I briefly talked about jokes a few years ago (I’m an adult now, bitches!) while discussing rape culture, and my opinion has not changed. It’s become far more eloquent, but it’s stayed the same at its base level. I’ve wanted to write a post on jokes for quite a while but didn’t know what to say on the topic. You hear comedy policing mainly in feminist circles insisting that rape jokes should never be told because they perpetuate rape culture. But you hear it in other social justice circles too: Lemony Snickett got in trouble for making a “black girl allergic to watermelon” quip during the National Book Awards show, for instance. They said it perpetuated racism. So I’m going to try to tackle my own view of humor and explain why I don’t think any subjects should be inherently off limits and why insisting that jokes perpetuate bad ideas does nothing but show that these people don’t know how humor works.
I think anything can be funny. The entire purpose of comedy is to find humor in things that otherwise wouldn’t be funny. That’s why there’s such a thing as a “played out” joke: If it’s something people already think is humorous, why are they paying someone money to go up on stage and talk about it when they could easily just chuckle about it on their own time? It is a comedian’s job to make people laugh at things they never would have laughed at before. This doesn’t have to be dark humor, but it oftentimes is.
One of my favorite comedians is Brian Regan, a guy who doesn’t even curse in his stand-up routines. But he has an uncanny ability to make mundane things like calling FedEx and Pop Tarts hilarious. It’s mainly to do with his delivery. On the other side of the spectrum, another favorite comedian of mine is Bo Burnham, who has the uncanny ability to keep coming up with new and different rape jokes on every album he puts out.
That is what humor is. You can find humor in anything. The key to determining whether or not a joke is “wrong” is to determine why it was told. What about it was supposed to make people laugh? Intention is the only thing that matters in determining how morally unacceptable a joke is. Humor is subjective. People laugh at things for their own reasons that the comedian doesn’t know or have any control over. People can misunderstand the intent of a joke, and in that misunderstanding find it unfunny or find it hilarious. The intent of the joke is the only concrete thing in the situation of joke-telling.
The same goes for other art forms. It’s not John Lennon’s fault that the music he made with the intent of promoting peace led to some psychopath somewhere getting the wrong idea and deciding to shoot him. It’s not a comedian’s fault that a suicide joke they told negatively affects someone. The artist loses control of the art they make. Their art is subject to the whims of what other people think, and other people tend not to agree with each other. So let’s talk about intent and why it’s what matters in the context of telling jokes and what jokes should “be allowed.”
Daniel Tosh is the perfect example here. I actually think Daniel Tosh is pretty funny in stand-up, TV shows not so much. During a stand-up act, he told a rape joke about how he replaced his sister’s pepper spray with silly string to prank her and how it was hilarious because that same night she got raped, which means his prank worked. Someone in the audience – a woman – got offended and heckled him, and he said something amounting to, “Wouldn’t it be funny if this girl got raped right now?” in response.
This is where I’m going to start sounding like a kindergarten teacher explaining the basics of a concept to people. I’m sorry. Feminists were outraged because Daniel Tosh was joking about rape victims and trivializing rape and “punching down” at someone weaker and more oppressed than him. It was rape culture! Yadayadayada. Here is the basic thing that flew so far over their heads that it’s in fucking orbit: Daniel Tosh was not making fun of rape victims, he was making fun of himself. Daniel Tosh’s entire schtick as a comedian is having an alter ego that is an utterly deplorable person. It’s funny because his alter ego is an asshole, acknowledges it, and proudly flaunts how horrible he is to such ridiculous degrees that you can’t help but laugh at how far this guy deviates from socially acceptable behavior.
The joke wasn’t, “Haha, someone got raped, and rape is hilarious.” The joke was, “Haha, someone got raped but this psychopath only sees it as a successful prank, that is so not okay it’s hilarious.” The joke was intended to make fun of people who thought rape was funny. It was not making fun of the girl who got raped. But all people saw was a joke made about rape, and any joke made about rape inherently makes fun of rape victims. And they didn’t think about it at all. The same goes for his response to the heckler: She got offended at a rape joke, tell another even more straightforward rape joke. It wasn’t intended to make fun of rape, it was intended to make fun of someone who didn’t get the joke in the first place.
That is how comedy works. Daniel Tosh’s jokes were acceptable and “moral” (because social justice warriors insist on talking about everything in terms of morality) because he was making light of something bad specifically because he and the joke acknowledged how bad it was. He was not denying that rape is an awful thing. He was not saying that rape is funny. The entire joke hinged on him knowing that rape was horrible, and hinged on him knowing that his audience would think that rape was horrible. If it wasn’t acknowledged as a bad thing, it wouldn’t be funny. And, sure, maybe some psychopath saw his show on Comedy Central and laughed at the joke because it flew over his head and he thought Tosh was just talking about how hil-larious rapin’ girls is. But Tosh has no control over people not getting the joke. That fact is very apparent.
Lately, rape joke outrage has been taking the backseat to race joke outrage. It’s like the Weekly Social Justice Memo had a typo and they just decided to run with this new thing to be outraged about. So there’s the joke about a black girl being unable to eat watermelon. As a fellow black girl allergic to melons, I thought the joke was hilarious. But, of course, people were outraged at the racism. How dare he make a joke about black people.
This is another example of people having no idea how jokes work and having no clue that there’s more to a joke than its immediate content. The joke was not intended to be,”Haha, black people like watermelon, but this black girl can’t eat watermelon even though she clearly wants to, being black and everything.” The joke was, “Haha, this stereotype exists, but this girl physically cannot do this stereotypical thing, proving how stupid that stereotype is.” It was, once again, a joke making fun of the bad thing and the people who think the bad thing is genuinely funny. It was a joke anti-racist people should have been behind 100%, but they were instead too hung up on its immediate content to actually understand the joke. It’s a joke about black people, it must be racist. End of story.
They don’t care about intent because they’ve been taught to downplay intent to have only the most minimal importance. (Intent vs. Impact they call it.) And this kills their ability to enjoy comedy since, without understanding the importance of the intent of a joke, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish something that is “just a joke” from something that’s actually alarming. Dark humor’s immediate subject matter is, on the surface, something only a psychopath would find funny. There’s no difference in the content involved. The only difference is what aspect of the content is intended to be humorous by the one telling the joke. If you don’t get that, you’re not going to like dark humor. More importantly, you’re not going to like it, and you will have a low opinion of the morals of people who do, even though that isn’t a justified moral judgment.
For example: Me and my friends have a running joke in our friend group about a fake company we made up that lets people hire rapists to go out and rape a specific target for a variety of reasons. This inside joke started after we watched an anime where a girl’s classmates/bullies arranged for her to be gang raped by some other unrelated classmates. . . Because that’s what you do when you’re a sociopathic Japanese meangirl, I guess. We wondered how that whole thing was arranged. Did the meangirls just go up to these random guys and ask them if they wanted to rape a girl for literally no reason? How was this plan established without the cops getting called immediately? I feel like one of the guys they asked to do this would say no and be really alarmed. So we decided the meangirls must’ve contracted the guys out from some third party that provided this kind of service. Hence, a running inside joke was made.
It is funny because we, as moral human beings, acknowledge that such a company actually existing would be awful. It is funny because me and my friends are not okay with rape, and think it is ridiculously deplorable and unbelievable when multiple parties get involved under the express purpose of violating someone that way with no significant moral objections from anyone. That is the intent of our joke. It would suddenly be much less funny if one day one of us turned out to be a serial gang rapist. Because that’s when you realize, “Oh, they weren’t laughing at the concept because it was ridiculous that the world would be okay with this happening. They were laughing because they think raping someone is funny.”
Content-wise, there is no difference between me and my friends’ injoke and a joke an actual rapist would tell to their rapist friends. The difference is in the intent. The difference is in the background. The difference is in the context of when and where the joke is told. And that difference matters. It is the difference between normal people and sociopaths, and you cannot sweep it under the rug and say that they are the same thing. And this knee-jerk outrage over content and content alone without taking into account any of those other elements that make comedy comedy is killing people’s senses of humor.
There is a difference between me calling things “false and queer” (because saying “fake and gay” is homophobic, don’t you know?) as a means of humorously/ironically pointing out the arbitrary nature of “offensive language,” and a hick in Arkansas laughing with his friends over a hilarious joke about beating up fags. Under the pretense of the social justice brand of humor, though, these are one in the same, the fact that I’m not okay with hate crimes against gay people doesn’t matter.
These people do not understand humor. You can tell they don’t because they are very selectively up-in-arms about things. They know that humor is subjective. They know that not everyone agrees on what is funny. But they’re so entrenched in the social justice mode of thinking that a difference of opinion can’t just be a difference in opinion. It has to be a difference in morals. Their humor and the things they find funny are the morally acceptable choices for humor, and people with different senses of humor are stupid and/or morally wrong.
They don’t apply their supposed standard evenly. “Sexist” jokes about women are unacceptable and perpetuate misogyny, but literally making jokes about killing all men is fine and not indicative of any wider social ideas and doesn’t have any “wider impact.” Jokes against men are just jokes, and people who don’t like them are overreacting. Jokes that contain racial stereotypes are wrong and unacceptable, but the “stereotypical white person” joke that has existed since the beginning of time and almost universally depicts white people negatively is perfectly acceptable.
This isn’t even confined to social justice pet issues. You hear them decry rape jokes because they make light of “women’s issues,” but what about literally the rest of Daniel Tosh’s set that depicts him as an abusive asshole to everyone? What about PTSD jokes? What about dead baby jokes? Suicide jokes? Depression jokes? Abusive parent jokes? Prison rape jokes? AIDS jokes? Police jokes? War jokes? Holocaust jokes?
I love me a good Holocaust joke. Bo Burnham has tons of them. “I want you like Anne Frank wanted nobody to read her fucking diary,” “Love is like the Holocaust ‘cept you don’t die quick and you don’t get thinner.”
You rarely hear people be outraged about all the things they logically should be outraged about if their hang-up is “making fun of really bad things/punching down.” All of the above things are horrible things to experience that are joked about all the time. Worse, those are inherently bad things, unlike race and gender, which may or may not make someone’s life more difficult. What, the people with those actual traumas can suck it up, but the people with the horrible, horrible experiences of . . . being not white and not a guy, they deserve comedic discretion at all times? This would indicate that the outrage is less genuine offense and more being offended at the things that people are currently offended by at the moment.
These are the kind of people who got Lenny Bruce arrested for “unacceptable language” in his comedy shows. These are the kind of people who would ban George Carlin from their venues because he made fun of religion and offended Christian sensibilities. Nothing should be off-limits with jokes. Jokes are not offensive, people are. Jokes are not moral constructions, the ideas behind them are. Black listing comedians and banning certain subjects from being joked about doesn’t get rid of bad ideas. It just let’s the actual bad ideas grow in the dark, whilst simultaneously getting up-in-arms about the people who are pointing out the absurdity of those ideas throug humor. When you laugh at something, you’re given the chance to think about why, and you’re taking that chance for self-reflection away from people. Worse, you’re doing what collectivists love to do and grouping everyone into the same category with psychopaths who they have nothing to do with. Because all sins are equal in the eyes of God. . . I mean justice.