Is funny always funny? Or does the sense of what’s funny change with the cultural ebb-and-flow over time of what certain people find funny? In a recent thread of comments here, one regular commenter made a “joke” about work where the new management team were “Nazis” and the workers were “Jews.”

I didn’t find that strike at Holocaust humor funny and I said so in my reply and I provided a link to The Truth in Eli’s Blue Tattoos. However, in the commenter’s culture that kind of Holocaust joke is acceptable. Is it appropriate I put the kibosh on the commenter’s fun and attempt to share a social truth? Is it politically incorrect to correct someone else’s perception of humor?

Where is the universal line drawn between “fun” and “funny” and “never funny?” Some of the best comedians in the world are famous for their terrible taste and their mocking of society’s sacred covenants. I followed up my comment on the Holocaust joke with further clarification:

You can tell a Nazi joke. You can tell a Jewish joke. A Holocaust joke doesn’t go over well. You can tell a dead baby joke. You can tell a doctor joke. An abortion joke doesn’t go over well. You can tell a “dumb guy” joke. You can joke about Poland. A “Polack” joke doesn’t go over well.

The commenter accepted my point and we moved on — but I still wonder if I wrongly pressed my moral values into the commenter’s cultural norms. It’s easy to say — “this is my blog and what I say stands” — but that is always the most heavy-handed and hardest stand to take and sometimes you end up pushing people away instead of bringing them into a different light of understanding.

Today, on a brand-new show on national television, I just heard a Helen Keller joke followed by a roaring, canned, laughter. Are Helen Keller jokes still funny? It’s amazing to watch television and — when someone doesn’t hear the other person — the next thing said is, “What? Are you Deaf?” Is calling someone Deaf still funny? Are the disabled and the downtrodden always safe fodder for punch lines? What other cultural minorities find barbs at the butt-end of a joke? (I almost used “fag end” instead of “butt end” but I didn’t want to be perceived as being politically incorrect — but does telling you that give “butt end” a whole new meaning? I think I’ve just mocked my own article!)

My mother used to date a man who would overwhelm you with innocent one-liners one-right-after-the-other in a desperate attempt to be liked. He was not funny, and was never well-liked, but you always had to force a laugh to be polite. You’d humor him while he humored you.

28 Comments

  1. I think the popularity of the t-shirt web site ‘t-shirt hell’ indicates the direction the country seems to be going.
    The fact that people use the words ‘retarded’ and ‘gay’ to indicate things which are bothersome to them really irks me. I’m actually planning an article about some of my favourite words in the english language – like germaine, for some reason. What do you think? 🙂

  2. Good point, Gordon. Even when I was growing up “gay” and “retard” were used as generic put-downs and I bet very few — including me back then — paused for a moment to wonder about the true meaning of those words and the effect they had on those in the base description.
    All article ideas are excellent. It’s the execution that tells.

  3. I will write it and let’s hope I don’t ‘kill’ it – oh! I’m sorry. 🙂
    I hear the word ‘retarded’ used in place of words like futile, asinine, unecessary – words that the person using the ‘r’ word surely (hopefully) knows but in the heat of anger chooses the derogatory word instead.
    I wonder if there is a correlation between the size of ones vocabulary and prediliction towards expletives.

  4. I think a lot of it is uncaring ignorance, Gordon. It’s easy to imitate what others say in cruelty without wishing to know the true meaning of the words.
    The lazy way is to just repeat context and not investigate meaning.
    This is the same mimicry of learning by rote that plagues American education.

  5. I think that there is a point where one must stand for ones beliefs, moral or otherwise. We all influence each other one way or another. Sometimes taking a stand is to let your silence speak for you, by not laughing. Sometimes taking a stand means addressing the issue head on but move on and not let the acquaintance die because of it. Other times, if they take pleasure in your discomfort and pursue their toxic behavior, it may be indicative that they have no respect for your beliefs and are, therefore, imposing their beliefs on you. Imposition of beliefs goes both ways.

  6. Thanks David. You posted a blog some time ago entitled “We Become What We Hate” wherein you stated, “The temptation to give in to hate is convenient for many because hating is easy while honoring your talent is tough and, many times, unpopular.” We can easily replace “talent” here with moral values. It is difficult at times to stand up for ones beliefs when the offense is masked in the guise of humor or even ignorance, but failure to take a stand at some point will only serve to help the offender propagate the offense and ignorance.

  7. It is difficult to take a stand, A S, because if you are in the minority you are accused to being shrill and alarmist and not laid-back enough to get “the joke.” Sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to try to challenge the ill-begotten humor of a cultural core norm.

  8. Cultures, sub-cultures, ethnicities, races, religious affiliation, gender, financial status or lack thereof…
    Failure to accept people as people by denigrating them making them “less human” is horrible. When one person or group of persons takes away the dignity of another, do we not all lose a bit of dignity as the human race?

  9. A S —
    Okay, that makes sense — but then what do you do with comedians who base their humor on mocking the minority interest against the power of the mainstream whole?
    It is acceptable, say, for a Black person to mock the Black community?
    Is a Jew allowed to use Holocaust humor?
    Can a Nebraskan do Bohunk humor without repercussion?
    How do you fix this without being the Thought Police and the Poster Child for Political Correctness?
    Does Free Speech factor into any of this for you?

  10. Dave —
    I have no comment on your “butt end,” “fag end” or any other ASSumptions! Look ’em up in the Oxford Dictionary and “then run for them thar hills!
    Yes, moderating comments is a big part of running this blog. You can say whatever you want here — but tone and word choice are paramount to getting those thoughts published. Lots of people don’t get that and accuse me of censorship in the vilest language you could ever imagine.
    Even with the thread closed, I still get lots of hate mail from fellow Nebraskans haranguing me over my misunderstanding of the “true meaning” of the King Korn Karnival:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/08/29/king-korn-karnival/

  11. It is said that my freedom to swing my arms ends at the point of your nose… the same should be said of speech. The person moderating ones speech should always start with self, learning from others when to hold ones tongue and teaching those in our influence in living by example.

  12. I think things that cannot be changed — that are as they are — gender, height, race, mental capacity, physical looks, sexual identify, religious birthright and such — should not be used against someone in a joke because those attributes are not made in the merit of choice.

  13. I wonder if comedians who push the edge are funny because we know that they don’t believe the stereotype and are trying to enlighten us with their humor by pointing out society’s soft spots?
    It’s why some people can pull off certain jokes, while others would incite a riot with the same material.
    It’s why the “Cobert Report‘s” Robert Wexler segment is so funny. We know the Congressman isn’t really into drugs and loose women, but watching him say that on the show is funny. Watching a real life stoner say the same things would just be sad.
    Same thing goes for Cobert. We know he doesn’t hold the views he expresses when he’s making fun.

  14. Hi Chris —
    Kathy Griffin is viciously funny.
    http://www.bravotv.com/Kathy_Griffin/
    She has made her name making fun of celebrities and I roar with laughter with her because the “stars” deserve mocking for their job choice! When Jay Leno made fun of her by calling her “ugly” she couldn’t handle it and began to cry!
    Wexler was not happy with the Colbert Report interview. He’d never watched the show before and he relied on his “young staff” – that was his phrase — to advise him on doing the show or not. I cringed when I watched. His words will be used against him next time when he’s running for election with an actual opponent. I think he made a massive blunder!

  15. Illinois’ Gov. Rod Blagojevich made the same mistake also:

    Gov. Rod Blagojevich wasn’t in on the joke.
    Blagojevich says he didn’t realize The Daily Show was a comedy spoof of the news when he sat down for an interview that ended up poking fun at the sometimes-puzzled Democratic governor.
    “It was going to be an interview on contraceptives . . . that’s all I knew about it,” Blagojevich laughingly told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a story for Thursday’s editions.
    “I had no idea I was going to be asked if I was ‘the gay governor.’ “

    I don’t have any sympathy for the pols, since they are surrounded by cameras every day and should know how to stay on topic (or at least what not to say).
    Blago’s people follow his opponent with a camera hoping she’ll say something silly, so he should be alert that anything he says could be used against him.
    I’m sure his office has rules about dealing with the media and crafting messages and not saying anything that can get the candidate into trouble.
    Same thing for any other pol at any level beyond city council.
    Wexler should have known who he was talking to, or at the very least cut off the interview if it seemed to be going in a strange or unusual direction.
    Or, get a press secretary like Earl Bush who served Mayor Edward J. Daley.
    Bush famously told the press: “Don’t print what he said, print what he meant.”
    That wasn’t too nice of Jay Leno. I didn’t see it, but it’s never a good thing to cross the line and hurt someone with a joke. (Or was he being mean?)

  16. Chris!
    You’re right! Wexler is a smooth pro. Even in the midst of the interview he should have wizened up and stopped playing along. He didn’t have to repeat those idiotic sentences… but he did! Gah!
    Leno was being purposefully mean to her to “give back” what she gives out to other celebrities but he did it in such a way that it was cruel and crass.
    She laughed it off on air and cried later in the limo. Jay saw her crying in the limo and apologized to her but the damage was done.
    Kathy knows she’s ugly even though she tries hard to look prettier — she tells us that all the time and that’s why we love her — but when a bully says it on national TV when your guard is down you get stung in a very intimate way.

  17. Ugh. So little of what passes for humor is funny. Why is it necessary to use anyone as the butt of a joke? There is humor to be had without that.
    A few weeks ago, I was in Montreal on business during the Juste Pour Rire (Just for Laughs) festival. I was dreading this trip far in advance because I knew I would not think any of it funny, and I knew my colleagues would see me as a prude. There were about 3 funny people out of the whole night. The funniest guy made part of his routine out of the noise an ironing board makes when it is opened! I know – doesn’t sound funny, does it? I hear it every few weeks and I’m never amused. How he came up with such funny material from it is beyond me. That was just part of his routine. It was clean, it didn’t insult anyone, and he was very funny.

  18. Hi All!
    I think you were correct in your actions Dave. The problem with humor is that there is always an “intended audience.” It is usually an innocent bystander who ends up being the person insulted. How do you overcome that…
    Well, first and foremost; never say anything you might regret. That way you will never offend anyone. It’s that much more difficult online in a blog such as this because we really don’t know each other at all let alone our personal, ethnical, or cultural histories.
    Secondly, history is filled with fun and humor but when the humor is presented as it was, that’s simply bad taste and we have an obligation to each other to correct the offender as he or she may not have realized the possible result. The joke was most likely innocent, but… Probably quwstionable at best.
    Great job!
    -CK