What’s so funny?

They say you can tell alot about people from what they laugh at.   

I am sitting in a bar on the Champs Elysees with an American I met on the ferry to Calais that day.  This is just after the US election that sees Jimmy Carter ousted from the White House and the end of the Iranian hostage crisis.  My new friend tells a joke.  “Hey, “ he asks, “What is very flat and glows at night?”  I shake my head.  “Iran, five minutes after Reagan becomes president.”  We laugh. canned-laughter.gif

The joke glides calmly over nuclear conflagration and the deaths of thousands of men, women and children.  Would we have laughed at a joke about Hiroshima?  What if a Japanese person told it? 

Friends visit for dinner.  They bring their first child, aged about two.  We always drink too much, talk, argue, cross boundaries.  She is particularly iconoclastic.  “There is nothing you can’t make a joke about,” she says.  “OK,” I say.  “What about child abuse?”  Her demeanour changes immediately, she is genuinely unsettled and uncomfortable.  “What is the worst thing about being a paedophile?” I ask.  She shakes her head. “I don’t want to go there.”  I persist, “You have to be in bed by 7 o’clock.”  No one laughs. 

This second joke, about the rape of children, crosses into territory that is universally decried and represents perhaps the cruellest form of human behaviour.  Can there ever be a time when it is funny? 

 As the film Borat shows, we may be entering into a post politically-correct period when all subjects are presented to us as humour.  Some of these topics  – e.g. Islam, the Jewish Holocaust, the lynching of slaves, abortion  – will deeply offend and even hurt many people. 

Is this just an expression of the age-old role that humour has in revealing hypocrisy, exposing lies, challenging beliefs?  Or are such jokes simply in bad taste irrespective of their “funniness?” 

And how will we know the difference?   



Filed under art, humour, life, Religion

6 responses to “What’s so funny?

  1. Good question. I haven’t seen Borat but have heard some interpretations that seem to say even if you try hard to think that there is a method to the madness it still leaves you very uncomfortable. Maybe that s the idea?


  2. My gut reaction is always irritation with comedic censorship. It all comes from us over-valuing human life. Human life is not, in any important sense, valuable (except to the individual trying desperately to cling on to it). We in the west are trained into a culture plagued by “taking things seriously”, false pathos, over-dramatisation and, possibly unrelatedly*, idiotic fashion ideas.

    We are animals living in nature, it is well documented that bad things happen to animals there. We, being theoretically smarter than other animals, should be able to train ourselves not to dwell on personal and public ‘disasters’ as much. But instead we choose, as a culture, to dwell on them more.

    It seems to me most people like involving themselves emotionally in events unconnected to them simply to have something interesting and emotive to discuss. Probably because their own lives are so horribly dull. Usually because they (have to?) work too damn hard.

    I ended up working for myself rather than being an employee because I was, for instance, expected to take my job seriously. I refused to and with good reasons.

    Firstly, there are very few important jobs in the world (garbage men, farmers and manufacturers of safety razors) and mine wasn’t one of them.

    Secondly, taking things seriously retards your performance because worry clouds your thought processes. By being relaxed in a high-stress job I was better than any of my predecessors.

    Thirdly, … there is no thirdly. I had an agreement to do a job well for money. Nothing in my agreement said I had to be serious.

    Nothing, not child molestation, mass murder, supermodels dying from hunger (ha!ha!ha!) or middle east cultures spending thousands of years trying to get genocide right when other cultures have mastered it in months, is so serious that it should be taboo for satire, lampooning or just plain taking the piss.

    When people are offended by humour they have the option of simply walking away**.

    I was sitting watching CNN when the second aeroplane hit the twin towers, having switched on after a text from an American friend. My return text to him was “And they say you can’t find parking in New York…”

    Well I thought it was funny. Hmmm, lookit them all walking away… so lonely.

    This was long enough to be a post. Sorry.

    *-not an ‘official’ word but it’s early. and it’s sunday. deal with it.

    **- I would like to point out that I resisted the obvious paraplegic joke or mention of landmine victims here not because it might offend, but because it seemed to jar in the flow of thoughts.

  3. I’ve always felt that laughter is a sort-of fallback response when you’re presented with a situation so entirely incongruous or uncomfortable that you’re not quite sure how to respond to. When I was 21, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. The doctor said he’d have to remove three lymph nodes, and a good portion of my right pectoral muscle. My response was “it’s okay, I’ve got more.” The doctor seemed more or less incensed that I didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. On the contrary, I was dealing with it though humor.

  4. I am reckoned to have a sense of humour but I am very hard to please as far as “professional” humour is concerned. We will sit through a DVD together, Tigger and I, and she will be shrieking with laughter the whole time and I will not even crack a smile. Monty Python and Woody Allen, for example, are about as funny as a trip to the dentist. Actually, I think a trip to the dentist is funnier. I can watch people like Jack Dee and see why what they are saying makes people laugh but without feeling the least urge to laugh myself.

    I suspect you can be trained to respond to particular types of humour. This would account for the differences between British, American and French humour, for example. Actually, the last time I laughed out loud over a cartoon it was a cartoon in Paris Match though in general French humour is subtle, so subtle as to be almost invisible.

    On the question of jokes offending people, I find this an interesting and deep subject. I think offence occurs when people feel (a) that humour is inappropriate to the circumstances (i.e. it doesn’t matter what the topic of the joke is, you shouldn’t be joking, full stop) or (b) when the subject of the joke is something they regard to be too serious or sacred for humour (i.e. they feel joking demeans and insults it). It’s no good telling people to “lighten up”: their perceptions are their perceptions and we should respect that.

    Should we then avoid making jokes about “sacred cows”? I think this is a matter for the individual and the occasion; that there is a place for “aggressive humour”, the sort that shakes people out of their complacency and draws attention to social and other ills, but that it is wrong to add to people’s distress by insisting on one’s supposed “right to free humour”. For my money, the competent comedian is like a samurai: he knows when to wield his sword and when to keep it sheathed.

    Email SilverTiger

  5. Tim

    I think SilverTiger has hit on some interesting aspects of this. For example, there’s an old one-liner about the assassination of President Lincoln that goes like this:

    “Yes, but of course Mrs. Lincoln, but how did you like the play?”

    Most Americans, growing up in the 1950’s & 60’s would have been mortified at hearing such a joke about the assassination of President Kennedy. Why? Well… we knew him.

    Likewise, there were jokes going around about the Challenger (space shuttle) disaster, not even days after it happened. Are they unfunny because they go after “sacred cows”?

    Personally, I’m not much of a fan of Carlos Mencia, but, but his show, “Mind of Mencia,” hits just about every stereotype button you can imagine. Nobody is sacred, and he is as quick (perhaps quicker) to go after Mexican-Americans as anyone else. Strangely enough, I think there’s a component of comedy and humor that allows us to figure out what’s “sacred” to us, and why. – Tim

    P.S. Strange though it may seem, I can actually understand the humor of a few crucifixion jokes, even though, as a Christian, I resent the suffering that such a joke trivializes. In short, I can see why somebody would think it’s funny, but my biases keep me from laughing. I’m wondering as I write this, if there’s a similar social or psychological effect going on with child pornography. If you replaced a child in a given scene with an adult, would it suddenly be erotic for a different class of viewer (suggesting that the scene had some inherent eroticism beyond the presence of the child)? Is our bias against child-pornography what instantly turns this to revulsion? I suspect so.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Based on your input, it seems to me that possibly no topic is automatically taboo in terms of humour – even a joke about paedaphilia can be used to expose its insidiousness, a joke about religion burst its pomposity, a joke about disability heighten our sense of inequality etc. The joke’s context, the teller’s relation to the context and the latent intent behind the telling seem to be the key factors by which we might judge its possible malevolence. Certainly, like all things human, humour can be used malevolently and as a sop to great injustices – think of holocaust jokes told by a Nazi, 911 jokes told by Bin Laden, lynching jokes told by a group of racists. And yet the same jokes, told by a survivor of the holocaust, by a 911 survivor or African American might take on a quite different meaning. I do not think, however, that we should pretend that humour is simply something “funny” and not potentially a tool by which to exercise (for good or ill) personal and/or institutional power. Let’s face it, in some contexts a joke can get you beaten up, in some countries it can get you arrested.

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