It's Just Jokes! (An Open Thread)

What’s the old quip? “Writing about humor is like dancing about architecture.”

Well, we finna do it anyway.

By now, we’ve all seen/opined on/dissected The New Yorker cover and the fallout from it, so I’ve no interest in rehashing any of that. But one of the frequent criticisms of that cover among those who thought the satire “didn’t work” was that it was tasteless and unfunny, as if there’s some general consensus on where those lines are for everyone. “Jokes are supposed to be funny and this isn’t funny,” one commenter said on another blog.

But how true is that? As my oldest friend, a stand-up comedian, likes to say, when someone makes a joke that includes, say, up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, B, A, Start, the people who chuckle aren’t laughing because it’s funny, but reflexively responding to some nugget that only makes sense to their demographic. And that i-get-it! factor seems to be an integral part of humor: reaffirming in-group identification. A joke needn’t be funny, per se: it just needs to speak to some understood truth among a certain demographic.

A friend of mine who is a feminist and progressive would often say horribly problematic things because she knew I understood that she was joking. (“It’s okay because I know better,” she’d say with a smirk.) But were someone to hear a snippet of our conversation, they could assume all kinds of stuff about her.* Of course, a lot of times people say things in jest that may reflect the way they actually feel, but there’s probably not a perfect way to divine when that’s happening.

On the flip, I have a friend who doesn’t like Chappelle, whose humor superficially looks like making silly race jokes as opposed to being really pointed jabs at the absurdity of racism.** She worries that there are plenty of (white) people who laugh at the jokes who won’t pay attention to the sleight of hand, and will just see the broad stereotype as a reinforcement of racists views they may not even know they’re harboring. ***

This is just a hunch, but I think much of the furor over the New Yorker cover came from outside of its audience; the people who “didn’t get the satire” were people who aren’t New Yorker readers and so probably less familiar with the arch (smug?) way in which that magazine tends to approach the world, or the magazine’s politics. Their editorial staff probably assumed their readers would get it, but probably insufficiently considered how the cover would look devoid of context, which is how most people who see it will view it. And in humor, context is everything.

So here’s the question I want to ask — no right or wrong answer, obviously, just kicking it around: what, if any, responsibility does a person making a joke wield if that joke has the potential to offend or propagate a malicious idea when not being viewed/read/heard by its intended audience?

*It’s part of the reason I couldn’t get all bent out of shame about the McCain ‘cunt’ comments. It’s a bad look to assume that ribbing between spouses is animated by antipathy, even really vulgar, sexist ribbing.

** Sarah Silverman does the same thing, but it goes over less well with a lot of people for myriad reasons.

*** Contrast that with Chris Rock’s Less satiric and more problematic Niggas vs. Black People riff.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
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  • Grump

    An explanation always helps when things go awry when making a joke as sensitive about dealing with race. This question brought to mind Chappelle’s “Inside The Actor’s Studio” intervieww where expressed the same feelings when doing one of his skits.

  • I think you’re mistaken about the outrage over the NYer cover–at least, I think it came from two sources. (1) Reader-types who weren’t offended on their *own* behalf, you see, but just you know, there are a lot of people who aren’t as *sophisticated* as we are and who won’t get it; (2) cable news people who love to make up shitstorms.

  • Sorry, I know this wasn’t meant to talk about the NYer. In re. race-based humor, I don’t know that I think writers/comedians have responsibility over people misusing their shit. They *do* have a responsibility to write/perform their jokes in such a way that the “intent,” (such a loaded term!) comes through. And part of humor is social: surely part of the humor of black comedians joking about race with largely (but not exclusively) black audiences is the discomfort of white people *in* the audience–and I mean that this is part of what’s funny about those jokes for both the black and the white people in the audience. Squirm humor is funny.

    (That said, the McCain cunt comment didn’t quite have the ring of a joke to me; in any case, it was unwise of him. And I’m uncomfortable in a not-funny way with the Rock routine but am willing to acknowledge that I’m not part of the intended audience for that. Context matters, and generally Rock is pretty funny; that tool Howard Stern (or Don Imus) making similar kinds of “jokes”, I’m less willing to not worry about it on audience grounds.)

  • quadmoniker

    I think if comedians starting taking too much responsibility for how others might take their jokes out of context it would make their work irrelevant. I think we give license to comedians to push buttons because someone has to do it. They have a right to make jokes that fall flat but aren’t funny, but they should let others argue about them or move on.

    That changes, of course, when it gets personal, as it did with Michael Richards. It also changes when comedians start engaging in the serious conversations about their jokes in a potentially offensive way. The Sarah Silverman chink joke is always the example I go for. Of course the joke was about racism, and not a racist joke. But it used racist language. When Asian American groups told her they were offended by it, she should have shut up. Instead, she said the joke was not offensive, and that she had used it with the n word and it was still not offensive. That’s just patently untrue. Asian Americans were offended by it; that made it offensive. What she should have done is just not cared. She made the joke because it was offensive to prove a point, or to bring up a point. Arguing that it wasn’t was poor taste on her part, because it deflated the point of the joke.

  • Tasha

    They just don’t ‘get it’ is a cop out and you know this GD.

    It also brings ‘the joke’ to another place oddly. A place of ‘well i laughed’ so i must be within this ‘special group of people who get it’ and even odder there is alot of coded language being used for people within the group and people outside the group without people outright saying
    ‘well i’m sophisticated’
    ‘well they are racist’
    ‘well i’m not racist’
    ‘well they are not educated’

    It’s akin to the cop out of well ‘you took that the wrong way’ with the blame for the offense being put on the person who took offense and not solely that but the judgement also being placed on the person who took offense.

    The most disturbing thing about this is the assumption that the Nyr joke came from this elevated position using high brow humor. When anyone who hangs, works with, deals with anyone from ‘people who get it land’ knows they can be as low brow as the next person and this particular piece was quite lowbrow.

    I’m fascinated by the lines that were drawn because of ‘NYrgate’ and how people judged each other and the position they placed themselves in the fray which is think was more telling.

  • aisha

    Let’s not be dense here. Sometimes comedy/satire dead pans to the intended audience. So saying “it didn’t come off” is a valid criticism. I agree with Tasha about the whole intent vs. impact thing. Focusing on intent does us no good. It’s like someone saying “well i didn’t intended to be sexist so you shouldn’t be offended.” That’s total bullshit.

    An aside, I went to see Patrice O’neal’s stand up and he did do the “left, right, up up” joke and It was totally lost on me. Luckily half the audience (the men got it) and I didn’t feel offended because I didn’t get it. It wasn’t a joke that could go wrong in that way.