Family Guy and the Banality of Evil

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241 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    A lot of entertainment these days strikes me as being needlessly crude and rude. There is no subtlety in presentation. This is especially true for comedy, where the writers seem to go for the most outrageous or offense laugh. I believe people call this form of humor dead baby comedy. There is no skill and its not very funny. In the past, the inability to get too crude forced a degree of subtlety on Hollywood that led to better writing and skilled productions.Report

    • Thanks for this, @leeesq . I do wonder if this is something that’s always been with us. Maybe with ebbs and flows.

      I do realize that by saying that, I’m undermining my own argument from the OP. Because what Orwell seems to be imagining is a future in which the cruel humor exists in a somehow singular form (i.e., cinema, perhaps sponsored by the state), or unique in intensity (constant bombardment of the pro-cruelty message).Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        That’s EXACTLY what Orwell was going for. It’s the Colosseum spectacle of the “other” loosing and the right and just (our side) winning.

        Contrast that to FG and it’s just crude humor. Oh, and I’ve seen that bull in the china shop. Hilarious. Does it desensitize people to the plight of others or is it insensitive? I’m sure some folks think that. Other people don’t and / or consider that opinion over rated or too pretentious.

        To each their own.Report

      • I think you’re probably right in what Orwell was going for. But I don’t see what I wrote as being principally about desensitization, although perhaps desensitization is a component of what I’m describing.

        What I (I think) am trying to argue is two things….

        1. …that by the act of watching we might be participating in the cruelty. As you say, though, “to each their own,” and maybe that’s a sufficient answer.

        2 …that we should examine how we justify cruelty to ourselves and how we decide what is and is not cruel. I believe we commit cruelty everyday and create facile, trite, (and banal) justifications for that cruelty. I admit this point was not at all clear from the OP, but that is what prompted me to write it in the first place.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        ” I believe we commit cruelty everyday and create facile, trite, (and banal) justifications for that cruelty.”

        I agree with this.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “I believe we commit cruelty everyday and create facile, trite, (and banal) justifications for that cruelty.”

        this sounds like an interesting start to a separate post, even if on first take i’m all “what the heck does this guy work at gitmo?”Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Is it wrong that I laughed at what Orwell was writing about?
        The mother trying in vain to protect her children from their deaths, utterly hopeless.
        I think it was the sheer pathos, honestly.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Oh, dear LORD! You haven’t partaken of any of the performance art from Boston, have you?

      Subtlety is just part of the fracas.Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      Speaking as someone who grew up when “Truly Tasteless Jokes” (through “Truly Tasteless Jokes V”) were books that were bought clandestine and passed around the third- and fourth-grade boys, dead baby comedy was really a thing of the 80s.

      It’s true that you never would have got Family Guy on the air in 1983. Heck, people were still trying (successfully) to ban Dungeons and Dragons well into the later 80s.

      But I know a lot of third-through-fifth graders and none of those kids make dead baby jokes. They still make all sorts of “age-inappropriate” jokes, but the dead baby joke is dead.

      At least around my neck of the woods.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I blame Canada for all the dead baby jokes.
        Bloody sods made the damn fucking things topical.

        In the dim part of my brain that winces when I laugh at a truly awful joke, I find dead baby jokes worse than Holocaust jokes (at least the ones I’ve heard, when told well).Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        Dead Baby jokes are like the Garbage Pail Kids; it was a thing in its time, but that time will not be with us again.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        (If you’re a previous owner of Truly Tasteless Jokes, you’ll probably want to read Being Blanche, a memoir from Ashton Applewhite. So many memories.)Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I remember sneaking out to Earl’s Fruit Stand to buy Garbage Pail Kids with lunch money and/or allowance when I was in middle school.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I am not ashamed to admit that I still have my shoebox full of Garbage Pail Kids.

        I am only somewhat ashamed to admit that I have the Garbage Pail Kids Movie on DVD/Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I bought my son some Garbage Pail Kids when they had a brief resurgence in the mid-aughts, and he was thoroughly unimpressed. Apparently they were more timely than I’d thought: whereas we found them edgy and fun, he just found them boring.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Garbage Pail Kids without Cabbage Patch Kids are dumb, not subversive.

        Well, it probably also helps to have a bunch of grownups who find Cabbage Patch Kids to be vaguely important. Or, at least, worth rioting over.Report

      • I gotta say that the garbage pail kids really disturbed me when I was growing up (in elementary school from 1980 to 1986).Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    There’s a case to be made that what you say is a problem is the entire point of Family Guy – skirting up to and then over lines to insult the audience, with the audience either being unaware or worse, appreciative of it. The opening credits take a deliberate reference to All in the Family (which was famously “no, that character’s not supposed to be the *good* guy, you idiots”) and then expand in to a full blown Las Vegas spectacle.

    But the case is severely diminished in that if they made this point literally in the first minute of the first episode of the show, what the heck have they been doing since then?Report

    • Kolohe,

      I don’t quite follow your last sentence. Are you saying that FG undermines its own justification for “cruel” humor?Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        It undermines it in the sense that it continues to exist after making its point. Though Family Guys was a idea in Macfarlane’s head for while, it was developed and first aired in a world that already had the Simpsons and South Park (and King of the Hill). My take is that MacFarlane & company wanted a work that would out-cruel the early pieces of each of those works, and subvert the ideas of laughing with vs laughing at.

        And if they would have quit when they were first cancelled, it would have been brilliant.

        But they were brought back, and unlike Simpsons and to a much lesser extent, South Park, had no plan B, or at least a way of developing a show and characters beyond the archetypes / stereotypes that they built their fun house mirror universe on.

        Weirdly enough, though, they have managed to do some subtlety, and character & world building via two spinoffs.Report

      • I haven’t really gotten into the spin offs (I know about the “Cleveland Show”….is “American Dad” the second one, or are you referring to another?). I will say that the recent’ish episodes (say, from 2008 or so to today, and I haven’t seen many of them) I’ve seen seem of lower quality by which I mean I just don’t find them that funny. Not out of me taking offense or being concerned about the cruelty, but because I just don’t laugh or it seems formulaic.

        But thanks for clarifying your point.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      Family Guy lives off the trope of “Crossing the Line Twice”. As does South Park.

      The problem with crossing the line twice is, well, it’s not funny if you just cross the line. And everyone’s line is a little different.

      Done right, it’s hilarious. Done even a bit wrong? Epic fail.Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    This dovetails with a piece I’m batting about in my brain wherein I tackle the oft-cited idea that, “Children can be so cruel,” by pointing out that PEOPLE can be so cruel. And at least children can blame it on, ya know, being children. We should probably talk more about the MYRIADS OF FORMSESESES that cruelty takes in society. I mean, there are comedians who not only argue that comedy can be offensive in ways that other art forms or means of self-expression can’t be, but that it must be in order to be funny.Report

    • Kazzy,

      For some reason, your comment here reminds me of that discussion a while back about some comedians having their audience use the n-word. My opinion then was that if I were in that situation, my deciding to use the n-word would be a way of performing racism. There were certainly disagreements to that point of view (and I don’t think I acquitted myself well in the discussion). But something like that was in the back of my mind when I wrote this OP.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      oh, man, you have no idea.

      Someone married a guy as part of a long-form performance art comedy.
      The straight guy he married apparently didn’t realize he was a guy…

      [I’m honestly not sure if this is legally actionable, and I’m kinda wondering what the legal folks around here would say — even if the guy went by a different name, he wasn’t trying to pretend to be someone else, which I think is the issue with using alternative names… I’m not sure deceiving someone about your gender is legally actionable within Mass. marriage laws, anymore…]Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Slate recently had an article comparing blackface and drag.

    Now, this is something that had never occurred to me… but, now that I see it, I can’t unsee it.

    But let’s say that we go back to when my first awareness of, oh, drag being brought into the mainstream and that takes us to… the Love Shack video, maybe? (Though I know that there were many jokes made about Boy George a handful of years prior.)

    At the time, it wouldn’t have made sense to me at all to hear that gay guys shouldn’t engage in drag. The argument would have struck me as a disingenuous attempt at homophobia. Well, at the time, I probably would have freaked out and had some minor gay panic but if me now would be there, I’d probably see it that way, I think.

    But now? That’s a comparison that, as I said, I can’t unsee.

    But that makes me wonder what forms of humor that are out there now that, 25 years hence, will be making me say “I have *NEVER* even thought about that!” when someone points out that it’s not cool to make fun of… well, if I could give an example, it’d obviously not be something I never thought of.

    But that makes me wonder how much of this is due to how much casual cruelty we’re currently marinating in versus how much of culture defines these things for us. (“Can you believe that they put Mike and Molly on television?” “Can you believe that they put Modern Family on the air?” “Can you believe that TV Land Land Land is still showing episodes of The Big Bang Theory?”)Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      That article is lighter fluid.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Well, I found the question to be much more interesting than the article itself.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I should say that the question is lighter fluid. If you want to see the “SJWs” eating themselves in a way that might make Freddie cringe, look for discussions of “drag is (like) blackface.” You’ll find people offended on multiple dimensions, epithetic acronyms you’ve likely never encountered prior to this discussion, offense taken to said epithetic acronym, offense taken to the offense taken to the acronym, and so on. On the one hand, it’s hard to watch, but on the other, it lays a lot of issues on the table.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        There is a part of me that enjoys the whole “SJWs eating each other” phenomenon for its own sake (the Oppression Olympics is one hell of a spectator sport) but the parts of me that are not bad parts know that this is part and parcel with progress.

        I mean, talking about Third Wave Feminism would have been seen as a reductio argument around the time of the beginning of the Second Wave and positively Dadaesque around the time of the First Wave (well… maybe not. “Flapperwalks” and the like might have been seen as just absurd enough to qualify as a reductio.)

        All that to say: this is what getting old feels like.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Ah, I found someone who said what I was trying to say.

        From @clarkhat’s twitter feed:

        Memetic battles are just like infantry battles. You’ve got to occupy the ground, yes, but you’ve also got to scout, turn flanks, etc.

        First, prepare the battlespace. Stretch the Overton window. Then the main force pushes in. 2015: SJWs are vanguard shock troops for left.

        Gay rights was a crazy radical idea in 1950. Gay marriage was a crazy radical idea in 1990.

        Now, he’s arguing this point in service to his own crazy political thoughts (which which I agree) but here’s his conclusion:

        Likely none of these will ever happen. But if they are to be mainstream political positions in 2045, need to be said today even tho “crazy”

        The fight over whether or not (and the extent to which) drag is like blackface will determine what is mainstream in 2045.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        “When a new doctrine is proposed, it goes through three stages. First, people say it is not true; then, that it is against religion; and in the third stage, that it was long known.”

        It will perhaps come as no surprise that I frequently agree with SJWs, even if I can find them annoying at times (youth is annoying, even for the young). They spend a lot of time saying things that need to be said, even if they also spend a lot of time arguing over minutia, or getting upset at pin pricks when so many bunker busters are being dropped.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I just watched a 30 Rock where Jenna is in blackface and Tracy is in drag and whiteface. Mostly: they ran out of pancake, so one of his hands is white and the other is a monster claw. And those were throwaway gags — the main plot was about Liz sitting next to Oprah on a plane. Anyway, the blackface was treated as far more offensive. Tracy in whiteface and drag is nothing new: recall Honky Grandma be Tripping.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I don’t understand what these sorts of issues have to do with single Jewish women.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Well, when Jack Donaghy was Harriet Tubman (don’t ask), he was still white.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Also when he was Tracy’s mother and father. Which may be the funniest scene in the history of sitcoms.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Can you believe they’re still talking about doing an Arrested Development movie?Report

    • That was an interesting article. And while I’m no fan of drag at all, I’d never thought of that aspect of it.

      As for what I take to be your main point (and please correct if I’m wrong)–that we often perform cruelty without even realizing that’s what we’re doing–I think I’m arguing about something different even though it probably is cruel that we or I are sometimes cruel without realizing it. I think we often or even usually do. Or rather, we should realize it but we do what we have to to lie to ourselves about it. I think that phenomenon is at play much more often than we’d like to admit.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        we or I are sometimes cruel without realizing it.

        This may be an area of disagreement between us. Seems to me that by a normal understanding of the world “cruel”, the person acting that way must intend the harmful outcome. So it’s sorta a category error to say that person can act cruelly without realizing it.

        On the other hand, it’s certainly true that lots of people who are on the receiving end of certain types of actions identify them as “cruel”. But I think we need to be clear that a person getting their feelings hurt is not equivalent to experiencing something cruel.

        And just to come clean on this a bit, I actually have very little sympathy – not none, tho! – for people who “get their feelings hurt”.

        Not none. But not much.Report

      • I guess I’m talking more about the times where even by our own standards we are cruel.

        There may very well be room for debate when we are accused of acting cruelly and yet the accusation is not a good one.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Maybe this is a punching up/down distinction?

        Which might help me frame it for myself a little bit better. In the 60’s, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. In the 70’s, it was removed from the DSM, but it was still publicly shameful (in the US, anyway… France gave us La Cage aux Folles which probably looks really different in the rear view mirror than it probably did through the windshield). In the 80’s, kids in elementary school were still playing “smear the queer” on the playground.

        With the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and with Gay Marriage an institution rather than a punchline, Drag is not obviously punching up.

        Of course, there are different types of Drag and some types of Drag probably are comparable with Blackface while other types are more of a celebration of transfemininity/femininity rather than a mockery of it.

        But the punching up/down dynamic makes us start playing the whole “Oppression Olympics” game which leads us to making it okay for this sentence to be typed by this person but downright bigoted for the exact same sentence to be typed by that one and we’re left looking at a sentence that we can’t judge without asking “was the person who said this white/male/cis/straight?” before we feel like we can comment on the argument being made.

        Which is not where we want to be either.

        But, for a few seconds anyway, the punching up/down dynamic explains some of it.Report

      • @jaybird

        Maybe, but that’s not exactly what I think I’m talking about, either, because I do think punching up can involve cruelty that is still unacceptable. But yes, if we’re examining drag or blackface minstrelsy, then the distinction enters into play.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “in the US, anyway… France gave us La Cage aux Folles which probably looks really different in the rear view mirror than it probably did through the windshield).”

        The American Robin Williams / Nathan Lane La Cage aux Folles doesn’t hold up too well, imo. “Let’s make ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’ but put Poitier in whiteface makeup to avoid offending the bigots!”. Heck, both Gene Hackman’s and Dianne Wiest’s characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts written as thin as gruel with only the talents of the two actors providing any kind of presence.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Comparing drag to blackface is tricky. Blackface was one of the ways that White Americans kept African-Americans in second class status for years. It was more than just a form of popular and common entertainment, it was an expression of power. It showed that White Americans could degrade and make fun of African-Americans and there was nothing that African-Americans could do back. In Europe and elsewhere, there was a similar use of anti-Semitic caricatures to put Jews in their place.

      Drag is an expression of certain aspects of LGBT identity. It does embrace certain negative stereotypes about women but the intent isn’t to bully and make fun of women in the same way that blackface made fun of African-Americans. The purpose of drag is to transcend the majority limitations on gender and sexual identity. Its not exactly punching up but is at least punching forward rather than backward.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I don’t disagree with your views Lee. In fact, I guess I sorta agree with them. The only thing I find problematic is that here we are, straight white guys in 2015, expressing views about what it MEANS for white folks to black-face, what that means to for whites and blacks, or what it MEANS for gays to dress in drag.

        I’d like to think I’m done with all that. Man, it’s tiring having to have views of the whys and whats of everything challenging straight white male culture. Exhausting, actually.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        @stillwater , well somebody had to comment on it. And I consider myself Jewish, not white.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Jewish isn’t a color. I mean, if we go that route, I’m European Protestant. I let it go when I was young. I feel better for doing so.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        let me know when you’re accepting scholarship money for being a minority.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I’ve always loved watching drag shows. I am baffled as to how it could be considered blackface. What aspects of womanhood is it supposed to be mocking?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        @north if I’m reading the article correctly, drag shows mock women by using a particular template of female stereotypes as a basis for the show and the persona of the drag queen. That is, the catty and somewhat superficial female stereotype. I might be wrong, because I’ve never been to a drag show, but they don’t seem to adopt the girl next door stereotype for their shows from what I can see.

        @kim there are only fourteen million of us out of a world of over seven billion people. Many people want to kill Jews simply for being Jews. If that doesn’t make us a minority, I’m not sure what does.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @north – read the Slate piece (or not). The thrust is that drag performances often (not always) make use of denigrating stereotypes of women as slutty, catty, shallow and bitchy, whilst exaggerating or emphasizing certain “feminine” physical characteristics (lips, breasts, butts, etc.)

        It’s not a huge leap to see parallels to minstrelsy, which made use of stereotypes of black laziness/stupidity/etc., while exaggerating African-American physical features like lips and skin coloration.

        I think drag performers are far too much a fairly powerless minority for me to really consider drag really offensive to women; but I can see why the comparison is being made.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        There are also gay guys who dress up in stereotypically male outfits.

        Watching “Paris is Burning” it was striking how many drag queens really wanted to be a middle class (white) housewife, and a good few were thinking about sex change operations.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I’ve read the article; I suppose YMMV, some people can find offense in anything. In Minneapolis, for instance, the shows are mainly celebrity impersonation or song reinterpretation so really the only people arguably being mocked are the celebrities being impersonated.
        Certainly I’ve never seen drag queens suggest they represent women in general. Still I suppose it’d depend on the show. The idea that drag in general, irrespective of the content, is denigrating to women still baffles me. I can imagine an offensive show or an offensive queen who is denigrating to women but drag in general? Certainly not.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @north – We used to go pretty regularly to one of the big drag shows around here*, and certainly that never occurred to me at the time (and I still don’t think I totally buy it, mainly due to power dynamics and prevalence and such); but Ted Danson got a lot of heat for his blackface routine at Whoopi Goldberg’s roast (a routine he had supposedly worked up with her), suggesting that whatever an individual’s intentions are (in his case, probably not to denigrate black people, since he and she were an item at the time IIRC), the entire enterprise can become just too tainted by the associations.

        * this would have been in the late 80’s through the mid-90’s or so at a gay club. There wasn’t a ton of celebrity impersonation, the performers generally created their own personas; but those personas were very often stereotypical outsized queeny/catty ones, certainly fairly common amongst gay men who *didn’t* do drag also, but due to the costuming/physical presentation seemed intended to be read as “female”.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        The purpose of drag is to transcend the majority limitations on gender and sexual identity.

        This. Now, first, I’ll admit I’m not that familiar with the local drag community. If there even is one around here.

        But, being part of the theatre community, I do know three guys who do things in drag. (Down in Atlanta.) All of them are gay men, I *think*. (Not 100% sure about one.) All of them are somewhat feminine acting in normal life.

        I think the distinction between blackface and drag is complicated, but there’s an easy point there: There are not actually white guys that run around with an identity of a black man, or wishing they could look ‘blacker’ or whatever. Or, if there are, they certainly are not the same people that are putting on minstrel shows!

        If there was some sort of actual ‘race dysphoria’, where white people knew they were actually black people in the wrong skin, and went around darkening their skin so it fit their mental image, and a few of them put on shows with that persona…in that universe, we might have to rethink condemning blackface. That isn’t here, though. (And, yes, I know the reverse *does* happen, but that’s not really relevant to this.)

        Whereas there *is* quite lot of gender blurring going on, or ‘blurring of the things often associated with gender, even if it’s not really related’, and often it is *exactly* those men who do drag. They’re not putting on a mask, mocking ‘real women’, and then taking it off. They’re putting forward an aspect of *them*. Maybe it’s who they really are, maybe it’s just a part of their personality, but it’s *them*.

        This is not to say mocking of women *cannot happen*, obviously it does, but men mock women by speaking in a high-pitched voice and saying stupid stuff. Going and putting on a dress and doing a drag show…that’s sorta way past any rational mockery, and ironically doesn’t really work because of *other* sexist assumptions about masculinity. The exact sort of sexist guys that would create entire routines to mock women are the same guys that aren’t going to risk their masculinity by doing drag!

        As Veronica D. said below…cis women do not own femininity. Hell, cis and trans women together do not own femininity. Cultural appropriation is a thing…gender appropriation is not.

        And trying to make sure that only women can be ‘feminine’ is literally the opposite of what feminists should be doing.

        Now, assuming the claim is true, there is a valid point in that drag *often* exaggerates the worst stereotypes about women…which is a good reason to ask drag shows to *stop that*, or at least have some sort of balanced portrayal, not condemn the entire thing.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        I think the distinction between blackface and drag is complicated, but there’s an easy point there: There are not actually white guys that run around with an identity of a black man, or wishing they could look ‘blacker’ or whatever. Or, if there are, they certainly are not the same people that are putting on minstrel shows!

        I’m not sure about that. There is a very long tradition of white folks running around trying to effectively identify as black. And my guess is that if you look back at the black face tradition, it was as much about white performers wanting to cop some of the authenticity of black music as it was about just mocking black folks.

        The biggest difference between drag and blackface is that race/ethnicity is not like sex/gender.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        The trans community talks a lot about a felt, internal sense of gender. Which fine. However, critics will then often lampoon that idea by talking about felt, internal senses of race or (even worse) species. These latter things seem absurd, so why is gender different?

        These attacks on trans folks are pretty shallow and transparent. The people who make them tend to be pretty awful people. However, even terrible people can sometimes say true things, so we need an answer to the criticism.

        One answer might be to say, “Okay yeah fine. Those felt identities are as valid as ours.” But that seems wrong to me.

        Many trans activists are resistant to submitting to the opinions of science, as the medical community has a pretty bad track record making up horrible shit about trans folks. But I think ultimately we have to look to science if we want to answer this.

        There are people who claim to be “trans-racial,” like a white dude saying he is really black, which WTF asshole no you are not shut up. Likewise — well, not to open a big can of worms — but furries exist, and they often adopt the rhetorical forms of trans activism. So what else can we do? I don’t want to beat up on furries, god bless their yiffy hearts, but no, trans people are not like gender-furries OMFG just stop!

        Anyway, I think we have sufficiently good science these days. There do seem to be gendered brains, to some degree. It’s hard to talk about this, cuz sexist assholes play this fact to justify their nonsense, and arguments are soldiers. But yeah, gender seems to some degree “baked in.” Furthermore, scientists have found morphological differences in the brains of trans people, where in aggregate we have some features more like our identified gender compared with our assigned birth gender.

        In other words, there are likely parts of my brain that are more like a typical woman’s brain than a man’s brain.

        Or not. This stuff is statistical. Perhaps I’m an outlier. Plus there are some other features where the differences are not present. And who knows what my brain is like, except I can say with confidence that it’s weird.

        We trans people respond to hormones in a really interesting way. Most folks, if their hormone levels are off compared to the norm for their assigned birth gender, will feel kinda anxious and unhappy. For we trans folks, the opposite occurs. When we begin hormones, OMG our stress levels go down and our feeling of well-being goes up. Like, a lot.

        This happens to most of us and it seems to be a real thing. It’s been happening since the beginning, back when doctors had only sketchy ideas of how hormones worked. Still, you changed a trans woman’s hormones balances and her happiness improved.

        There are probably racial brain differences — but of course here the politics is even more fucked up, and if gender-brain argument are soldiers, these arguments are nuclear fucking bombs.

        (Although according to the pope I’m a nuclear bomb. So there is that.)

        (I’m not really a nuclear bomb.)

        Anyway, it seems highly plausible that folks end up trans cuz our pre-natal hormone levels got all messed up as our brains developed, and that stuff once set is set for life. It makes sense.

        How would this work for race?

        Which, biracial people exist, but that is not what we are talking about. Is there some part of the brain structure that gives a felt, internal racial identity?

        How would that evolve? I can see how a gender-sense would evolve. We’re a sexual species. In each little clan there were women and men, and they evidently took on somewhat different roles, at least in how they approach sexuality. For example, (some) women could have babies and men could not [1]. It was kind of important that they have sex with each other in the way we need to have sex to make babies. Then the women needed to carry the babies and nurse them and so on.

        (Insert big dumb conversation about hunter gatherers by people who actually know fuck-all about hunter gathers. But let’s move on.)

        Do we think there was something similar for race, some evolved felt sense, particularly how we conceive race today, matching the boundaries of race to which we subscribe? I doubt it. I suspect that race, insofar as it is a felt, internal sense, is almost all social. So people who claim to be “trans-racial” are kinda full of shit.

        Furries are just adorable. We should hug them often.

        [1] Trans men can (sometimes) have babies. However, I’m not sure how much this applies to the evolution of hominids.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        yeah, people’s brains are weird, weird things. and it’s not surprising that boy brains and girl brains are different. And that people have all sorts of weirdness between the two. (Sidenote: it’s also not surprising that a girl’s brain raised in a boy’s body grows up a little different than one raised in a girl’s body).

        Race is pretty much a purely social construct… except when it comes to sex. But, even then, folks are keyed to react (in Interesting Ways) to novelty and genetic diversity. If you asked a Cherokee what he was, that’s what he’d respond — “I’m a Cherokee” regardless of what color skin he had.

        Furries are poor, deluded souls enamored of way too much drama. To be avoided, and not just when they’re chewing live wires.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        The trans community talks a lot about a felt, internal sense of gender. Which fine. However, critics will then often lampoon that idea by talking about felt, internal senses of race or (even worse) species. These latter things seem absurd, so why is gender different?

        The short answer is that race and ethnicity are continuous variables, while sex is categorical. Things get more complicated when you add gender back in as a concept separate from biological sex, but not that much more complicated.

        A person is born with either male sex characteristics or born with female sex characteristics or maybe they’re born with both. And like you said, brains are to some degree gendered, so that expands the number of categories to include people whose brains match their other sex characteristics and people whose brains don’t match. The categories can increase, but they’re still categories.

        I’ve always found it odd that so many of the people who insist that trans people are all to some degree faking it and mentally ill are the same people who insist that men and women are just different. That should be a very obviously contradictory position. If brains developed to be to some degree gendered, then it only follows that in some not trivial percentage of human beings the brain development will be different than development of the rest of the body. Of course, the opposite also holds. People who accept transgender people but insist that there there are no meaningful biological differences between male and female brains are equally contradictory.

        Race and ethnicity are different. A white man and black woman have a baby and that baby is not either black or white; the baby is a shuffled deck of genes from both parents. Your genes can show 50 percent European ancestry and 50 percent Sub-Saharan African ancestry. And when that person has his or her own kids, that deck gets shuffled again with someone else.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        There is a very long tradition of white folks running around trying to effectively identify as black.

        No. There is a moderately long tradition of white folks trying to take black culture and re-purpose it for whites, while disguising the origin.

        There is a fairly recent tradition of white folks attempting to join into specific black cultures, or claim they were part of it when they weren’t really. (OTOH, culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there are white people that legitimately grew up in what people think of as a ‘black culture’. And, of course, plenty of black people that didn’t.)

        Two different things. The second didn’t exist until…the 80s? About the same time the first ended.

        Actually, minstrel shows probably fit in that list also, at the start. So three things: First minstrel shows and blatantly stealing (and making up large sections of) the entire thing, then (Around 1910-1920) white people repackaging it and pretending it had nothing to do with black people, then (around 1980) white people attempting to claim membership in the culture. Three distinct things that happened one after another, with obviously some overlap.

        Only the first there involves white people pretending to be black. Then white people pretended to do things that black people did, and then white people pretended to be part of the same culture (but not of the same race) as black people.

        And my guess is that if you look back at the black face tradition, it was as much about white performers wanting to cop some of the authenticity of black music as it was about just mocking black folks.

        Yes. Minstrel shows, when they started, had somewhat reasonable premises. Their start coincided with Americans starting to examine the role of black people in society. White people showed up who were curious about how black people behaved in private. They even sometimes had actual black people in them. There sometimes was ‘actual research’ done. (Granted, sociological research in the 1840s was…uh…crap. But whatever.) It’s worth pointing out that often the ‘MC’ of a minstrel show was a well-spoken and smart ‘black guy’…not all the black characters were stupid.

        We tend to forget this particular history of racism in the US, but society was probably *less* racist when minstrel shows started (1830s) than when they ended (1910s). We didn’t lose minstrel shows because white people became less racist…we lost them because white people became *more* racist, and didn’t want black people, even pretend black people, near them. (So white people just started taking black culture and presenting it as the product of white people.) And also other forms of entertainment had shown up.

        So if someone particularly wants to defend ‘real minstrel shows’, that’s fine. But I think we should all realize *those sort* of minstrel shows haven’t existed for a century, and *since then* blackface has been used for…well, mockery. 99% of the time, just mockery. If we want to say those newer things aren’t actually minstrel shows, okay, I’ll go with that…but it still doesn’t really change the history of blackface.

        The biggest difference between drag and blackface is that race/ethnicity is not like sex/gender.

        Actually, it sorta is. Except that some people, like Mary Cheney, have gotten really confused.

        If gender actually is a continuum (And I have no objection to that.) then, logically, everyone is, in a sense, multi-ethnic, and can express whatever damn aspect of their ethnicity they want.

        The people complaining about drag are using the same sort of logic that says Elizabeth Warren can’t actually be Native American, or that white people can’t be Hispanic. They seem to be assuming that the men involved in drag are *faking* it, acting in an exaggerated feminine manner to mock women and/or to make money, and they aren’t actually like that.

        I…don’t think that’s true. I think that pretty much all men involved in drag are doing it because it is some aspect of them.Report

      • Avatar j r says:


        If gender actually is a continuum (And I have no objection to that.) then, logically, everyone is, in a sense, multi-ethnic, and can express whatever damn aspect of their ethnicity they want.

        I don’t know how you are defining gender, but sex is most definitely not a continuum. And that is the difference to which I am referring. You can toss all of these ideas into a big identity studies word salad, but that obfuscates more than it enlightens.

        Easier just to say that, no, draq queens are not much like Al Jolsen in the ways that count. And it’s likely that anyone claiming to be offended at drag queens is concern trolling.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        It is possible that sex operates along a continuum, albeit differently than gender. We know definitively that sex isn’t a binary: XX and XY are not the only possibilities. So how do we categorize those other sexes? Do we just make more discrete buckets? If so, than no continuum. But when we consider other things that factor into biological sex, we could end up with so many buckets and so many of them bleeding together that we essentially create a continuum.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        I don’t know how you are defining gender, but sex is most definitely not a continuum.

        …which is why I said gender, not sex? Gender identity is, indeed, a continuum.(1)

        It is perfectly possible for someone with a male body to have a female gender identity, and identify (or not) as a trans female.

        It *also* is perfectly possible for someone with a male body to have a *mostly* male gender identity, but also have an aspect of themselves that enjoys dressing up as a woman for short periods of time, either in private (aka, cross-dressing?), or to perform in front of an audience that knows that ‘she’ is really a man (aka, drag). This is possible even *without* them ever considering themselves as a woman, or switching back and forth on what they consider themselves based on context. (Which recently has gotten the term ‘gender-fluid’, I believe?)

        It is, of course, also perfectly possible for someone with a male body, with a perfectly ‘normal’ (Whatever that means) gender identity of male, to dress up in drag and put on a show simply because he’s *paid* to do so, like any other actor in any other part. This would, in theory, be somewhat problematic, and could get even more so if the act was somewhat stereotypical and misogynistic in its portrayal of women.

        However, unlike the people criticizing drag acts, I’m pretty sure this is not actually how things work with ‘drag’, as in, the vast majorities of the drag shows out there. (Whereas it is entirely, or at least 99.99%, how it works for blackface.)

        Of course, there’s a difference between someone being ‘in drag’ for a role in a movie, and the theatrical genre of ‘drag’. Someone wants to want to criticize Travolta as Edna Turnblad, that’s something else.

        1) And as Kazzy pointed out, sex is more of a continuum than people admit, but that is not really relevant here.Report

      • Avatar j r says:


        I suppose it is possible that in time we could learn more about genetics to the point were it might make sense to call sex a continuum, but I don’t think that is where we are right now. There are a limited number of arrangements of human sex chromosomes and a limited number of physiological expressions of sex. You’re either born with testes or ovaries or neither. Which you have doesn’t always line up to your other sex characteristics, but still, the number of combinations is limited.

        Race and ethnicity is something different. It’s not like you’re either born with dark skin or light skin, there are shades. There are different hair colors and hair textures and so on and so forth. Race and ethnicity are taxonomies that recognize how much genetic material two people share. That’s not what sex is.Report

      • Avatar j r says:


        I’m not quite sure what it is that you’re arguing.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:


        I’m pretty certain I’m not actually disagreeing with you for anything of this.

        I am arguing that drag performers are basically ‘trans-light’. They are (usually) not *actually* transgender, but they aren’t (usually) just people paid to put on a dress as part of a theatrical performance. (And if anything, they are more likely to be the former than the latter.) Their drag personality is something they have created themselves, out of themselves, it is not someone hiring them for the role and handing them a script.

        Half the point that the LGBT community keeps trying to make is that *everything* is a continuum. Gender is, sex is, sexual orientation is. (And gender roles are, also, but that point was made pre-LGBT.) Society doesn’t get to complain because people don’t go in the correct boxes based on what was between their legs when they were born, and doesn’t get to complain when they don’t fit in *any* box, because the boxes are damn stupid. And lots of people have never fit to start with, it’s just now they’re not pretending anymore. Which is great, and I’m right there besides the LGBT community for that.

        Which is why I find it baffling when somehow it’s members of that community to think it’s impossible that someone might switch back and forth, that somehow they’re being disrespectful to women by ‘over-exaggerating’ when doing that. Well, maybe that’s just how they *want to act* as women, and then want to be men the rest of the time. The LGBT community is not the boss of them.

        Of course, transgender people were the last accepted part of the LGBT community, and I suspect some of the complaints are just, basically, left-over bigotry. ‘Oh, sure, actual trans people, they’re part of the team now, I guess. But what about those weird guys that only like to dress up as women but aren’t actually trans women? Can we still complain about them?'(1)

        Now, OTOH, as I said, there is an issue that *sounds* legit there, like complaining about their ‘portrayal of women’. Portraying all women as egotistical catty back-stabbers, yes, that would be bad. Except that anyone who claims drag performers are even a tiny fraction of ‘how people see women portrayed’ is a bit confused. I’m pretty certain that women are portrayed in the media all the time, 99.9999% of the time portrayed by cis women.

        And the amount of ‘men that dress up as women and behave in a misogynistic stereotype'(2) is probably far far *far* outweighed by the amount of *women* that are cast in those roles, especially since men in drag can only play a few of the sexist stereotypes the media uses. You’ll never see a man in drag play ‘a woman that a man earns as sexual prize for winning’, for example.

        More people have watched [random TV show with poor portrayal of women] than have watched drag performances in total. So basically that complaint is complete nonsense.

        1) At this point, we really need some sort of term for ‘disadvantaged group gets a small amount of respect and social acceptance, so parts of it start *immediately* attacking other disadvantaged groups that it used to work with’. Some sort of shaming term we can use to point out this behavior.

        2) I’ll point out that ‘diva’, which is really what’s being described there, is not actually a gender-based stereotype. Men and women can be it, although with slightly different interpretations. While it might be problematic if only women were shown as that (just like it would be an issue if only black character were shown as gang members, or all black characters were gang members), it’s not problematic that the character *exists*….and I rather suspect that drag shows really only have a few characters to start with, all of which are played by men dressing as women. So of course one of them is a diva…and one of them is probably ‘an innocent’, and one of them is a ‘older and wise friend’, and this is the sort of character archetypes you get in the *extremely simplified universe of musical reviews*. Oh noes! Incredibly thin characters used purely as an excuse to have ‘conflict’ are stereotypes! Who knew?!Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        At this point, we really need some sort of term for ‘disadvantaged group gets a small amount of respect and social acceptance, so parts of it start *immediately* attacking other disadvantaged groups that it used to work with’. Some sort of shaming term we can use to point out this behavior.

        Lateral oppression.

        One quibble, your post seems to think this stuff is new. It is not. The lesbian community’s rejection of trans women began roughly in 1973.Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      This is an old and very unpleasant conversation. For example, this:

      Cis women do not own femininity, any more than men get to tell butches not to wear flannel or lift weights. I could say more, and more, and more, but I shall not.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        any more than men get to tell butches not to wear flannel or lift weights.

        Are we allowed to tell *everyone* to not wear flannel?Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I’ve only seen Family Guy a few times. It seems to me that it completely stole its premise (if not its tone or style) from a 70s animated show called Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.Report

    • I had never heard of that show before. I might netflix it.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Unapologetically. And The Simpsons too.

      Part of his thing is stealing from pretty much everything, blatantly. The bulk of my son’s knowledge of pop culture prior to 2000 comes from Family Guy.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        As I’ve said elsewhere, it’ll probably be the case that people in 2357 study “Family Guy” the way we study Dante’s “Divine Comedy” today; lacking any of the cultural context to understand how it’s all a big reference.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Shakespeare too — so much of literature references things we’ve lost all context to.

        The truly skilled derive the literature from the references. (I’ve done that for the old Bulwinkle show…)Report

  6. Avatar Stillwater says:

    But how can we be sure that our laughter or enjoyment is not just another way of performing cruelty?

    Well, you can’t. Usually, in the normal (ie., non-political) course of things, you’ll learn soon enough if what you’re doing or laughing at is cruel or not, and you – thru internal reflection and whatnot – can arrive at a determination as to whether you want to desist from engaging in that type of “humor” or not.

    On the other hand, I tend to think that a lot of humorists try (and do) find laughs in a way that promotes egalitarianism regarding what constitutes “the funny”. Eg., if a person has a disability they may be easy target for a cheap laugh. But realizing that doesn’t mean that the joke is mean-spirited. On the contrary. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all except that people find it funny. Same with jokes about “white people’s problems” and whatnot. If we can’t laugh at ourselves and what wetake seriously, then we surely won’t let other people laugh at us. So we miss out on a lot of laughter. And laughter, all things being equal, is a pretty damn good thing.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Here’s an example of what I mean:

      When commenting about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, one of the writers here at OT translated some of the words expressed by a gunman to a survivor of the shooting. He effectively said to her, amidst the bloodshed and horror, “Convert to Islam!”. Our writer made a comment about that demand: “I doubt she’ll be persuaded to convert.” I found it funny. Was I being cruel? Does that question even make any sense without taking into consideration a whole bunch of priors?Report

  7. Avatar James Pearce says:

    “the family resemblance between “Family Guy” humor and what cruel people do and probably laugh about is disconcerting to me.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. What cruel people do….really cruel people, ….is not something you’re going to see on “Family Guy.” I think you’ve mistaken insensitivity for cruelty.Report

    • I might be making that mistake. The gravity of the deeds in question really is important, and laughing at an insensitive joke in a cartoon is not really the same thing as telling the joke to the victim of the joke. And that’s a different thing from, say, torture and mass murder.

      And yet….

      I suspect there’s something in the minds of actually cruel people who look at what they do as funny or something to joke about or irony. Other than my “sense” and a few items from popular culture (of which FG is one), I have nothing else to prove my point. I’m not a psychology expert, am not conversant in studies of “the cruel mind.” So I realize I have no evidence. Just a hunch about evil and our choices to be complicit in evil.Report

      • Avatar James Pearce says:

        “I suspect there’s something in the minds of actually cruel people who look at what they do as funny or something to joke about or irony.”

        I tend to think you can’t do “funny” if you have no empathy, and if you do have empathy, it’s hard to do “cruel.”

        I also think in McFarlane’s case specifically, he developed his sense of humor as a defense mechanism –a lot of funny people were “created” this way– and that it’s bite stems mostly from that, rather than some kind of innate “banality of evil.” It packs a sting, yes, but in a crueler person it would actually be a fist.

        I’m no big McFarlane fan, but I did see One Million Ways to Die in the West this weekend, and like Ted before it, I thought it married a bunch of “low-humor” with a rather banal (but not-evil) romance, just a love story with jokes.

        To me, that’s a guy who wants to say outrageous things for the reaction, but at heart he just wants to be liked. Cruel people wouldn’t even understand that notion much less be driven by it.

        Also, I’ve been thinking about this:

        “And we should consider what we laugh at.”

        I’m not so sure we really need to, to be honest. Humor thrives on the absurd, on the unexpected. Some of the vilest things can be extremely funny provided the right context.

        But don’t listen to me, man. I listen to GWAR by choice.Report

      • That’s a good comment, and I’m not sure I have an answer for it.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        there is a term for people who are cruel and have empathy. We call them sadists.

        You’ve laughed at jokes from truly cruel people before. I doubt you’d be able to call out which jokes were from them, either. At some point, the world is just what’s on the menu, not the man behind the food.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Standup comedy is watching someone come up on stage and cut their heart. Repeatedly. You’re watching someone talk about the things that actually hurt themselves – the truths that sit a bit too close to home.

        There’s a reason comics don’t laugh at their own jokes.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @james-pearce But don’t listen to me, man. I listen to GWAR by choice.

        Sexcuse me?Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        You executed that very well.Report

  8. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    Two tangential observations: If I understand the OP correctly, some of the clips you link to are NSFW, despite having aired on US network television. Another reminder to me that I have been away from my own country so long that I sometimes don’t recognize it.

    I’ve basically missed all of Family Guy, but I remember a New Yorker profile of Seth McFarlane that was a great example of a particular kind of hatchet job, where the reporter discreetly steps aside and lets the subject’s own words and freely exhibited actions do all the chopping.Report

  9. Avatar CJ says:

    “But some humor crosses the line.”
    This is where you are wrong. NO humor crosses the line. You either laugh or you don’t. If you don’t like it, you can stop watching it.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Is this only humor? Are there other forms of speech that can cross important lines?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Yeah, I’d say that if a person thinks humor, or any other speech, REALLY crosses a (or “the”) line, then they oughta boycott-oppose-writetheircongressperson-rallyagainst etc and all that. Andrew Dice Clay was blackballed. “Kramer” too. Sometimes it goes too far.

        I just don’t think what constitutes “too far” oughta be prejudged, since the whole point of art and entertainment and comedy (other than the purely hedonistic) is to hit us in ways that we don’t expect.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I guess I’m curious what is meant by “crossing the line”. As I think of it, on one side of ‘the line’ we react one way and on another side of ‘the line’ we react another. Realistically, along any given continuum, there are multiple lines.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Michael Richards was blackballed for using a racial slur against an audience member. It wasn’t an attempt to be humorous or ironic or edgy; he was pissed off at the guy’s interruptions and that was apparently the insult that came to mind.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Kazzy, Why think that “crossing the line” needs to be determined in advance? Culture changes, so the line will change too, no?

        Mike, Yeah, Kramer lost it in that moment. No doubt. And he was blackballed. No one found what he said to be funny.Report

      • I just don’t think what constitutes “too far” oughta be prejudged, since the whole point of art and entertainment and comedy (other than the purely hedonistic) is to hit us in ways that we don’t expect.

        I agree that’s what humor, or at least a lot humor, does. But I think there is room for pre-judgment and we do it all the time whenever we refrain from saying something by judging that something to be “too far.” Of course, if we’re talking about prior restraint or for banning speech (and I’m not talking about it), then that’s a different kettle.Report

      • @kazzy

        I guess I’m curious what is meant by “crossing the line”. As I think of it, on one side of ‘the line’ we react one way and on another side of ‘the line’ we react another. Realistically, along any given continuum, there are multiple lines.

        I agree, and it’s not always easy to know where on the line something falls.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        it’s not always easy to know where on the line something falls.

        Sure it is, if the line is drawn internally. If that’s the case, then the line is as clear as our own understanding of ourselves.

        If the line is drawn by others, then of course we don’t know where it is. So there’s no reason to worry about folks that aren’t us crossing it. And for folks that are us, the line is drawn internally. So it’s clear. 🙂

        I really don’t see why issues like this get blown up into compounding epicycles of cultural norms. If we don’t trust people to be resilient enough to take a brief shot – including our ownselves – then there’s nothing to worry about anyway.

        If we do, then there’s nothing to worry about anyway.Report

      • if the line is drawn internally. If that’s the case, then the line is as clear as our own understanding of ourselves.

        I both disagree and agree with that, and I agree with it more than I disagree.

        Disagree: I’m not so sure we understand ourselves well enough to always make that determination.

        Agree: the point that (I think) I’m trying to make is that we usually do know where the line is and we make an actual decision to cross it (when we do) and then we lie to ourselves about it while we’re doing it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I don’t think that the line needs to be determined in advance. My query was based on @cj ‘s assertion that “NO humor crosses the line”. I’m curious what he/she means by “crosses the line” in that statement.

        For me, crossing the line is as I describe it. Which means damn near anything can cross a line, depending on how the individual reacts. And, because we are talking about reactions, they are by definition not premeditated or predetermined. But some jokes make us laugh and some make us cringe and in-between those two exists a line that we eventually have a firmer sense of by looking at the times when we do the latter and the times when we do the former.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I often try to dance just this side of the line, and I’m sure at times I’ve crossed it. So, to all the people I’ve inadvertently offended, I’ll just say this: what the hell do you want, your money back?Report

      • “Is this only humor? Are there other forms of speech that can cross important lines?”

        I’d say probably yes.Report

      • “And, because we are talking about reactions, they are by definition not premeditated or predetermined.”

        Kazzy, I think you just touched on one part of Stillwater’s question that I failed to grasp. Yes, if we’re talking about our initial reaction, then we can’t hold ourselves too much accountable to the cruelty, other than perhaps acknowledge it. (Even then, I believe we are participating in the cruelty–assuming one agrees it’s cruelty, etc.–but my claim that we choose to do so probably doesn’t hold water in that case.)

        But if, for example, I decide to watch a show that engages such humor, then my choice in the matter is more implicated.Report

      • Is this only humor? Are there other forms of speech that can cross important lines?

        I’d say probably yes.

        Ergh….by which I mean, “no” to the first question, and “probably yes” to the second.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        @kazzy if something would get a member of disadvantaged group to say “check your privilege”, the humor crosses the line.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        if something would get a member of disadvantaged group to say “check your privilege”, the humor crosses the line.

        And maybe we should use the word “communicate” rather than “say” because the deaf/mute community shouldn’t be marginalized so casually.Report

      • @leeesq

        “if something would get a member of disadvantaged group to say “check your privilege”, the humor crosses the line.”

        I think that’s a pretty good standard. Perhaps as much for judging others’ humor as for judging our own, though.Report

  10. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I saw the movie Hurly Burly a looooong time ago. I remember being entranced by Sean Penn’s portrayal of his character, and shocked by Meg Ryan’s turn to the (post virginal WHMS, SIS) dark side of acting. This post reminds me, a bit anyway, of something Sean Penn’s character says when confronting an emotionally difficult moment. (I’ll probably get it wrong since it was ages ago…) He says “I don’t know what to feel about this!”

    That’s what how this post strikes me. A little bit anyway.Report

  11. I want to tell everyone I appreciate your comments so far. Obviously, this isn’t the most clearly written of posts I’ve ever done. It’s not even the second most clearly written. And my responses in the comments probably makes it seem I’m being deliberately inscrutable. But I’m really not trying to be.*

    That’s not my intent. I really am trying to figure this out and determine my own thoughts on the matter. In some ways, it’s an extension of my bread thief post. I’m interested how we justify the wrong we do.

    *But then, maybe that’s a lie I’m telling myself in order to justify the banal evil I’m committing…. 🙂Report

  12. Avatar CJ says:

    What I mean by “NO humor crosses the line” is that there is no line. Funny is funny.

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      So if you don’t laugh because you’re offended, it means whatever was done was not humor? What if one person laughs and another person doesn’t?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Consider, if you will, a joke I remember hearing growing up.

        “What do you call a black doctor?”

        Now, that is undoubtedly a joke. It is an attempt at humor. But I find that joke offensive. And decidedly lacking in humor. But that doesn’t make it any less a joke. Or any less an attempt at humor. And were someone to deliver it on stage at a comedy show, they would be any less of a comedian and the place wouldn’t be any less of a comedy show because that joke crossed the line and ceased being funny and was straight up offensive.

        It seems you are arguing that humor… comedy… is in the eye/ear of the beholder. I don’t think we can really say that is true without making those words utterly meaningless.Report

      • Avatar CJ says:

        Nope. If I don’t laugh, I didn’t find it funny. I’m never offended. If I don’t like something I don’t watch/listen to it. It doesn’t have to be offensive for me to not like it. I hate CSI and Bones, I don’t watch it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I get that. But to say that “No humor crosses the line”. Does the cited joke cross the line? Or do you just think lines don’t exist?

        And have you really never been offended?Report

      • Avatar CJ says:

        I’ve been insulted, but never offended (if that makes since). I do think that no line exists. You are allowed to hurt my feelings, you are allowed to offend me. I have options, and one of those is to judge and decide what I wish to view/listen to. But not what someone decides for me.
        Most of the folks that attack comedy are not even the audience of said comedy. I bought my ticket, I can either stop buying it, or keep buying it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        ” I do think that no line exists. You are allowed to hurt my feelings, you are allowed to offend me. I have options, and one of those is to judge and decide what I wish to view/listen to. But not what someone decides for me.”

        I guess this indicates a different definition of “the line”. I don’t think anyone here (and Gabriel was quite explicit in the OP about this) is advocating that the lines should be legal. But clearly there is a line — for you — between funny and not funny. It may not be conscious, but it exists. And there is a line on one side of which fall things you’ll pay for and on the other side of which fall things you would not. There is a line that divides the shows/movies/music/entertainers you consume and those you don’t.

        So I still contend that lines exist. What varies from person to person is where they fall and how we respond to them.Report

      • Avatar CJ says:

        It’s obvious you don’t “get it” and I don’t have the wherewithal to type it. Enjoy what you watch/listen to. If you don’t, stop watching/listening to it.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        So I still contend that lines exist.

        But should they be determined in advance of a joke? That seems like the wrong way to approach the issue. If someone wants to get Imus fired for his “nappy headed hos” schtick, then have at it. No objection from me. But setting up rules constraining what constitutes the funny politicizes what shouldn’t be a political domain. Except after the fact.

        I mean, look: if a comedian were to try to make a career outa ridiculing blacks or Jews based on negative sereotypes, what’s the harm? Some people eat that shit up, no? But if he did get successful doing so, then all the rest of us with no pre-determined conceptions of what constitutes the funny would object and begin the long, slow – but more-lasting – slog to marginalize this guy, his routine, and his audience. That’s how it’d go, no?

        But how many comics out there are pandering to an audience instead of challenging their audience? Pandering and comedy don’t go well together. That’s prolly why conservatives suck at humor. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        If the effect of speech were only on the individuals who hear it, when they hear it, by hearing it, we would certainly have no need for lines.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Also, boy do I miss Patrice.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        If the effect of speech were only on the individuals who hear it, when they hear it, by hearing it, we would certainly have no need for lines.

        But the effects of speech on those who hear it actually determine the lines. Somehow. In some way. In advance of that speech being expressed. At least, that’s what I thought we were talking about in this thread.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Certainly. I only mean that lines exist because speech has effects that extend beyond the hearer in the moment. That is why we can at least estimate where lines should, or will, be drawn: because we are able to estimate the effects of speech beyond whether those who hear it will dig it.Report

      • Avatar Robin Scherbatsky says:

        Damn it, Patrice!Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        “But should they be determined in advance of a joke?”

        Show me who is making that argument.


        At this point, if I’m not getting it, it is because you aren’t making it clear. If I opt not to consume something, doesn’t that mean it has crossed a line of some sort? From the territory of “stuff I will consume” into the territory of “stuff I will not consume”? What is difficult about that concept?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Show me who is making that argument.

        Allow me to rephrase the complaint so’s to eliminate the temporal component: that the lines ought not be drawn independently of the telling of the joke. Phrasing it that way allows for the possibility that the judgment comes before the joke is delivered irrespective of context, but also sugests that the lines exist at least one level above the actual telling of jokes such that judgment comes raining down like hellfire or tomahawk missiles.

        Maybe no one is making that specific argument. But if they’re not on that train then I have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about or why anyone actually cares.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        @cj – all kinds of violence – bear baiting, nailing cats to a tree and headbutting them to death, torturing humans in the stocks – used to be considered “humour”. And yet I don’t think you can say “Oh, they were humour so there was no line for them to cross.”

        So, be it accepted – just calling something humour does not let it get away with causing true physical harm. That crosses a line into true unacceptability. If you cannot agree on at least that, there’s no point.

        So, what about things the “comic” really should know are likely to cause true traumatic emotional harm. Daniel Tosh’s strongly implied rape threat against an audience member – are you going to stand up and defend that, because “it’s humour” so there’s no line for it to cross, and emotional harm arising from rape threats isn’t real harm when it’s a comedian making the threat as part of a comedy routine? If not, why not?Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        To literally never be offended is not necessarily admirable. At best, it would indicate that one is probably quite neuro-atypical (or so I would suppose). Which, fine. But should you then hold up your own mentality as the norm? Why would every one else, who does feel offense, want to do that?

        To say “Just don’t feel offense” is perhaps like saying, “Just don’t feel pain.” Most people cannot do that.

        We structure society according to how people actually are.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:


        Its more likely that such a person is not so much neuro-atypical but so deeply mired in his or her own privilege as to never have had the markers of his/her identity questioned systematically by the larger society. But maybe I’m just being in an uncharitable mood.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Been thinking about this topic in light of Veronica Dire’s response to a previous comment about never being offended by a joke. I think she’s right that there is something problematic with the idea that a person would never be offended by a certain speech act, and personally I think it’s the descriptive accuracy of such a claim. People take offense to all sorts of things, all the time, only one of which is feeling like they’re being personally insulted by the content or perceived purpose of a joke. (I remember being entirely cool with The South Park’s Indiscriminate Carpet Bomb philosophy of ridicule-based humor right up until they picked on a target I felt didn’t deserve it. And that’s where I drew the line: ridiculing Phil Collins twenty years after the fact. Seemed in poor taste given what that guy’s gone thru.)

        On the other hand, I agree that “never taking offense” has some merit, and in particular as the flip side – an antidote, so to speak – to a culture which is hypersensitive to taking offense at the slightest misstep in speech or humor, and which tries to protect people’s feelings in advance of any speech act, no matter how well intentioned or benign or just plain childishly stupid. For my part, I’m pretty well on board with the view that feelings aren’t the relevant consideration when discussing this issue, which is why I earlier said that a person’s claim to having “hurt feelings” doesn’t carry much weight for me. For one, I have no access to a person’s feelings, so to claim that I ought to be sensitive to them in advance of laughing at a joke, or telling a joke for that matter, creates a land-mine laden communication landscape which promotes paralysis more than protection of others. I cannot know the sensitivities of others in any detail, right? So I cannot preemptively protect those feelings unless I’m omniscient. That standard strikes me as too high. Unrealistically high, even.

        For another, it seems to me that invoking the “that hurt my feelings” response is both overused as well as imposing an after-the-fact logic from which to browbeat (or more, in some cases) for self-serving purposes. At least, in it’s worst manifestations.

        On the flip side, and going from one extreme to another, is the view that folks who find a joke or joke-style offensive can just stop listening to it or avoid it or whatever, while still granting the “right” (so to speak) of both the teller and the listener to do and act as they see fit without constraint.

        Between those two extremes, which I find problematic for various reasons, is that insofar as we feel the need to judge these sorts of things, we do so on the level of respect for others. It seems to me that respect for other folks includes their closely held identifications without getting into the murky subterranean weeds of “feelings”, as well as granting or even protecting the “right” (so to speak) of both tellers and listeners to act with some degree of self-determined autonomy. So on this score, a joke would be judged as respectful of others based on more objective – or at least knowable – properties, which perhaps includes the intent of the actor but need not.

        Of course, people will disagree about whether any particular joke is respectful or not. Eg, is telling a joke which mentions that a person is “retarded” respectful of people as individuals? Depends on what each of thinks of as an expression of respect. One benefit of using respect as a standard is to move away from that unknowable and often over-used rebuttal to having taken offense: hurt feelings. Seems to me that offense, insofar as it’s a real property we all feel from time to time, needs to be cashed out in something more discourse-ready than properties that are inscrutable to others. That’s a recipe for dialectical discontent, seems to me. At least for parties that enjoy invoking either of the two extremes mentioned above.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Wow. She sure makes white people sure look like tight asses in that video. That woman is a discredit to my race!

      (I know that’s not funny…)Report

  13. A little story about how I came to this topic:

    Back when the remake of The Omen came out, I asked a friend of mine whether he had seen it. He said he hadn’t and he wouldn’t. And the reason he wouldn’t was because it was one of those stories that seems to make it okay to do the unthinkable, kill children, and that such instances in popular culture tend to represent a nascent fascism, and he drew the analogy to the scene from 1984 I began the OP with.

    I tucked that conversation in my memory and chalked it off to my opinion at the time that my friend was oversensitive. I had seen the original and the remake and liked them. And I liked and like movies about evil or movies that explore the darker side of life.

    Well, several years later, I started thinking about Family Guy and the problems I had with it, all the while I enjoyed the show and watched it and laughed at many a problematic scene, including some of the ones in the OP I mention. I have, for the last year or two, even thought about writing an OP about it at my own blog or here. When I started writing the first draft of this post several days ago, I remembered the conversation with my friend and his reference to 1984. And it seem to get what I was grasping at.

    So in a sense, the OP isn’t about Family Guy even though it uses Family Guy.

    (By the way, I don’t blame anyone for focusing on FG or for taking the discussion in any tangent they want. The tangents as well as the on-topic’s are why I like OT. I also think it’s poor form for me to “clarify” in the comments when the OP should stand or fall on its own.)Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      It seems you are — in a way — discussing voyeurism. And the impacts of being a voyeur. Does peaking in something awful somehow make it less awful? Does it give it a tacit endorsement? Does it encourage it? If everyone looked away from “Family Guy”, it’d probably go away. And not just because of ratings and the economics of television. But because a message would be sent: We do not accept this. But by watching, we become complicit in it.

      Am I getting that right, @gabriel-conroy ?Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Shalebridge Cradle was a reaction to censorship.
      Don’t tell creative people what they can’t do, it rarely ends well.Report

  14. Avatar Glyph says:

    I’ve been chewing on this, as it’s a subject on my mind a lot. But I am no clearer than I was before. Random semi-contradictory thoughts:

    1.) Not a fan of FG; it offends my comedic sensibilities. IMO, it’s lazy and derivative to distraction. That said, I know many people who like it, and ain’t nothing more subjective than comedy, so…

    2.) Elsewhere in this thread we’ve talked about minstrelsy, and we could talk about things like European anti-Semitic caricature/cartooning that preceded the rise of the Reich. In both instances, I am pretty comfortable with seeing such things less as “humor” and more as symptoms of a deep cultural sickness, an augur of horrors to come (or an expression of ones already in motion). Gabriel’s friend said that stories (like The Omen) that make it OK to kill children seemingly augur nascent fascism (what were his other examples of this, BTW?)

    3.) That said, I am put in mind of the supposed factoid that Japan has a lot of depictions of sexual violence in its media, and yet has a very low rate of actual IRL sexual violence, leading some to speculate that such depictions can help function as a ‘safe release valve’ for darker impulses. A similar explanation has been bandied about for the drop in sexual violence in the U.S., as internet pornography has become ubiquitous.

    Which makes me wonder if, on balance, societies aren’t better off tolerating some making of cruel jokes about minorities, at least it’s better than lynching them; and if the over-enthusiastic suppression of such material risks causing violence to erupt in its place. If in some sense, maybe it’s OK (and perhaps even on balance desirable) to have some corners of society where people can vent freely about, well, anything; no matter how unacceptable or hurtful such jokes or stories would be in other arenas. Look at roasts, for example, where they have a “rules off” atmosphere, and it is acceptable/expected to make jokes that normally would be over the line.

    4.) Or maybe there’s little-to-no-connection at all between such material and actual IRL bad behavior; which could either be a relief (hey, nothing to worry about guy, just some harmless joshing!), or absolutely terrifying (there’s no telling when everything will go pear-shaped without warning!).

    5.) Related to all this, there’s a bit at the corner of my mind where I sometimes have trouble quantifying the “hurt” that such jokes cause, as opposed to actual physical harm – if I hit you with a stick, it’s clear who got harmed (you), who did the harming (me), and when/how the harm occurred (remember when I whacked you with that stick?)

    The unnamed Polish person in a “polack” joke, isn’t a real person at all (and of course, animated Griffins aren’t real people either) – so who is being truly harmed by such a joke?

    On some abstract level, it’s just…words, directed at other words. If you prick my abstracted symbol, does it not bleed? (A: No).

    Now, I know that the hurt comes when we take that stereotyped abstraction back out of the joke, and treat a real Polish person as though they are a clueless ignoramus (because that’s what the jokes have conditioned us to expect), but here I again have that chicken/egg problem – does hearing/telling the jokes make us more likely to be cruel IRL, or did we tell the jokes because we were already cruel IRL? Or indeed, is there much relation between “words” and “sticks and stones” at all? I mean, it sure seems like there is – social animals often communicate their ill-intentions, before commencing hostilities.


    TL; DR – Context matters; intent matters (both of sender and receiver); results matter; all I know is that I don’t know.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Offense is a lot like humor: it’s an evolved reaction to social stimuli that is meant to indicate there is something more there. Like humor, culture has developed ability to manipulate offense, so it’s not always clear that there is more there when someone is offended. Still, offense sometimes gets out right.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      I struggle with the idea that words do not cause real harm. I thought we all learned to dismiss the idea of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Are we playing by the “No blood, no foul” standard?Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I thought we all learned to dismiss the idea of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

        Not me; I still stick pretty close by that old chestnut 😉

        Not in a literal sense…of course words can hurt (or more accurately, the concepts embodied or evoked by them can); but my bar is set a LOT higher for words than for actions, and perhaps a bit higher than many (though not infinitely high – being “rude” is on some level a harm, so all else equal*, there’s no call to be needlessly rude).

        In one sense, for me to transubstantiate your ephemeral words or images into my “hurt” requires a lot of active processing on my part. I have to engage with you in the first place, and I have to care what you say, and I have to choose to be hurt by it.

        Whereas you can sneak up behind me and whack me with a stick, with very little input from me to the process.

        It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, obviously; if you tell lies about me, and they spread all over the internet affecting my ability to get a job, well, your words have hurt me. And if we uncritically** repeat jokes and stories that reinforce the idea that (minority X) is (stupid/lazy/dishonest/malevolent) and that results in bad consequences for them, same.

        *aye, there’s the rub.

        ** An interesting phenomenon to me is the “ironically racist” or “ironically sexist” or “ironically homophobic” joke; where the joke itself is identical to one told by someone who holds such a belief; but here the joke is usually on such a person, and it’s clear the joke-teller holds no such belief. You’ll get people saying “if the joke is the same, then the offense is the same”, and others saying that’s not the same (that is, context is switched).

        All that said, I’m generally much more a fan of absurdist humor that usually isn’t really very pointed at anyone. Python, Steven Wright, Emo Philips, Mitch Hedberg and the like (and before this whole goddam mess came to light, old Cosby routines) were the things I loved.Report

      • @glyph

        An interesting phenomenon to me is the “ironically racist” or “ironically sexist” or “ironically homophobic” joke; where the joke itself is identical to one told by someone who holds such a belief; but here the joke is usually on such a person, and it’s clear the joke-teller holds no such belief. You’ll get people saying “if the joke is the same, then the offense is the same”, and others saying that’s not the same (that is, context is switched).

        That’s really what I’m arguing about. To me, the “ironically racist” (or other “ist”) joke is not always as ironic as the joke teller would like to believe. I personally believe FG excels at such jokes and a large part of its appeal is the “ironically ist” humor, and I believe most people who consume it really believe they’re doing so ironically and are probably mostly correct.

        And yet, I don’t think it’s so clear cut. I think it’s possible for a joke teller to make such a joke “ironically” and at the same time not do so. And I think if we really engage in some honest introspection, some of us will find that it’s not merely ironic, but also something more explicitly cruel.

        Or maybe I shouldn’t say “we.” That probably presumes people are like me. And while I have a hard time believing I’m the only one who feels this way, I should also note that I can’t see into others’ soul. I’m not trying to condemn, but trying to urge people to ask themselves if they see it as I do and be honest about their answer.

        By the way, I appreciate your comments in this thread.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @gabriel-conroy thanks for writing the post. As I said, this is actually a topic I think a fair bit about (though you’d think that would have made my opinions firmer and clearer).

        One thing that I didn’t really get into except tangentially is the whole idea of “venue”. I’ve said before that the only other internet place I comment at regularly (under a different handle) has a MUCH more freewheeling culture when it comes to jokes than does this one – over there, if it’s funny, it’s pretty much funny, no matter how “wrong” (the reluctant or guilty upvote is a common occurrence, indicating not agreement with a distasteful sentiment, but appreciation of a well-crafted or unexpected joke). I’ve probably made jokes there that I wouldn’t dare make here, confident that the audience there will “get it” (by which I mean, not just the joke, but the intent in telling it). And knowing whether your audience is likely to “get it”, and using that knowledge to guide your communications, is just common courtesy.

        Which suggests to me again that jokes (like all communication) don’t have fixed meaning across contexts.

        It also says something about us needing certain venues for such material – during the Charlie Hebdo discussions, J R and JB (IIRC) made the point that if the place for satirical depictions of Mohammed isn’t within the pages of an explicitly satirical magazine, then where is it?

        Is an episode of Family Guy “public square”, because it’s wide-broadcasted?

        Or, because it’s in my living room and I can turn it off, is it more like me and you sitting together and telling an off-color joke over beers after the kids have gone to bed; a relatively harmless thing?

        Does the answer change at all the level of cruelty we may perceive in it?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        “Ironically racist” is an interesting way of putting it. Really, I’d just say it’s that there’s a difference between humor that is racist and humor that is racially insensitive and it’s very hard to describe the difference out of context, but you can generally tell the difference in context. The old National Lampoon magazine- really the predecessor of *all* this kind of humor- would use racially insensitive material although usually in the context of some pitch black satire. I remember thinking during the Charlie Hebdo discussion, while friends of mine who I know haven’t read an issue of it and don’t read French were debating whether it’s a racist journal or not, what it might be like for Japanese readers to try to make sense of old 70s issues of National Lampoon. Something like the Lt. Calley Kill the Children Federation advertisement, which is satire with real teeth, how would it come across? That was the distinction I made, between racism and racial insensitivity in that context. How would you explain that to an outsider I have no idea.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        There was a sketch from the golden age of SNL about a rape hotline that gave upset, vulnerable people someone to talk to after they’d committed a rape. Nowadays that would basically result in the end of NBC. (Although, what wouldn’t?)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        From what I understand, there were more than a handful of Ironic Racism jokes made last night at the Oscars, including one made by Sean Penn (!) and that makes me wonder that we’re either on the cusp of Ironic Racism making a huge comeback in everyday culture or that was the last gasp before it disappears for a decade or so.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I wonder if that SNL bit was also written by Michael O’Donoghue, who wrote the Lt. Calley advertisement (with George W.S. Trow!) as part of a Defeat Comics bit in National Lampoon in 1971 and then wrote a bunch of stuff for the first seasons of SNL.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        It does sound like him.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        I struggle to see what deeper level of understanding we get from any particular instance, or non-instance, of racism by adding the “ironic” qualifier. I used to joke all the time about what it meant to be ironically punched in the face. Does it still hurt or does it only hurt if you don’t get it?

        There are things that are racism and there are things that are jokes (although I guess they are more ideas than things) and it is best to treat them as separate things. In other words, when somebody tells a joke that might be racist (or sexist or homophobic, etc.), the best thing to do is to ask two separate questions: is it racist? and is it funny?

        The idea that something ceases to be funny because it is racist (or sexist or homophobic, etc.) is simply not true, even if some people would like it to be so. And likewise, just because something is funny, or is intended to be ironic, it doesn’t cease to be racist. Generally speaking, things that are really really racist are so ham-fisted that they fail to be funny, but lots of very very funny things are also racist. That’s just the reality of it.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        “I struggle to see what deeper level of understanding we get from any particular instance, or non-instance, of racism by adding the “ironic” qualifier. I used to joke all the time about what it meant to be ironically punched in the face. ”

        Well, as I said above, I do think it’s probably a mistake to take the “punching” metaphor literally when we move from speech to action. There is no such thing as an ironic bullet wound.

        And I think you are ignoring joke “metadata”, for lack of a better word. Remember when Colbert did the whole the “Ching-Chong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”? On its own, it sure looks like a racist joke.

        But, it’s being done to demonstrate what a clueless racist “Stephen Colbert” the character is, and further to comment upon a current Redskins controversy (the true, ultimate “target” of the joke).

        So I don’t see that joke as racist at all (though obviously some felt differently). It deployed “ironic racism” in service of anti-racism.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “There is no such thing as an ironic bullet wound. ”



      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        Ironic racism is a sop thrown to white people’s guilt. You play it off with a nod-and-a-wink so that we can all agree that we’re not horrible people laughing at a comedian deploying that old hack standby, the cheap ethnic joke; no, we’re laughing because we’re making fun of the people who would laugh at that joke. Like, the joke isn’t funny itself, it’s funny that people would find it funny, right? Sort of a meta-funny. Of course, to someone who doesn’t get that we’re laughing on an ironic level it looks like the guy just told a cheap ethnic joke and a bunch of horrible people laughed, but, y’know, humor’s complicated and stuff.

        No, Tod, this isn’t “LIBERALS ARE THE REAL RACISTS”, more like liberals are as hypocritical as the rest of the human race.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Alternately, racists are funny. Why wouldn’t we laugh at them? Archie Bunker is a buffoon. Homer Simpson is a buffoon. “Stephen Colbert” is a buffoon. The authoritative-yet-completely-clueless offensive person is a well-worn comedic trope. See Fred Willard’s entire career.Report

      • @jim-heffman

        Ironic racism is a sop thrown to white people’s guilt. You play it off with a nod-and-a-wink so that we can all agree that we’re not horrible people laughing at a comedian deploying that old hack standby, the cheap ethnic joke; no, we’re laughing because we’re making fun of the people who would laugh at that joke. Like, the joke isn’t funny itself, it’s funny that people would find it funny, right? Sort of a meta-funny. Of course, to someone who doesn’t get that we’re laughing on an ironic level it looks like the guy just told a cheap ethnic joke and a bunch of horrible people laughed, but, y’know, humor’s complicated and stuff.

        In a way, that’s partly what I’m arguing, except I’d allow that there really can be an “ironically racist joke.”Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Let’s make a distinction between ironic racism and acting. Archie Bunker was a racist character, but All in the Family was not a racist TV show; in fact, it was just the opposite (although, it dealt with race in a particularly insensitive manner that would probably not fly today). And I’ve yet to hear anyone imply that Carroll O’Connor was a racist because he played Archie Bunker.

        Stephen Colbert is a slightly more complicated case, but if we start with a premise that Colbert the character is a distinct entity from Colbert the performer, then we can say that Colbert the character is a bit of racist (at least racially insensitive), but that Colbert the performer is not necessarily.

        Ironic racism is something different than acting. Ironic racism is the idea that it’s fine to say things that you otherwise never would if you acknowledge that you “get it.” My problem with ironic racism is that it falls into a category of things that I like to refer to as hipster ethics. In hipster ethics, the sort of things that one considers under normal ethical frameworks take a back seat to the more important consideration of how supposedly self-aware one is and to a host of aesthetic and signaling concerns. The biggest transgressions in hipster ethics are not about doing harm or violating moral norms; the biggest transgressions are about not appropriately signalling your meta-level awareness.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Let’s make a distinction between ironic racism and acting

        I’m not sure that distinction is clear for a number of reasons.

        First, even for non-professional comedians or actors, every time you tell a joke or a story, you ARE playing a role – at minimum, that of storyteller, even if you are not involving yourself in the joke directly.

        And you may involve yourself directly as a “character” – I’ve made all kinds of jokes around here referring to absurd or impossible or dumb things I am supposedly thinking/doing – and these references are lies. Fiction. For the duration of the joke, I may be acting, pretending to be someone or something else (usually, an idiot), to amuse myself and hopefully others.

        To go back to the “Ching-Chong Foundation” joke, even if I had been the one to make that joke around here, you could easily argue that I am playing a character when I make it. And it’s not just the fact that “Glyph” ain’t the name my momma gave me, that makes that true: Jack Handey is a real person and a respected comedy writer; “Jack Handey” the character who publishes his Deepest Thoughts is a deeply-disturbed weirdo who does not exist in real life.

        Secondly, a joke cannot always be completely divorced from context if you want to apprehend its complete meaning, part of which involves the teller (which of course gets tricky, since there may be multiple “tellers” – the joke’s author, and the joke’s deliverer, who may be a fictional character played by the author, or by someone else entirely). I can’t tell Chris Rock’s “Niggaz vs. Black People” joke, in part, because I am not black (I mean, obviously I can REPEAT it, assuming a receptive audience and appropriate credits and caveats and all, but you get my drift – the joke itself turns, in part, on who is telling it: a black man occasionally frustrated with some of the behavior of some of “his” people).

        Now, if it wasn’t clear, in no way do I consider Carroll O’Connor or (the real) Stephen Colbert racists (AFAIK), nor do I consider the writers who put those jokes in their characters’ mouths racists (again AFAIK); but the characters do tell what look like “racist” jokes that are funny, in part, because the *characters* are racist, and we are laughing at them and the dumb things they do; the true “target” of the joke is the character, and others who think that way.

        I sympathize with your point that some people probably DO employ “getting it” or “being on the right side” as cover to say hurtful things that they couldn’t otherwise say. Which also makes this tricky.

        But eventually that should just fall under the realm of “bad comedy” – if all you’ve got is saying racist things while winking, you’ll be outed as a one-trick pony, and people will start to suspect that it was the winks that were disingenuous, and not the jokes.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        And where do jokes fall when you’re trying to make a political point by being racist?
        Or just to troll people?

        I mean, there are actual characters on TV designed just to piss people off (they’ve failed, but not for lack of trying… and I think it damn well says something about someone when you can’t make fun of their ethnic stereotypes anymore and piss them off).

        What does it mean when you base a comedic character off a guy, and then switch his race and gender? When you do that simply to poke fun at him?Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Now, if it wasn’t clear, in no way do I consider Carroll O’Connor or (the real) Stephen Colbert racists (AFAIK), nor do I consider the writers who put those jokes in their characters’ mouths racists (again AFAIK); but the characters do tell what look like “racist” jokes that are funny, in part, because the *characters* are racist, and we are laughing at them and the dumb things they do; the true “target” of the joke is the character, and others who think that way.

        This gets at my point, which is that things can be racist or not racist and separately they can be funny and not funny. The problem with the “X isn’t funny” position (where X is racism or sexism or rape or whatever) is that it just isn’t true. People want to treat this as a one-axis continuum where becoming racist renders something unfunny. Really, there are multiple axes. There are things that are funny and racist. And there are things that are not funny and racist. The two things can be related, but they’re not the same.

        My point about irony is that what delineates racist from not-racist is never irony. You’re not racist because you’re not ironic enough. You’re racist because you’re racist. Claiming that something is ironic is almost always a cop out. Maybe it’s worse than a cop out, because it’s an attempt to get the benefits that come from being edgy and willing to push boundaries, but always reserving the ability to break character at any moment and say, “Don’t worry. I’m just being ironic.” And like I said, acting is something different from this.

        There is also a larger question about artistic privilege, meaning that people tend to tolerate certain behavior from artists engaged in their work that those same people would not tolerate outside of the work. Take a comedian like Lisa Lampanelli. She gets laughs making racist jokes. We can have some meta-level combination about whether the butt of the joke is racial minorities or it’s really racist people themselves, but that conversation quickly becomes incredibly silly. Better just to say that her act is racist. Full stop. That said, I find it very funny; therefore the racism doesn’t bother me. If she were not funny or if she were a non-comedian just saying unfunny racist things in everyday life, my feelings would be different. And none of that has anything to do with irony.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think focusing on racism is a mistake.
        Jokes can be funny or not, and painful or not.
        They can also be intended to hurt someone — but then they aren’t jokes.

        The joketeller has a certain place in our society, where he can say things that others can’t.
        It comes with the ability to use laughter to heal, and to reimagine things — even the things that hurt the most.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        I’m thinking that Justine Sacco would have loved for the conversation to have happened while she was on a transoceanic flight.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        @jim-heffman “No, Tod, this isn’t “LIBERALS ARE THE REAL RACISTS”, more like liberals are as hypocritical as the rest of the human race.”

        One of these days you should actually read what I write. (I know, who has the time — right?) Because this is basically what I write every single time I write about race.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        We can have some meta-level combination about whether the butt of the joke is racial minorities or it’s really racist people themselves, but that conversation quickly becomes incredibly silly.

        Well, if there’s one thing we don’t want a discussion about comedy to become, it’s “incredibly silly”.

        If you’ve split the knot in a way that simplifies the question for you, that’s great. I suspect we’ll end up at largely the same destination anyway, due to a lot of shared priors.

        But I think dismissing meta-level stuff when almost all communication, and performance, and parody, and satire, etc. are heavily bound up in meta-contextual-type dependencies, misses a lot of (to me) interesting and relevant stuff.

        I mean, if we are talking about jokes/fiction/performance, we are already talking about something that is at root, “lies” – something we normally condemn and abhor, but in this case we’ve already long given a special exemption to, because they can sometimes tell the truth. Why would we expect things to become simpler from there?Report

      • Avatar j r says:


        I’m not really making an argument for simplifying the discussion. I am making an argument for disaggregating it.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        I mean, if we are talking about jokes/fiction/performance, we are already talking about something that is at root, “lies”

        That’s not actually the complication here. Humor, at least humorous stories, is often about subverting expectations. The listener hears the premise, expects things to go one way, and instead it goes another. (Observational humor, which is the other sort of thing comics do, is basically the same thing, except they bring up things we already know and then subvert how people think about them. I.e., they’re the same thing, but we already know the premise.)

        How this intersects with racism is weirdly complicated, partially because we all *claim* to think one way about racist, but still have all sorts of issues going on.

        It is possible to make a joke about how some racist assumption were made, those assumptions were wrong, and that is the joke. (Aka, the black guy get on an elevator, barks ‘down’, and the scared white guy gets down on the ground, only to realize the black guy was talking to his dogs.) These sort of jokes are…usually not racist? Or at least, not intended to be. (Although really they sorta are.)

        It is possible to make a joke about how someone behaved, and the punchline is that they, instead of acting normally, did some really stupid thing, because of their race. (Usually because ‘people of that race are really stupid’.) Those jokes are almost always racist, and generally what we think of when we talk about racist jokes. And women jokes. And blonde jokes.

        Where things start getting complicated, is for example, a joke about a joke about how person behaved, but instead he does some stupidly racist thing. Such a joke sounds like it shouldn’t be racist, but can easily be, especially if it’s not pointed out that person was *wrong*. (Archie Bunker, OTOH, did this quite well.)

        But the real complication when you get to meta-humor. If the audience is expecting a racist punchline, you can give them a non-racist one, and that is almost certainly funny, and usually not racist.

        You can even do it by setting up a racist punchline, and then, instead of subverting it like they’re expecting, tell an even *more* racist punchline. Or tell them off for expecting the racist punchline. Or *both*.

        Humor relies on audience expectations of a very simply summary of a situation. Aka, it relies on *prejudice*, where the audience rapidly decides where the story is going, and then the story doesn’t. Something that the premise is ‘people quickly making assumptions about things’ is easy to accidentally wander into racism.

        PS, I feel I should point out it is nearly impossible to *ironically* subvert someone’s expectations. That would mean you…follow their expectations, but somehow indicate you’re not serious about it. This is…uh, stupid, and not very funny. It might work as performance art or some sort of hipster-ish thing, but, in reality, a good percentage of the people are not going to understand what you just did…which means you just did something that was literally not a joke.

        Or, to put it another way: Andy Kaufman was a genius performance artist. However, he did that at the expense of being an actual stand up comedian.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        this sounds like you’ve never heard a Polish joke. Or a Jewish joke.
        People use races to serve as standins for different things, not just “person is stupid”
        Sure, there are many “dumb Pollack” jokes, but a Polish joke, turned well, turns on the idea that Poles are stupidly prideful about anything that is possibly Polish.

        Here, you are making fun of something that’s… actually there. Is it exaggeration? Sure. Is it racist? Kinda.

        “It was poles that invented the toilet!”
        “… but it took a german to invent the hole”

        Jewish jokes hang on “greed” being unseemly, ungentlemanly, and a few other things (immoral, maybe?). They’re… a lot less relevant/funny/interesting now.

        Whether or not a joke is racist is a lot less important than it being funny.

        BTW, is referencing the holocaust while telling a Jewish joke racist?Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        David, this sounds like you’ve never heard a Polish joke. Or a Jewish joke.
        People use races to serve as standins for different things, not just “person is stupid”

        ‘A Kim walks into a bar./Kim vanishes because she realizes the people the bar serves usually aren’t named Kim.’

        Kim, do you know what *usually* means?

        And, yes, almost all forms of those jokes can be boiled down to ‘People of type X are stupid’, even if it seems the joke is ‘People of type X are stupid *in a specific way*’.

        Even your example…hey, look at the dumbass Pole bragging about inventing a toilet, and look, the German is even dumber!

        Incidentally, Kim, I was talking about humorous stories with punchlines. (And observational humor, which is about presenting punchlines to things that actually exist.)

        The example you gave…is not that sort of joke. It’s just a statement. That statement could have possibly been a punchline to a joke, but it isn’t a joke itself, because it has no setup. It’s really just a racist statement. Possibly a *funny* racist statement, but that doesn’t make it a joke.

        Whether or not a joke is racist is a lot less important than it being funny.

        I have no idea what ‘less important’ means in that context. Jokes that are not funny have failed at the fundamental requirement of a joke. Jokes that are racist are *racist*.

        Your statement is akin to saying ‘Whether a car has an engine is more important than whether it will explode’. Cars without engines have failed at being cars, and there is no point in them existing. However, cars that explode are *also* things we don’t want, and are, in fact, probably worse than *no car at all*.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Allow me to provide a quip:
        “Jesus saves. Moses invests.”
        Is this racist? If so, who is it racist towards? The Goy or the Yid? Or Both?


    • @glyph

      That’s an excellently thoughtful comment, and it deserves more attention than I have time to give it.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor says:

      @glyph : My sense is that #4 – no connection between viewing and behavior – is probably the closest to the truth. I think our confusion on this stems from the fact that we have all, at some point, been powerfully affected by a work of fiction. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people here have cried over something that happened to a fictional character, for example. So, it seems like we become deeply emotionally invested in fiction, right? On the other hand, research into the effects of desensitization, pornography, violent films and video games, etc. on behavior have yielded no strong effects. The most you’ll find is that people’s bio-metrics change while they experience the fictional event, but stabilize relatively quickly. In my view, the issue is of short-term vs. long-term effects. Our brains are very good at distinguishing between fiction and reality, but they are simultaneously very good at mirroring the emotions that we see in a story. So, in the moment, the story has a powerful affect on us. But, after those emotions die down, our rational side is quick to compartmentalize. Basically, the immediate emotional reaction is completely separate from the long-term impact. Again, that’s just my parsimonious explanation for what I’ve seen in the research.

      That said, the “steam valve” theory doesn’t seem totally bogus either. People certainly can get riled up by entertainment. Riled up enough to cause riots and violence at sporting events (or classical performances). So if someone can get motivated to violence by entertainment, presumably they can be similarly demotivated. Still, as with riots, it’s gotta happen in the very short-term. Perhaps watching depictions of sexual violence can be an effective stop-gap against going out and actually committing it; like counting backwards from 10 and taking deep breaths. And maybe that’s good enough. But I doubt that it’s an effective way of addressing the underlying urges.

      So what about propaganda? Works of fiction like The Jungle, or Silent Spring, or the much more odious fascist/racist films of the 20th century seem to have had a lasting impact on people. Enough to change laws and regulations, not just start flare-ups. I think the difference here is that propaganda is fiction that purports to be true, or at least reveal some factual truth. Emotional appeal is certainly involved, but it works because it convinces our rational brain *not* to just discard it as story. “This is really happening to people, and it’s really going to happen to you”. That’s the underlying message of propaganda. Once it has been established as true, the pathos are free to manipulate our weak mirror neurons without reason getting in the way.

      So, going back to Family Guy. As – admittedly – a viewer who is rarely the butt of a joke, I don’t see any of the elements that would leave an impact on people. There’s no pretension that the jokes represent a reality, or that real people do/should behave this way. Rather, the main theme is that everyone is a classless jerk and God help them. I would be curious to see some examples of odious comedy that pushes an element of truth. Perhaps The Dice Man had some jokes about “brawds and whores” that edged into territory of urging for active disrespect towards women as a genuine male responsibility. The other one that keeps coming to mind, though not intentionally funny, was FOX’s 24. Not for it’s violence or clumsy writing, but for the way it saw itself as an accurate, effective account of how a government deals with terrorism … in the real world. Certainly once the show was bringing in top military guys to consult, and the cast/creator touring conservative conferences the idea that it was a representation of a factual ideal was on a lot of people’s minds. And I think it had a real potency. Even that was a fluke, but it does seem like our politicians have been taking tips from Family Guy for some time now.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Hey @trizzlor – I don’t have anything specific (other than seconding this: There’s no pretension that the jokes represent a reality, or that real people do/should behave this way. Rather, the main theme is that everyone is a classless jerk and God help them. ) to say in response, but I also didn’t want to leave such a thoughtful and lengthy comment unacknowledged. So thanks for the thoughtful and lengthy reply. 😉Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Japan has a lot more sexual violence than you give it credit for. A LOT more. Groping on subways is just the beginning — let alone stalking women, let alone “raping foreigners for walking into the wrong bathroom”[pretty sure that was just Americans, but… cultural stereotypes]

      It’s easy to tell who you’re harming when you tell a joke. Tell a joke about the Holocaust, you’re harming Holocaust victims. Tell a joke about kids freezing to death, you’re harming their parents. People close enough to care can get steamrolled by jokes that are simply too fucking painful to hear.

      Don’t hire comedians to talk at funerals, the results won’t be pretty.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      So, this women’s club, which is near an army base, has a tradition of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for soldiers who are away from their families. A junior officer meets with its chairwoman to arrange things, and she seems very friendly and generous until the end, when she says “Oh, one more thing, Lieutenant. Please don’t send any Jewish soldiers. Not that I’m prejudiced, but, well, you know. Not our sort of people.”

      He agrees, if a bit curtly, and everything goes smoothly until the day itself, when the military bus arrives and two dozen black soldiers alight and walk up to the chairwoman, who’s waiting to greet them. The sergeant in charge says “Good afternoon, ma’am. We’re all very pleased to meet you.” The Chairwoman, aghast, says “S-Sergeant, I’m afraid there must have been some mistake.”

      “No, Ma’am. Lieutenant Cohen doesn’t make mistakes.”

      Racist or not? At least part of the joke is that blacks are even worse than Jews are.Report

      • Good question. I would say the joke is more on the chairwoman (and the type of people she is meant to represent) than it is racist. But I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder.

        I wouldn’t say it’s “ironically racist” (not that you were claiming it was or were addressing that point)Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I read it as playing on the fact that people who don’t like Jewish people tend to like black people even less.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Mike, I’m not sure I entirely get the context but it seems to me the joke – insofar as it’s funny to me– isn’t racist. For me, the punchline is that the guy knew that if she didn’t like Jews she sureashell wasn’t gonna like black folks eiher, so he did what she told him to fully well knowing that it would piss her off.

        Course, in another context the joke is obviously racist. To both Jews and blacks.

        But that’s just the thing, no? Context matters. And some folks – understandably – aren’t comfortable with that.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Classic military joke. “I’ll do exactly as you ordered… sir. And screw you two ways to Sunday while doing it.”
        Cop jokes work the same way, some of the time.

        I’ve seen this done without the “racism” but it takes a defter hand.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Not exactly what she said. One of the black soldiers was a ridiculously talented song-and-dance man with one eye.Report

  15. Avatar Kazzy says:


    I guess this is how I see it…

    I hear a joke about Topic X and think, “Oo… that wasn’t funny. That was really uncomfortable, actually.”
    Then I hear another joke about Topic X and it evokes the same response in me. And another and another and another, each time evoking the same response. Eventually, I reach a point where I conclude — for myself — that jokes about Topic X are over the line and not something I’m all that interested in hearing. Now, there might come a time where a joke about Topic X somehow lands and I laugh uproariously. I may at that point need to reevaluate my line.

    Compare this to any other human preference. You eat Chinese food and hate it. You eat it again from another spot and hate it again. Again and again, you try it and hate it. Would you be entitled to say, “Chinese food isn’t for me. I don’t plan on visiting any more Chinese joints,” or would you have to continue going to them to avoid making some predetermined ruling on how the experience is likely to go?Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      I dunno. There’s a specific craft in comedy (and Family Guy’s not really doing this, by the way — they’re after a different area) about making offensive jokes funny. The Aristocrats, for instance, is basically a right of passage in comedy.

      When the whole Tosh rape ‘joke’ thing came up, one of the articles I recall went into detail about “Look, comedians make jokes about uncomfortable or serious subjects. The problem with Tosh was that it wasn’t really a joke, it wasn’t funny, and basically it was just being a dick’ and followed it up by “Look, here’s six or seven jokes on rape that are actually funny. Some by men, some by women”.

      And those jokes were, on the face of it, at least as offensive. If not more. But they were funny, in a way Tosh’s weren’t.

      There’s a craft to entertainment. And honestly, people’s tastes are so variable that the edgy stuff — stuff that crosses and recrosses lines — is the hardest to do well.

      Family Guy I’m pretty ‘meh’ on. But there’s a couple of scenes that are deliberately, ridiculously, ‘crosses the line twice’ and still hilarious. It’s real hit or miss.

      Even the best crafted, best told joke can offend someone. The really badly crafted ones tend to offend everyone, or darn close to it.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        While Tosh going after the audience member fell flat, I think we should give him a little bit of leeway on the jokes that led up to her starting to heckle him. Aside from the obvious, “You’re at a club watching Daniel Tosh!” response, there’s the fact that it’s pretty common for comedians to be working on new material there and Tosh has a style that needs a lot of tweaking before it comes out right. It’s easy to work on an inoffensive joke when it’s not yet super funny, but working on a Tosh style over-the-line-but-still-funny joke pretty much necessitates a lot of hard nights. You hit “over the line” a long time before you hit “but still funny.”

        Chris Rock said that he worked on his legendary “Niggas vs black people” bit forever in clubs and bombed night after night until he got the tone and the wording just right. It’s incredibly funny in its final form, but absent all the tweaking, it met with horrified stone faced silence at best for a long time.

        I guess what I’m saying is that you can expect to squirm a little bit watching a final, polished Tosh TV special. If you go and see him while he’s still tuning material at the Laugh Factory or the Comedy Store, you should probably expect some really uncomfortable moments. Comics are stuck with all of their intermediate drafts and cuts being done in public (recorded on smartphones and posted to YouTube half the time these days), so we should probably cut them some slack.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        The Aristocrats is an anti-joke. Everyone knows the punchline already.
        (Although, the game company in Boston that left that as their last tweet before heading for the hills? Performance art, in purest form)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Hardest part for a successful comedian is to find a critical audience.

        Comedians have to know that they’re going to upset people — and do their work anyway.

        Hell, half the time they’re cutting their hearts out onstage, live and for everyone to laugh at.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        It is sometimes the case though that the audience doesn’t know who they are going to see, especially at smaller clubs. This generally isn’t the case with headliners, but even they will sometimes do ‘surprise’ or ‘impromptu’ shows unannounced. It does seem reasonable for them to handle themselves differently with an audience of people who elected to see them specifically and with an audience that didn’t know who’d be on stage that night.

        And, yes, you could argue that one shouldn’t even go into a comedy club if you might be offended by a joke. But that seems a bridge too far. There are so many brands of comedy and it seems fair for people to like certain types and not other types and to not be baited-and-switched. I know that is sort of how the business works but if you think you’re going to see a Seinfeld-style comedian and instead you get Daniel Tosh making rape jokes, you can’t really ‘blame’ the audience for that one.

        I don’t know if that is what happened in *this* case but I know it does happen. When I’ve been to comedy shows, I had no idea who was stepping on stage until they were announced.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        you ain’t seen nothing till the audience takes the stage. 😉
        (the people supposed to show were too hungover).

        Any comedian tells a joke, he expects to offend someone. Ought to, at any rate.
        I can tell a joke about “Apple Jews” and offend someone. You get offended, what should you do?
        Leave, and cry about it where you don’t ruin it for someone else. (possibly express emotions to comedian later).Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        It does seem reasonable for them to handle themselves differently with an audience of people who elected to see them specifically and with an audience that didn’t know who’d be on stage that night.

        The problem is that in cases when they’re unannounced, they’re often working on new material for their act. A big-ish name like Tosh doesn’t go on stage unannounced on a weeknight to give people a discount on his prime material out of charity. He typically does it to try out work-in-progress material on a small audience away from his core fans with no cameras and lower expectations. There are clubs where this happens a lot, and I’m pretty sure this incident happened at one of them. Some clubs are pretty well known for being the places where big comics work on material, so ymmv when that’s happening.

        One of the things that I hear a lot of comics irritated about is the ubiquity of cameras at these things. Their new material gets out on the net before it’s ready and anything that goes wrong in the process goes viral. It’s like writing a novel live on Google Docs with everybody watching you type and saving off your emabarrassing mistakes to post on FailBlog.

        And, yes, you could argue that one shouldn’t even go into a comedy club if you might be offended by a joke.

        I’m not sure about “don’t go to a comedy club” but a reasonable option might be “buy tickets for shows with a lineup you know.” Especially if you’re the type of person who might freak out if the material hits a sensitive spot It’s a bit like ordering Mama’s Potluck Surprise at an unfamiliar restaurant without asking what’s in it and then complaining when you bite into something you’re allergic to.

        And of course, if you’re really upset by the material, it’s perfectly OK to leave and go somewhere more comfortable. Shouting at the performer and disrupting the set isn’t acceptable.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        But with that free guinea-pigging of the audience comes the potential for pushback. You want to test out a rape joke? On an unsuspecting crowd? You can’t complain about hecklers. Especially if you are the type (as Tosh is) to target the audience. Gooses and ganders and whatnot.

        None of this should be construed as an argument about what comedians can and cannot do. Only that responsibility flows both way. Don’t go see Chris Rock if you are offended by racial humor isn’t an unreasonable thing to say. But I think the inverse, something akin to what I say above about testing out rape jokes on an unsuspecting audience, is also a fair expectation. Comedians shouldn’t get a free pass. They are just as accountable for what they say as others.

        The issues with video taping and things going viral is a real one but seems part of a separate conversation, one that really falls to club owners and/or the model to address.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Why does one have to “push back”? Can’t they just sit there and not laugh if they don’t find it funny, or leave if it bothers them?

        Those reactions will make the point about whether the joke is funny or not without hassling a person at their job, which is what a heckler is doing.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        You push someone into a mentally unbalanced (“Hot”) sort of brainstate, you aren’t exactly surprised if some of them come up to throw a punch.

        There are jokes that comedians don’t tell too loudly, and I don’t mean the ones about coprophilia. I mean the ones about dead babies. Because, if one of their parents hear you tell the tale, lord help you–and with good reason, the rest of the audience won’t be on your side.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        The best parts of my last couple of trips to a comedy club involved how the comedians dealt with hecklers. The best ones? They responded with a handful of little gags that got the audience to crack up and laugh at (not with) the heckler.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Keeping the audience on your side is a vital skill for standup comics. Michael Richards lacked it (from disuse, maybe), which is why he lost the audience, got flustered, and then disgraced himself. I can completely empathize with how the first two parts of that led him to panic.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Mike and Jay,
        I agree with Jay — this is part of the job. While it’s understandable that someone might lose their cool…you’re supposed to learn techniques to deal with that. (heading straight for pity laughter is one that every comic knows, and most aren’t afraid to use).Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        None of us disagree. It’s a necessary skill and Michael Richards is an object lesson in what can happen without it. Also in how standup is very different from TV.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        You want to test out a rape joke? On an unsuspecting crowd? You can’t complain about hecklers.

        Part of the point is that the crowd doesn’t get to call itself “unsuspecting” unless there’s good reason to be unsuspecting. I’ve seen it reported two ways: first it that it was an open mic night. The other was that Tosh was the headliner. I can’t see how an audience member can be cast as a victim in either case. If you go in for the grab bag, you get the grab bag and it might contain Daniel Tosh. If you go to see Daniel Tosh, it will definitely contain Daniel Tosh. I can possibly see the complaint if you went to see Jim Gaffigan and some related opening ats and Tosh came out as surprise bonus material, but that’s more on the club owner than on the performers.

        If you’re a delicate flower, then schedule your night carefully around safe activities with known outcomes. People act like they were just walking down the street nowhere near a comedy club and some monster came out of the darkness and started doing comedy to them. That’s not really how it works.

        And yes, you can complain about hecklers. Hecklers mess up a show for the performer and the audience alike. There’s a handful of performers who specifically plan to make them part of the show, but most just want them to shut up. They can completely derail a bit and dealing with them even by being “funny” risks losing the audience in the process. A comedy club isn’t a place for people to express your views and make the show about you.

        Comedians shouldn’t get a free pass. They are just as accountable for what they say as others.

        Sure, that’s fine. If they say things the audience doesn’t like, the audience is free to not enjoy it and not go back. Comedians who are particularly bad about it generally go out of business as a result. But, “I don’t like this, so I’m going to ruin it for everybody because it’s really all about me and my feelings,” isn’t the flip side of, “Comedians should try to avoid alienating the audience.” I’ve had a lot more nights of comedy ruined by hecklers than by bad comedians.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        yeah, at least at a club, you get hecklers. Nothing like watching a Comedy Special where the guy runs out of material within the first 20 minutes. You see the dawning terror, the “oh, my god, I don’t have anything left…” and then it just goes on.Report

  16. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    There is little I can think to add here that I haven’t said fairly explicitly in detail here. But I will add one tiny addendum to that post to underscore it, as the bit I’m adding just below did not yet exist when I wrote that post…

    In my own post on offensive humor, I retold a common “funny” joke from the mid-80s that to some degree hung it’s hat on racism, in that it relied entirely upon thinking black people talking differently via ebonics was funny in order to achieve the punchline. As I said then, I never found that joke funny. And not because the joke offended me, but because it just wasn’t ever funny to me.

    In that post’s threads, there was some discussion about that particular joke — and some of the elements of commentary in the threads of it was surprising to me on a few fronts. The takeaways I remember taking away at the time are:

    A. Although I have for years assumed that joke was emblematic of a singular moment in acceptable racism in bad-joke history, it turned out that it had survived and was told by subsequent generations of young white men.

    B. The white men from this site who remembered telling it insisted that despite the fact that it was clearly a joke where the punchline relied on ebonics, it was one they had found funny and there was really nothing wrong with them having thought so.

    C. The people referred to in Point B above were also those that I associate most with explaining to others on this site what kinds of jokes are and are not offensive and/or allowed.

    And I bring this addendum up not to do a PC “gotcha” to those people so much as to once again point out that declaring what is and isn’t funny for everyone is a fool’s errand, because humor doesn’t exist to highlight what we find good and wholesome in the world.

    @cj above is correct: You find funny what you find funny. You don’t find funny what you don’t find funny.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      If you are referring to me there, I think you are pretty poorly describing my relationship with that particular joke.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        @kazzy Which was kind of my point.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        My point was that it was not a joke that necessarily relied on “ebonics”/AAVE.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        Is this the nacho cheese joke?

        I think that’s a super-interesting case study when it comes to racist jokes. As Kazzy rightly points out, the joke can exist as a pun, entirely absent the racial connotation. And yet, when I recall the times that joke was told to me in grade school, the telling always included significant racist trappings, with the joke tellers going to great effort to paint the speaker of the punchline as a welfare-queen stereotype, to the point that the punchline became an afterthought.

        I’d argue that there are three basic classifications of jokes that might be called racist.

        Type A jokes are only funny to those listeners who hold racist beliefs.
        Type B jokes are funny to listeners who are aware of a racist belief, even if they don’t subscribe to it.
        Type C jokes are jokes where the racism is incidental to the humor.

        The Nacho cheese joke is fascinating because it exists on a continuum between Type A and Type C (and beyond, because it also exists as a joke that doesn’t relate to race at all). The version I heard in gradeschool was clearly a type A joke. You weren’t supposed to be laughing at the pun–you were supposed to be laughing at the description of the fat greedy black woman.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        @kazzy Which, once again, was my point.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:


      Yeah, alot of the same themes came up in that thread. I re-read some of it, and blackface was addressed (Jim Heffman had a great comment on it), and the whole “which direction is the comedian punching I don’t know so I better shut it down!” topic arose, and even redneck humor as a form of “blackface” and all that. Interesting to read that discussion in light of this one.

      The best part for me was when a commenter, responding to Heffman (I think) refrains from spelling out the word “redneck” – because it’s insulting and all – to which Jaybird responds “Wait, we’ve had our “R” word privileges revoked? When in the heck did this happen?”


    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      “B. The white men from this site who remembered telling it insisted that despite the fact that it was clearly a joke where the punchline relied on ebonics, it was one they had found funny and there was really nothing wrong with them having thought so.”

      I did no such thing. I did not say that the joke was funny DESPITE a punchline that relied on ebonics/AAVE. I said, for a certain segment of the population, the punchline did not rely on ebonics/AAVE. It relied on a manner of speaking that was common among people of all races. The ‘speaker’ in the joke is never identified as black. The joke was a pun. A pun that relied on a manner of speaking to which I subscribed. If the joke was mocking people who spoke that way, it was mocking me.

      As I said at the time, if the joke had been presented as you presented it, I would have said, “Holy shit, that’s racist.” But if it had been presented as I had heard it, there was no obvious racism inherent to the joke. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t racist. Or didn’t have a racist context from which it was derived. That is only to say that — for me at least — I did no such thing as tell the joke DESPITE its ‘clear racism’. I understood the joke in a decidedly non-racist context, likely as a function of my age and the specific context in which I grew up.

      I actually never really thought the joke was funny. It was a pun. I think all puns are stupid and unfunny. All I contended at the time was that the joke could be understood divorced from its likely racist origins because that manner of speaking was not necessarily associated with Black Americans. I spoke that way. My white friends spoke that way. Everyone I knew at the time spoke that way. As such, it was a pun that mocked language we ALL used and which we didn’t understand as having originated among Black Americans because we were teenagers.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I think all puns are stupid and unfunny.

        Guys, I know things are tough with the The Daily Beast is poaching your writers faster than you can recruit them and all, but you really need to exercise a bit of discretion before handing over the keys.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        “I think all puns are stupid and unfunny.”
        Yup. That’s why sadists are so good at telling them.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Here’s a good pun, let me know what you think:

        Two guys walk into a bar and the third one ducks.Report

  17. Avatar North says:

    Lord(Lady?) I loathe Family Guy. I have always loathed it- actually I think I may Loathe Seth since I also Loathe American Dad and that other one he did.Report

  18. Avatar zic says:

    One of the earliest ‘adult’ jokes, non-sexual, that I remember learning:

    A jew, a hindu, and a frenchman are out wandering around the woods. It’s getting dark, so they stop at a farmhouse and ask to spend the night. The farmer says yes, but there’s only room for two others in the house, one will have to sleep in the barn. They all share a dinner, and sit by the fire and share news a while, then it’s time to sleep. The hindu offers to take the barn and leaves, and jew and the frenchman settle down on a mat in front of the fire.

    Soon, there’s a knock at the door, and it’s the hindu, “I can’t sleep out there, there’s a cow.” So the jew goes out, and they all settle back down.

    Soon, there’s a knock at the door, and it’s the jew. “I can’t sleep out there, there’s a pig.” So the frenchman goes to the barn and they all settle down.

    Soon, there’s a knock at the door and it’s the cow and the pig.


    Now was pretty naive when I left Maine, because I didn’t really realize there were other ethnic jokes; no polish jokes, no irish jokes. Occasionally a nigger joke, blacks were even lower then frogs in my small, narrow world. My cousins, half-latino, often had black jokes made about them, and it always made me feel sick to my stomach.

    Now both of my grandmothers happen to be French. My father’s mother, Sadie, was a wild sprite, who won a steeple chase at 14 riding bareback. Her family Arcadian, driven out of their homes in Canada, drifting south and ending up in pockets here and there in a trail of tears leading down to the Lousiana bayou. Here in Maine, they either clustered in cities on waterfalls and kept some of their heritage as they worked in mills powered by that moving water or spread out and farmed the rocky, cold hillsides, where they shed their french culture so as to blend in economically with the English and Scotch neighbors. That’s what Sadie did; so wore flour-sack dresses and grew vegetables and canned and washed her clothes in an old wringer washing machine. I recall her folding frozen bluejeans, stiff as cardboard, from off the clothes line in the warmest part of winter days.

    My mother’s mother, Rita, was born in the western Mass., to Catholic parents who came a few years before; so she’s really French, not Canook like Sadie. She married my Grandfather, a rich boy, his uncle a Superior Court Judge, his father a prosperous merchant, his mother niece to Hanibal Hamlin’s secretary. (Hamlin was Lincoln’s first VP.) He would not convert, and I’ve told you how I once heard a priest telling her her children were all illegitimate. She’d moved to this place where the French were the bottom of the economic ladder, and where she was cast out of her church.

    Both my grandmothers spoke French, they knew French cooking traditions. But I never heard a word of it from either; except Rita, who worked tailoring people’s clothes, and would occasionally curse in french when she pricked her finger with a needle.

    In other words, all my French heritage was pretty much denied me, as if it were a thing of shame.

    That’s the power of humor, too. And I really don’t think it’s funny. That kind of toxic humor? The people who spread it? They’re the people George Carlin made fun of, and that was funny.Report

    • @zic

      Thanks for sharing that story. I confess that growing up, and sometimes even now, I tend to look at the French as people who it’s acceptable to make fun of. In part, that’s because they aren’t a discretely identifiable ethnic group in the places I’ve spent most of my life, nor have they been noticeably an outgroup like they seem from your description in Maine. (And I should know better. I’ve studied enough US history to know that French Canadians especially are an outgroup in some places in the US. And I’ve also chosen other targets for which I don’t have the excuse of not fully realizing the target is an outgroup.)

      I’ll certainly keep your story in mind the next time I’m tempted to laugh at or make such a joke. I certainly get sensitive about jokes when it comes to some of the people I know and grew up with.

      Further, I think your story relates to my OP’s point. Whenever I’ve told or laughed at a “French joke,” I saw the humor I found in it as being somewhat “ironic” (along lines of the discussion above thread), as in, I told myself I wouldn’t make such a joke to someone’s face or if I knew they were French. But yet I also knew that I was putting that (to use a new agey term) negative energy out there. I was partaking of the cruelty.

      Again, thanks for sharing your story.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        sometimes even now, I tend to look at the French as people who it’s acceptable to make fun of

        I will admit to pretty often going to the French well. Part of it is that I haven’t known many French people in my life. Part of it is that I HAVE known Spaniards, Germans, and Brits, and if there’s one thing they all agree on and can even bring the Americans on board with, it’s that the French have a reputation for being snooty. Part of it is that I was an Anglophile growing up, and you get a lot of that stuff from Python et al.

        But part of it is also, it is just sort of funny to me to have a pretend “beef” with people that I have no real beef with.

        I don’t know if anyone ever saw the movie Tune In Tomorrow, but Peter Falk plays a radio announcer who has this soap opera. One of the running jokes in the movie is that he has this inexplicable antipathy towards Albanians (so the radio show contains lines like “She stepped into a dark alleyway…filled with broken glass, rats, and Albanians”) that just got (to me) more and more hilarious as it went on, because it was never explained, and just seemed so random (what did the Albanians DO to this guy, anyway? Why does he hate them so?)

        The punchline is that after the town’s surprisingly-large Albanian population comes to protest the show and Falk has to flee town, in a button to the movie, we hear him doing his show in the next town…only now, “Albanians” have been replaced with some other random minority, suggesting Falk never had any real problem with Albanians at all, and he just does this to get people riled up.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I’m weird because I’m strong admirer of the French. People make fun of them but I have a tendency to see French civilization as the epitome of Western secular liberalism. People like to make fun of the French as being full of themselves but they contributed a lot to civilization. Plus, there women.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I always figured the French were an OK target. Germans too for that matter, and Brits. And definitely Americans.

        For example, what’s the difference between America and yogurt? If you leave yogurt alone for more than two centuries it will develop a culture.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Thanks, @gabriel-conroy though I’m not so concerned about French as I am about recognizing that with humor, it’s important to consider the cost — the expense — to its brunt.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I read a poll recently wherein France has among the highest approval of the US than any country. Ever since then, I’ve declined to make fun of the French.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Chris, the joke that I found went over well in France was “If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you know three, you’re multilingual. If you speak one language, you’re American.”Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Learning of their high approval ratings makes me want to make fun of them even more. And I say this as an unabashed Francophile.

        Also, I’m stealing the
        bilingual/multilingual/American joke.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        “If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you know three, you’re multilingual. If you speak one language, you’re American.”

        “… If you speak one language, you’re English. And if you barely speak even one, you’re American.”Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Does that include the “having people fart on stage” part of French Culture?
        I enjoy Tartuffe and all, but the French sense of humor is… not what most culturally illiterate people think when they talk about French Civilization.

        I think French Palace Cuisine is quite frankly awful, and designed to please bored nobility. Provincial cuisine is acceptable, and some of it is downright good — but I’ll go to a Belgian restaurant to eat it. Far less pretentious.Report

  19. Avatar aaron david says:

    Excellent post Gabriel and I only have a few thoughts:
    1. I never watch FG, as I never thought that McFarland knew how to work a joke very well. It is not that the jokes are either too crude or too transitive, but that his sense of what is actually funny and how much time to devote to the joke payoff are completely out of sync with my sense of humor. In other words, I have seen the bull in the china shop bit, and I get what is funny, it just needed to be one third as long. At the same time, what I find funny wouldn’t even be touched on.
    2. It is quite clear that what others find acceptable/unacceptable is often very different, especially in light of what people (here and elsewhere) are saying in regards to the minstrelism of Drag. Admittedly, drag makes no sense to me, and while my wife enjoys it she doesn’t try to get me to appreciate it. I can’t help but think that this works along the lines of in-group/out-group speech. In other words, its OK as the two groups affected (woman and drag queens) are both groups supported by the left. But if the impersonation was coming from the right, even if it used the exact same methods, it would not be OK. (As an aside, is Colbert doing minstrel work? Why or why not? Punching up/down? And who gets to decide from what level the punch is coming?)
    3. All of this leads me to the simple thought that what is OK is only that until it is not. And its converse, what is not OK suddenly becomes OK. Minstrel shows were OK at one time, as it was considered funny to do. No other reason. At some point society looked back and said that isn’t cool. The other night my wife and I were watching MASH episodes on Netflix, and all she could comment on was just how sexist it was. Not really racist, but definitely sexist.Report

    • Thanks for your thoughts, @aaron-david .

      1. I should admit–this probably got lost in my OP–that I find FG pretty hilarious, which is one reason I’m bothered by it.

      2. Agreed with the first part. To your parting questions, I don’t know about Colbert. Are you referring to his shtick in general (the anti-Reilly character) or characters like the “ching chong” one mentioned above in this thread. If it’s the former, then I don’t see it as harmful because all (or most) is fair in media point and counterpoint. If it’s the latter, then I agree with those above that in context, it probably isn’t really minstrelsy (I’m not sure I’ve seen the character). But I also think there’s potentially a cruel-seeming dynamic going on.

      3. I don’t usually think of MASH as sexist, but I think your wife is on to something.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        I don’t usually think of MASH as sexist, but I think your wife is on to something.

        In the very first episode they’re raising money to send some Korean kid to medical school by selling raffle tickets with the prize being a weekend pass to Tokyo with the hottest nurse in the camp. The nurses are basically just sex objects.

        Also too, EVERY doctor is male and EVERY nurse is female. I don’t think there is a single counter-example in the entire run of the series but I wouldn’t swear to it.Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        There is an episode that specifically talks about a male nurse, I have no idea when in the series that was though. It was never brought up again.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        And they rig the raffle so Father Mulcahy would win, which is the only reason the nurse agreed to it.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        I’m pretty sure the state of the American Army in 1950s was a state of every doctor being male and every nurse female. There’s one history timeline that says the first female Army doctor was commissioned in 1953, but isn’t corroborated elsewhere.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        @kolohe I agree that the vast majority of doctors in the US Army have been male – that’s kind of a no-brainer and I don’t think MASH is at fault for portraying that – but it’s inaccurate to just point out that the first female doctor in the regular army was commissioned in 1953, without thinking about the background.

        Mary Edwards Walker was the first female US Army doctor, albeit of the Union Army – she was awarded the Medal of Honor afterwards. (cf.

        Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee was an acting assistant surgeon in 1898 during the Spanish-American war. (

        Skipping ahead a bit, in WW2 there were at least 76 women doctors (counting only commissioned officers, not the numerous civil volunteers in Pearl Harbor and elsewhere) in the American army, several of whom served overseas – but they were all kicked out (by an automatic repeal of a war measure) by the late 40s. After a bunch of fruitless efforts by the military to convince Congress to allow women doctors back in, and the Navy sneaking around and getting their doctors in by commissioning them into the WAVES instead of the medical corps, in June of 1952, Truman signed a bill that allowed all three branches to commission women doctors into the medical corps.

        By the end of 1953 there were 19 women doctors in the regular army reserve, and 20-ish in the navy. They didn’t see a lot of active duty, but some of them did. The army actually wanted to add women doctors to the draft in the 50s, but again Congress wouldn’t let them.
        (all from a really interesting book called Women Doctors in War, by Bellafaire and Graf – – hooray for search inside!)

        Sorry to be so nitpicky, but I get really tired of the all-or-nothing view of history that we end up with when we only look at books, shows, etc that are depicting the “typical” situation of whatever part of the past.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        (if someone could remove my comment above from moderation, that would be *swell* – citing my sources always makes the spam filter grumpy…)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        K and Maribou,
        also we ought to remember that the status of Nurses versus Doctors was a little different back then. Nurses (and I’d wager particularly in the army) were actually empowered enough to tell the doctors when they were being idiots. And a nurse trying to defend a patient is not something a wise doctor messed with.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Maribou, thanks for the detail. The Army Nurse corps site’s history page wasn’t working and wikipedia was filled with partial entries and citations needed.

        Kimmi, I’m pretty sure that’s still the case now, or at least, still the case in any TV medical drama.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        fraid not sir. Hire the bottom of the barrel, and don’t be surprised with what you get.
        Every single med tagged, having to check in, being a nurse is really demeaning work.Report

    • Avatar Road Scholar says:

      In one of the very first scenes of the very first episode, the pilot episode, Pierce and B.J. are relaxing in their tent. One of their tent-mates is a black guy whose nickname is “Spearchucker.”

      I had totally forgotten that character — minor background character, probably written out of the show later. On the one hand, a black surgeon in 1950 is a fairly progressive move I suppose. But Spearchucker? SRSLY? Wow.

      The sexism seems pretty blatant by today’s standards but it wasn’t really outrageous for a show about the fifties produced in the seventies. There’s just been a lot of progress along those lines.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Dr Jones was from the movie, and was a huge honking lampshade.

        Pretty much all of TV was aggressively or passively sexist until about Murphy Brown (ie ST TOS, Night Court)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Dr. Jones was originally from the book. He’d thrown the javelin in college, whence the nickname. He was also the specialist in thoracic surgery the other surgeons had been begging for, and a man of both humor and dignity. Fred Williamson, needless to say, pulled none of that off.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      As a separate thought, it’s an interesting question on what standards one should judge a piece of historical fiction, especially any where its creation is now more distant from the present day than it was to the period being utilized in the work.Report

  20. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    @kazzy I think you are missing my point, which is on entirely on me for faulty writing. So hang with me for a minute and I will try to come at it from a different angle:

    One of the perennial bestselling sub-genres of self-help books is dream interpretation books. You’ve just had a dream about a dog — but what does that dream mean? A dream interpretation book will tell you. You just look up “dog,” and you see that in dreams dogs are symbols of close, intimate friendship. You were dreaming go your best friend! What was the dog in the dream doing? Chasing a car? Let’s look up “car” and see what you really think of your best friend deep down inside! Etc., etc.

    The inherent problem with dream interpretation books is that the author assumes that his or her personal association with ideas, objects, and events matches everyone else’s completely. But that’s not the way it is. A dog might well have different mental and emotional associations for me than for you; in fact, this is likely the case. A dog for you might be a loyal friend, and for me it might be a noisy annoyance my neighbor keeps, and for someone who works at a vet it might be one more damn thing you have to deal with 9 to 5. This is why, at the most, all a dream interpretation book can ever really tell us is what’s going on in the mind of the person who wrote it.

    Second guessing people’s inner motivations about humor is, I would argue, exactly the same.

    The nacho cheese joke is one I heard over and over for years and was clearly a racist joke; therefore, since you are a white guy who found the joke funny you are a racist, or at least you are someone who find racist jokes funny. Right?

    Well, no actually. Because what happens in your head when you hear the nacho cheese joke isn’t the same thing that happens in my head. Any person might find the nacho cheese joke funny or not funny, and that person’s reasons might or might not have anything to do with African Americans. To presume that you know is tricky at best.

    In the OP, Gabriel says “it’s not right to make fun of people with terminal illnesses.” I know a lot of people who would vehemently disagree with this. Among them: everyone I’ve ever known who’s suffered from a terminal illness. For most of those people (my parents especially so), treating them as porcelain dolls that needed to be protected from other people’s humor would have been what truly offended. So when I hear GC say it isn’t right, what I assume GC means is that GC personally doesn’t find it funny and it makes him uncomfortable. (Which, by the way, is totally cool and more than understandable. And if we were having a beer together and I’d made a crack about my parents cancer and if he were then to tell me it made him him uncomfortable, I would absolutely respect that and stop making cracks about my parents cancer in front of him.)

    Or take Vikram’s post on Stephen Colbert and his Redskin bit from last fall. Was the humor in Colbert’s bit based on Asian people being different? Was it based on finding conservatives clueless? Was it based on satire of the sensational way the media covers such topics, or our overly litigious society?

    Basically what I’m saying is this: Being the gatekeeper of what is and isn’t allowed to by funny in the heads of others is a fool’s errand, and it invariably tells us more about the gatekeeper than anything else.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Yeah, I’m not particularly surprised about people with terminal illnesses not wanting to be treated like fragile flowers. We still shouldn’t be surprised if someone who just learned their Dad is dying gets upset at the joke, though.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        Right. I make jokes about my genitals all the time, cuz obviously. But don’t YOU do it. Among the dying, jokes about death make obvious sense. They might tell them to one another. Perhaps their loved ones might join in — but perhaps not. But from a stranger living a life far from tragedy? Different kettle of fish.

        I expect soldiers in war to share jokes among themselves that I, a smug, comfortable civilian, could not pull off. Gallows humor is for those who live constantly with death.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        That’s a pretty good summary of it.

        I think it was Ta-Nehishi Coates answering the question, “Why can black people call each other that word when I can’t?” with something along the lines of, “I can’t call my neighbor’s wife Sweetheart, but my neighbor can. Your kids probably don’t call you by your first name, but I don’t call you Dad. We change how we talk to each other based on our social relationships, identity and shared experiences (or lack thereof) all the time. How is this different?”

        Being who he is, he probably said it a lot better than that. But it’s a very easy point to understand if not an easy one to articulate. Intuitively, I think most people understand it perfectly well.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        tf and v,
        I think everyone gets THAT point. They just don’t get the “but if I’m not a racist why am I now in trouble for doing something racist? I’m not a racist, dammit!” (as a sidenote: there are actual people out there who might not understand why the use of racist words counts. These are rarely the people being dickwads. Those are the people who are colorblind racists, trying to insist that “since racism is over, I can tell racist jokes without getting in trouble!”.)Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      That, I agree with. I think part of the problem is that someone like me might say, “Wow… not funny…” and have that interpreted as, “Kazzy said we can’t make these jokes anymore!” When, really all I said was, “Hey, I don’t find that funny.” Now, sometimes I got a bit further. “Let me explain why that joke may be offensive in a way you don’t intend it to be.” But still, I feel, falling short of any sort of gatekeeper.

      This is what I was uncomfortable with in Murali’s post on ‘rules’. Apparently, any register of disapproval was deemed a coercive act akin to a law. That struck me as ridiculous. But many people feel that way. “Hey… he thumbs downed my FB post. HE’S TRYING TO CENSOR ME!!!”

      Let’s go back to the Nacho Cheese joke. If I said it the way I knew it (“What do you call cheese that isn’t yours?” “What?” “Nacho cheese!”) and you said, “Wow, Kazzy… do you know the origins of that joke?” and went on to explain them to me, I would never take that as you acting a gate keeper. I would take that as you providing me a context for the joke that I was unaware of and ultimately leaving it to me to decide whether to tell it again. Hell, even if you said, “Please don’t tell that joke around me again,” I wouldn’t have labeled you a gatekeeper. If you said, “Never tell that joke again because it is objectively unfunny and objectively racist and you are an awful, unfunny, racist person for saying it in any form,” well, now you’re gatekeeping.

      And I don’t really see Gabriel gatekeeping here. I get the impression he is A) expressing his own discomfort with a particular brand of humor and B) wondering what, if anything, people’s enjoyment of that brand of humor says about that. That seems a worthy conversation. Shouting him down as a ‘gatekeeper’ seems unfair and inconsistent with what he actually set out to do here (at least as I understand it).

      tl;dr: I agree that no one should act as a gatekeeper for comedy or language in general. But not all expressions of disapproval qualify as gatekeeping.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        @kazzy I would have two somewhat disjointed responses to what you say here.

        Response 1: I have no problem with you communicating to someone that you find something offensive. And though I think the rules are different here on an online forum, the guy at the dinner table (everyone knows this guy) who’s been told that telling jokes about X make the someone at the table uncomfortable but keeps telling them anyway because he’s “edgy” is a horse’s ass.

        That being said, I think there is a difference between saying to someone “That’s not funny” and saying “I don’t find that funny.”

        2. Basically, everything I said to Vikram about his Colbert post here.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        “That being said, I think there is a difference between saying to someone “That’s not funny” and saying “I don’t find that funny.””

        Agreed. I think the speaker of the former statement is often trying to communicate the latter and assuming “…to me” is implied at the end but clarity, specificity, and precision probably demand that it be said explicitly.

        FWIW, I think we need to talk more about race. And sex/gender. And sexual orientation. And religion. And socioeconomic status. And culture. Etc. And I recognize humor and satire as more comfortable ways to at least begin those conversations for many. So I don’t need or want my comedy sanitized. But if you are going to tell jokes that begin to explore those topics, that open up those conversations, I think it is irresponsible and immature to then back away when the conversations prove challenging. You can do it, of course. You can do whatever the hell you want. But I can also respond as I like and refuse to engage with someone whose prime purpose seems to offend.

        Did Chris Rock’s Black people/n-word routine offend some people? I’m sure it did. But it allowed a conversation to take place and one that Rock was willing to participate in.

        Hell, Justine Sacco’s tweet might have spawned a similarly productive conversation had she not sent it before going offline for 12 hours and been able to participate in the ensuing ‘discussion’.

        But the guy who tells the joke I mentioned above (“What do you call a Black doctor? N-word!”) and who is not looking to have a discussion about the way we perceive and label Black folk and all the implications of that joke… if he just wants to take a cheap shot at Black people? Eh. Not interested. I don’t find the joke funny when used that way and will be less inclined to talk to that fellow.

        tl;dr: I’m totally on board with humor that broaches difficult, even offensive topics, if leveraged in a way that invites conversation about those topics. I’m not interested in humor that seems solely interested in denigrating groups of people*.

        * Which is why I refused to participate in ‘white trash’ parties.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Argh… the above comment is for @tod-kelly . Not myself.Report

      • The thing is, heckling really is an attempt at censorship – the “heckler’s veto” is a pretty well-established concept. It is an attempt not only to avoid hearing something you find objectionable but also to prevent everyone else in the room from hearing it, even though they’re ostensibly there because they at least want to give it a shot.

        Believe me, comedians know when a joke isn’t working. They don’t need a heckler to berate them and force them to stop their act in its tracks.

        Beyond that, the heckler is counterproductive. Heckling doesn’t embarrass a comedian. It pisses them off, but it doesn’t embarrass them or communicate anything to them whatsoever. Because of the radio shows I often listen to, I’ve heard probably hundreds of stories from comedians about getting heckled and bombing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single story in which they’ve suggested that a heckler got them to rethink or change a joke. I have, however, heard plenty of self-reflection and reevaluation of material because of epic bombs and losing the crowd (manifested by different levels of uncomfortable silence and groans).Report

      • @kazzy

        And I don’t really see Gabriel gatekeeping here. I get the impression he is A) expressing his own discomfort with a particular brand of humor and B) wondering what, if anything, people’s enjoyment of that brand of humor says about that. That seems a worthy conversation. Shouting him down as a ‘gatekeeper’ seems unfair and inconsistent with what he actually set out to do here (at least as I understand it).

        Thanks for that, and I think that–along with the above discussion about “ironic” racist jokes–is more or less an accurate description of what I’m trying to do.

        I didn’t interpret @tod-kelly ‘s comment as “shouting me down,” although I do think he misunderstood what I was trying to say, which is no wonder, because as I’ve read the comments and responded to some of them, I’ve found I need to clarify my thoughts more. I do hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to be a gatekeeper. I like FG and will probably watch it again, even if it’s a rerun of some of the humor I mention that disturbs me.Report