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.