Why are jokes funny in the first place? What functions can comedy serve in society? Why do we get away with problematic humor and what stops us from understanding ethical boundaries surrounding humor?
These are the questions that plague my mind as I watch American culture flirt with problematic humor, as it lacks any real ethical insight to add nuance to this conversation.
I grew up on American humor since I was six years old, watching notable comedians like Paul Mooney, Dave Chapelle, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, and George Lopez. And I will admit, I found a joke funny based on the delivery of a strong punchline rather than based on any consideration of the joke’s target. Comedy allows us to touch any topic without restriction and use a group or an individual as a punching bag for the sake of the majority crowd. American comedy is almost utilitarian in its practice: we throw marginalized populations under the bus constantly so most of us not in that identity can laugh and assure ourselves that things are not as bad as they seem.
Comedy is an art form: it looks easy, but with the right script, you could deliver a punchline more impactful than a two-hour political speech. However, something irked me about the jokes I was laughing at. I noticed that at least one person never laughed at a joke, but I never asked why. Inquiring about the weakness of a joke is detested in American culture because once someone analyzes a joke, everyone’s faces start to drop.
As I engaged with larger questions in my high school and college classes about the U.S. constitution, rape culture, capitalism, and other poignant issues that run parallel to comedy, I started to feel less comfortable with jokes that picked on marginalized groups.
Now, our current predicament is a manufactured free speech crisis on college campuses argued by the political right, without a mature consideration of historical contexts of marginalized groups.
For folk who keep wanting problematic humor to go unchecked, there are a lot of contradictions that remain unanswered. Why do we stigmatize folk who question the validity of any humor because they find it problematic? Why do we say women are not funny, making jokes as men on their behalf, even when freedom of speech should cover folk across the spectrum regardless of gender identity? Why are we so tempted to defend problematic humor on marginalized groups, and then say “Stop!” when any humor is directed at a part of our own identity?
When I hear older comics complaining that they can not tour college campuses anymore because their material gets booed down, I am reminded of the same free speech crowd that hails personal responsibility in every other situation. Why do comedians not work harder to find something more palatable for humor than reusing the same offensive joke? Why do they not take personal responsibility for their actions and consider the consequences of their speech? There is no real free speech crisis on college campuses. Before people cite censorship as an excuse, what should be feared is a governing body silencing voices, not that of private institutions such as Lawrence. Moreover, I hear a lot of people wanting to use a joke for immediate gratification but the moment I try to sit them down to explain why cultural appropriation is morally unjust or that using the n-word as a non-black person is racially insensitive, no one wants to engage in deeper conversation. If anything, the real free speech crisis is our systemic whitewashing of US history, during which we oppressed and invalidated marginalized groups repeatedly.
I vouch for comedy to the same degree I would for music or cooking, but I do so while keeping a balance between the intellectual capital one can extract from the art and the ethical boundaries we keep in consideration of the art in its relation to the recipient audience. For example, I could serve raw chicken to my friends at the next Christmas party. I would not do that, because there lies an ethical issue of their health in relation to the raw chicken. I know that food poisoning would be a natural consequence, and though I may have enjoyed the night with good company, the following week would be a gastrointestinal hell for my friends.
In the same way, I could tell a rape joke in the presence of friends. In fact, I could just steal one from a YouTube video and recycle it in midst of a conversation. But I do not, because there lies an ethical issue of the marginalized individuals in relation to the tasteless joke. For anyone present (including men), the trivialization of rape through comic relief would immediately trigger traumatic experiences. In the moment that most of us would be laughing, the person who must deal with that trauma cannot enjoy the joke with the rest of the group.
Ethics is the element that is missing in conversations of what humor we can get away with in American society. The easy thing to do in one’s life is to make a joke for the sake of the joke. But the right thing to do may be to quash the idea of a joke before even mentioning it because of who is present and the history behind the joke in the first place.
Fortunately, there are better sources of humor to consider. Political satire has been rapidly evolving within the last three decades to offer critiques of dominant identities in society, since their position of power allows them to handle a joke without derailing their existence as a class group entirely. As most late-night talk show comedians are heterosexual, white, cisgender men, political satire is one avenue for socially conscious folk to get involved in. Clean humor is not necessarily a dying breed either. Comedian John Mulaney’s material references common human frustrations without having to railroad entire marginalized identities. College Humor, Adam Ruins Everything, the White House Correspondence Dinners, and SNL are more examples: even if they are mixed bags with problematic humor mixing in socially ethical comedy, the fact that more writers are experimenting and becoming more diverse is a good sign.
I prefer punching up. I mentioned before that comedy is an art. As with any other art, being challenged in your art makes you more creatively intelligent. Without being challenged, nothing can grow to adapt to new situations; hence, comedy can grow more diverse and tasteful even if you perceive something like ethics to be an obstacle.
Part of punching up is a committed education to the history of marginalized groups. A common libertarian argument is that any freedom should be granted without limitation because the playing field is equalized already. This premise is false, because the United States started off as a white supremacist society. Believe me, I am a fan of limited government too, but we would not need the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments if young people, women and people of color had been equal signatories of the Declaration of Independence or equal partners in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Similarly, comedy in this country did not start off as an equal tool for all people because racial slurs, misogynistic language, and homophobic sentiments plagued society’s collective perception of marginalized groups. Comedy was used to heel entire communities under the boot of oppressive power structures.
On philosophical and practical fronts, comedy thrives when we start punching up to critique folks in power and create healthy social discourse. I love comedy as much as the next person, but like all other things, it is a gunshot in the dark when there are no limits placed on it; that is to say, you do not know who you will end up hurting. It is in our vested interest to shine a light on American humor so when we use this art form, we use it well and to the real benefit of a decolonizing society.