Hold on to your hats, this is a long one.
I accidentally started a pretty heinous argument on Facebook a while back. The conversation itself was started in the comments of a friend’s post linking this article. A man commented that it’s unfair to assume that any person who laughs at a “sexist joke” is perpetuating negative stereotypes about women. He went on to say that there has to be a better way to tackle sexism than to “banish people who have an inkling toward offending others.”
I’m partly afraid to talk about this argument, as the man in question has shown himself to be an expert ~~~~*internet arguer * ~~~* ~ with no interest in much other than confirming his own bias and learning just enough to placate me and come out on the “right side of history.” He sent several private messages to me and a friend trying to explain his perspective, and he became very frustrated when we weren’t particularly interested in hearing that perspective. “But I’m LISTENING!” he would say, and then argue his same point, slightly nuanced by some out-of-context part of whatever new information we had provided.
Listen, and listen closely: I can almost guarantee that the comedy you so proudly call “offensive” and defend as satire is more complicated than you imagine it. I am a woman comedy-obsessed, a woman who has spent a good chunk of time in my local comedy scene. I am a woman who has taken a college course in comedy’s history, composition, and context. Allow me to explain, internet sir, just how wrong you were.
In the oldest etymological sense, comedy is derived from the Greek κωμῳδία kōmōidía, which meant either village-singing or village-revel. But hey, you have Wikipedia too. The Greeks and Romans restricted the meaning of comedy to a stage-play with a happy ending. Again, you have Wikipedia. Any event after which a group of people could rejoice (in the form of laughter, singing, or other emotional release) was comedic.
Comedy, as it grew from its Greco-Roman origin, has been concerned with any of three primary goals: characters overcoming powerful circumstance (i.e. romantic comedy), reconciling disgust with a hurtful social behavior (i.e. satire), or demonstrating inexplicable absurdity (i.e. farce). Farce tends not to create much offense, because it is absurd and by necessity divorces itself from any lived reality. Farce basically only generates concern with regards to the “lowbrow” nature of its sometimes slapstick physicality – fart jokes, body horror, and the like. Romantic comedy gets heat for being inherently sexist, but this is based largely on modern tropes and not by necessity on the “comedy” part, but rather the “romantic” part. I’m saving any conversation on romantic comedy for another post.
The comedic offense that most will lay down their life to defend is that of satire, of your Stephen Colbert, your Family Guy, your Onion. Satire, forgetting momentarily one more time that you have Wikipedia, is comedy where “vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule.” All well and good. The part where shit gets complicated is the part where satire is intrinsically and inextricably linked with irony and sarcasm. Satire often heaps sarcastic praise upon something that it means to criticize, often dresses in ironic lion’s clothing for the sake of sheep. Irony and sarcasm are excellent tools, but their shortcoming is that they are by necessity a mask, which brings in the potential for misunderstanding. It is perfectly possible to completely miss that something is meant to be ironic or sarcastic. Other than this tiny, negligible flaw, irony and sarcasm have never, not once, caused anyone a single problem, ever.
Did you catch that? My sarcasm? Probably. You probably, then, also “get” shows like the Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert takes on the persona of a modern conservative, and takes conservative ideals to mocking extremes in the name of social commentary. Colbert is widely revered, and between his show and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, many people get their news from entirely satirical sources. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it provides a wonderful ironic distance from the downright bleak landscape of modern life. Laughing at things that otherwise might leave you despondent – that’s definitely the good side of the satire coin.
However, there are indeed times when satirical news reporting goes awry. Take Colbert’s recent controversial joke. Yes, that joke. Basically, Colbert said that he was starting an organization called the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” He made this joke to point out the hypocrisy of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who instead of changing his team’s fairly racist name, started a corollary foundation called the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” Shortly after his broadcast, an official Colbert Report Twitter account posted just Colbert’s anti-Asian organization name, without the explanatory context. Twitter took arms, under the head of activist Suey Park, against Colbert, arguing (here phrased simplistically) that racist language is always hurtful, regardless of context.
This incident was the first example my internet arguer friend brought up when trying to explain just how people overreact to “so-called offensive” jokes.
Generally, in farce or in romantic comedy, the laugh reflex is a form of emotional release. We see body horror and we laugh, and somewhere deep down we suspect that the cause of the laughter is the absurdity of life and existence itself. We see something downright nonsensical and absurd, something we don’t understand, and we laugh as a way of signaling to others that it is not dangerous. This is one of the evolutionary attempts at explaining laughter – a sign that things are safe, that everybody is on the same page. In romantic comedy, the laugh (the village-revelry) is a more elaborate version of this release which comes only once the horrible circumstance keeping the lovers apart has been overcome or undone. Again, everybody is on the same page.
However, laughter in satire is meant to mock the “butt” of the joke into social compliance. The satirist is an evolved playground bully. They notice an unacceptable behavior, and under an ironic or sarcastic guise points that behavior out to their society, sometimes exaggerating it. Their society laughs, and the transgressors now see how their behavior is unacceptable (insert Supernanny impression) and know that to fit within their society, they should cut that behavior out.
Of course, as I’m sure you’re aching to tell me, there are problems with playground bullies. It’s a messy and tangled web to extricate what behaviors “should” be socially shunned, but a good starting place is harm and intentionality. If the “weird” kid on the playground is not hurting anybody with their behavior, and does not intend to hurt anybody, the bully is probably in the wrong, or at least wasting their energy. Some good examples of social correctives are when the person being mocked is someone who engages in an intentionally harmful, like assault or hate speech. Pointing out that the person is intentionally hurting people can shame them into reexamining their behavior and intentions.
Of course, modern comedy (and let’s be realistic, even ancient comedy) is rarely an isolated example of one type of comedy. There is no romantic comedy without a little satire (blocking characters, much?), no satire without a touch of farce, etcetera. And this is precisely the problem.
As satire and farce become more linked, there is what I see as a new form of comedy emerging. Born in the observational comedy boom (think Seinfeld, early Gaffigan, Louis CK) was a form of referential humor. Pointing to something absurd in life that we all have just accepted. This referential humor asks the listener to think about the thing referenced in a new light, but doesn’t always necessitate social change. Seinfeld mocks airline food, and you laugh and say “you’re right, it’s terrible, I’m so glad someone finally said it.” A relief laugh. Louis CK mocks smartphone culture, and you laugh and say “Oh god, he’s so right. I have to get my nose out of my smartphone from time to time.” A relief laugh, with a minor change effected. The line becomes blurred, and sometimes the muddy laugh elicited is more recognition than social corrective.
Take another look at the Colbert example – he donned the clothes of Dan Snyder, and mocked the charity-cum-racism of the so-called Original Americans Foundation. He dragged Asian cultures through the mud for the sake of this joke, and whether that was necessary or not I don’t quite care to argue. This is fairly textbook satire, but I think in some small part Suey wasn’t reacting wrongly. Colbert’s joke had two “butts,” so to speak. He brought up a stereotype of Asian people, specifically referencing widely-known poor impressions of the way that they sound when they speak, in order to mock Dan Snyder. There are layers of responsibility that are very difficult to untangle – yes, it was socially corrective to mock Snyder. He seems like an asswipe. But no, it wasn’t socially corrective to reference this stereotype of Asian people on the way there. So is Colbert responsible to the Asian people, or does his social corrective satire take precedent? I’m not here to argue either way, but I am here to argue that it’s wrong to get mad at people who say his joke was offensive. People laughed at the joke, and in doing so they socially endorsed both the corrective satire and the non-corrective stereotype referenced.
The million-dollar question, then, is what is Colbert’s responsibility as a satirist? When I try to “talk shop” about the comic’s responsibility, comics are quick to remind me that anything that “gets a laugh” from an audience is comedy. This is not untrue (see: village-revel etymology.)
I do, though, believe that the modern die-hard satirist, by so vehemently taking on and defending the mantle of satire, is at least responsible for eliciting more socially corrective laughs than laughs of recognition. If you will defend your joke as satire, you owe your comedy the work of actually making sure the joke is satirical, i.e. that it “holds vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings up to ridicule.”
And hey – this makes neither the satirist nor the audience inherently bad. It just makes modern satire more complicated. When somebody tells you your joke reinforces stereotypes, instead of jumping down their “PC Police” throat, or defending your joke, consider the laugh that joke gets. Is it laughter at you as the vehicle for this socially transgressive stereotype, or is it laughter that acknowledges and takes the social transgression away from that stereotype? Imagine yourself telling your “offensive” (and I’m sure wonderfully multifaceted) joke in a room full of people who truly and honestly believe the stereotype you’ve mentioned is true. Would you enjoy earning their laughter with this joke?
If your answer is yes, we have a more complex conversation to have about you as a person, a conversation that will altogether set your comedy aside for a while.
If your answer is no, and you’re still being told your joke is offensive or hurtful, think briefly about your joke. Firstly, is there anything more to your joke than just reminding the audience of this stereotype? Is there a way to un-muddy the laugh a bit, place more apparent blame on the social transgressor? Is the person you’re mocking truly a social transgressor at all (are they hurting anybody)?
Consider the following quote by Rene Descartes: “Any community that gets its laughs by pretending to be idiots will eventually be flooded by actual idiots who mistakenly believe they’re in good company.” Work to limit the possibility of these “idiots” feeling comfortable around your comedy.
And yes, sometimes people are just looking for something to get worked up by. Sometimes that thing is an unintentional bit of prejudice, sometimes that thing is outcry against what you see as “just comedy.” But if somebody is taking the time to tell you that you overstepped a boundary, you owe it to yourself and that person, as human beings, to examine, if only momentarily, that boundary. Remember again my bully analogy: it is socially corrective to ostracize someone for hurting others, but it is not socially corrective to ostracize someone for actions that do not harm others.
After my little internet argument, I googled “offensive jokes.” Among the first results: “What’s the difference between a joke and two dicks? You can’t take a joke.”
Joke’s on you, I can take both.
Just kidding, I have no proof that I can take a joke.
Er, I mean, I have no proof that I can take two dicks.