Julie Gillis opens the question up about what’s funny when, how and why.
I like comedy. I like performing it, reading it, watching it (though curiously, I’m not all that good at writing it). Humor is a part of the human experience and it can be so, so good. It can also go so, so wrong.
While there are many sites to learn and read about what comedy is, like this wiki which lists everything from satire to scatology, I see humor as serving several purposes in the life of a human being.
1) Deflecting pain: We see painful horrible things around us all the time. From breakups to war, from falling down to dying, from theft to assault it’s out there and we experience it or see it happening to those we love. Humor can be used as a way to protect ourselves (when it happens to us) from the initial pain. It can also be used as a totem of sorts….”If I joke about this and claim to have superior knowledge or reactions to this bad thing, it won’t happen to me.” Often called Gallow’s Humor, we use this when we’ve been through something terrible. If I, as a victim of something, make a joke about it, I’m owning the situation. We may as outsiders also joke about ghastly things to help avoid them happening, or to teach our children on yet another level, about how to help stop these things in the future.
2) Group bonding/ostracism: We are group creatures and much as gossip can create bonds between group members against non group members (or start the process of un-group-membering someone) so to can jokes about “the other.” In the best of circumstances, you’ll have Accounting list their many jokes about the idiocy of the Marketing team and vice versa. At worst, you have racist, sexist, phobic jokes designed to reaffirm one groups (superior in their minds) choices over that “other” group. Often these types of jokes are then reclaimed by the “other’ed” group so that Gay people can tell F#gg#t jokes, but no one else can.
3) Exaggeration, hyperbole, satire (bitter or otherwise): Jokes and stories designed to highlight absurdity, create an over the top parallel to something actually happening, or pointing out truth to power in such a way that the humor is carefully wielded tool of politic. Often you’ll see jokes that are so over the top, they are clearly not meant to be serious.
4) Physical comedy: Face it folks, from time immemorial we’ve laughed at people falling down. Fair? I don’t know. I think this points to the violence inherent in the human animal. We are violent creatures and we laugh at each other’s pain for all the reasons listed above-to understand it, to avoid it, to isolate which group we are in, to push back against greater violence or political power.
5) Telling stories about “what we know is true”/”What we want to change”: Many comedians will start a piece with “Fellas/Ladies, don’t you know that this thing always happens…..” and the audience responds with “Yes! We do agree that women/men are just like this.” Often, that’s how it’s left. A humor piece cementing stereotypes. Sometimes they’ll do a little tilt of that platform and reverse the story, showing off how humanity is actually much more complex than stereotypes.
6) Causing pain: This is actually a subset of all of the above. Using a joke to ostracize, belittle, put down or other someone is a way of using humor as a weapon. “Can’t you take a joke?” is a secondary level of that belittlement, insisting that the insulted person play into their own belittlement by “taking it.”
Oddly, I think the same actual words in a joke, can be told in ways/contexts that build up the person, or tear them down. It’s all in the telling.
Humor is a way we tell stories about the world. As such, there are vast differences in how we make humor happen-men and women may tell those joke and hear those jokes differently, other countries have different perspectives on humor.
So then some important questions are….when does humor go too far? When is the situation right or wrong for humor to be a part of the conversations? How far away from a traumatic event does one need to be before witnessing humor is no longer triggering? How do we tell the jokes in a way that actually highlights what’s WRONG with the situation, not in a way that makes light of things. How do we push back against belittling jokes? How does conflict come out of humor?
There are other questions. I’d welcome your discussion in the threads.
Here are some videos using humor to talk about really difficult topics. For the record, I’m aware that the Wanda Sykes piece has a moment on female assault and also a moment on (stereotypical) male/female relations, but the humor is structured in a fantastic way, juxtaposing charm and bitterness, issues of bodily autonomy and what parts are of value, etc. FYI, I’m in no way discounting male survivors of assault. If you’ve seen any vids showing similar types of humor pointing out similar themes but for men, please link.
The Chris Rock piece deals with issues of humor and words. Who gets to use words when? Warning: Rock uses very course language in regards to race and sexuality that people may find offensive.
Controversial? Thought Provoking? Yep.
Finally, I’d ask us all, for I know we are focused on civil rights, social justice, and making the world a more decent place here at GMP: Can we engage in social justice work with humor? What kind? Can we use context to allow for triggering words? How do we manage different senses of humor and reactions to such difficult things? Or is the work just too serious to take the risk?
Photo: Vince Bucci/AP