reply to Michael M. says:

      the problem with jokes about stereotypes is when folks don’t understand the stereotype you’re playing off of.

      Comedians regularly write jokes to see who can get run off the stage the fastest.Report

  16. Vikram Bath says:

    One of the ideas that comes up on Marginal Revolution and Econlog from time to time is that all politics is about which groups are to be valued and which are to be devalued. If you want to increase that status of a group, you might proclaim that all jokes at that group’s expense are off limits. Or, if the group’s status is on a more solid foundation, you might say that you can only make fun of that group and place everyone else under protective status.

    So it there are probably as many rules about what is allowable humor as there are types of politics.

    That makes me sad.Report

    • Lenoxus in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      Why is it sad? It just means there are a lot of different tastes/styles and you can pick what you like, or invent your own.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Lenoxus says:

        It’s sad to me because I hate to see something as valuable as comedy get caught up in the needs of something as trivial as politics.

        I recognize that other people might value comedy less or politics more and thus not feel sad or feel sad in the opposite direction.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to Lenoxus says:

        I suppose I naturally assume that politics will work its way into everything, no matter what. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the sad part; we (people, Americans, whoever) can’t get united behind any example of art instead of forming teams around it. Humor being a form of art, it exhibits symptoms of the problem.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Lenoxus says:

        I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now that you say it, I agree.Report

  17. Jaybird says:

    The humor of making other people search for a punchline before you give it and have them only find offensive ones.

    Here’s a joke you can tell:
    “I like my coffee the way I like my slaves.”
    Give the person you’re telling the joke to a second or so in order to go through their own list of adjectives and then interrupt with “Free. What the hell were *you* thinking?”

    Everybody laugh.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Jaybird says:

      “How does every joke about black people start?” (looks around) “Okay…”Report

    • Lenoxus in reply to Jaybird says:

      An interesting thing about that is that even apart from the word “black”, there’s something uncomfortable going on thanks to the core joke, the wordplay on “free”. Presumably you want your coffee to be “free as in beer” and your (ick, “your”) slaves to be “free as in speech”. But someone listening to the joke can easily cross those wires, momentarily interpreting it as “I’d like to pay nothing for slaves” before catching themselves.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Lenoxus says:

        Well, my reaction to the joke was to go through all of the coffee adjectives I had and trying to find the best “funny” one… “black”? No… “Ethiopian”? No… “Fragrant?”

        And then got hit with “Free”.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Lenoxus says:

        There’s a similar one that functions on an inverse mechanic (coupled with getting a bit “meta” about how jokes are normally supposed to work) – it’s not so much that the listener keeps hitting offensive answers in his search for the correct one, it’s that the obvious correct answer will never occur to him (because he knows it’s supposed to be a joke, so the answer can’t be obvious/correct), and then he gets whacked.

        “What do you call a black man flying an airplane?”

        “A pilot, you freaking racist.”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Lenoxus says:

        The humor seems to come from putting the other guy on the spot and then beating them up for wrongthink.

        Which is, all things considered, pretty funny.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Lenoxus says:


        I heard a variant of that from a local in the men’s room of a Belizean bar.

        “What do you call two Mexican firemen?”

        “Uh, I don’t know.”

        “Jose and hose b.”


        “What do you call a Mexican who flies an airplane?”


        “A pilot. What are you, racist?”

        The priming effect of the first joke made the punchline of the second one work even better.Report

  18. ScarletNumbers says:

    1) I find the second video offensive precisely because it contains Russell Brand.

    2) Rape can be funny. As George Carlin once said, picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.

    3) I was actually listening to Opie & Anthony when Louis CK originally made those comments about Palin. I may have literally ROFL when he said “f*ing retard-making [C-word]”. Mostly because I couldn’t believe he said it, but also because it was true; Palin did indeed make a retard.

    CK once had a nice discussion with the late Patrice O’Neal on Opie & Anthony about the derivation of the words “kike” and “nigger”.Report

  19. I’m pretty sure I completely agree with you on this one, Tod.

    I’ll just add that, while his stand up routine is often very hit or miss for me, Jim Norton’s keynote speech at the JFL Festival this year strikes me as a really good companion to this:

    The most pertinent part is probably between the 8 and 20 minute mark, and especially between 13 and 18 minutes.

    Key quote: “The gift of what we do as comics . . . is that we take things that aren’t funny and we allow people to look at them in a way that makes them laugh.”Report