What's funny? Or, I Sorry--I can't make this thread title any more discriptive.

Eve started this thread in The Pit about Gary Coleman humor and it got me thinking. As I stated in the Pit thread, I laughed at Comedy Central’s dollhouse joke. And then I remembered this old GD thread in which I found what I considered to be a racist pun
extremely offensive.

I’m also sensitive to fat jokes, yet, as I mentioned in Eve’s thread, I found Chris Farley doing a seductive striptease hilarious. If the audience started making oinking noises during the dance, however, I think my laughter would have stopped dead.

Where’s the line? Obviously it is quite personal, In the realm of public discourse when does poking fun turn malicious? Which contexts should render the joke unfunny? Intent? Context? Or is everything fair game?

Your link to the GD thread reminds me of an incident of last month. A girl came back to work after a weekend on the farm and she was absolutely covered by chigger bites. I gently informed her that they prefered to be called Chafrican Americans. Groaner, old joke, I know. But it is not so offensive in the reverse I hope (Squigger versus Chafrican American).

It demonstrates that the humor of stereotypes changes from context to context, from comedian to comedian so rapidly that it is basically undefinable. Let’s face it. Stereotypes are funny – I’d say a good chunk of comedy is based on them. We laugh when someone falls into a stereotype, we laugh when stereotypes are broken. I can’t explain why they are funny, but pointing out differences and making light of them is an age-old tradition. I mean damn, the closest thing to a joke in the Bible is that crack Jesus made about rich people, heaven, camels, and eyes of needles (and the whole “Blessed are the cheesemakers thing” – that get’s me every time). Jesus made a stereotype of the rich as irredeemable sinners, which I’m sure got a least a small chuckle from his audience.

But we have been raised not to stereotype. We have become increasingly sensitive to this in the current strive for pan-cultural acceptance and understanding: I was a little surprised with Whoopi doing an impression of Korean nail ladies in a preview for her NBC show. The reasons why some stereotypes are still OK while others are taboo are again so hard to nail down, they escape definition. Nobody really thought the stutterers would come out and protest against “A Fish Called Wanda.” But we live in a strange time. Stereotypes are no less funny than they have ever been, but now we let encourage people to voice their offense. We still laugh at stereotypes, but we are now conscious of how offensive they may be. This tempers the humor.

So we need a gating mechanism: someone to make it OK to laugh at stereotypes. One common way for this to happen is to have comedy which goes over the top so far that it is beyond insulting or racist. Think “South Park” – a good example is the line “I haven’t seen a Jew run that fast since Poland, 1939” said by a sportscaster watching Kyle run in a football game. That is so far from funny that it actually comes right around the other side. The other, more common way, is to have someone of that group making fun of stereotypes of that group.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with people being offended by stereotypes. I don’t think that people shouldn’t voice their offense. But on the other hand, no joke will ever make everyone laugh. So it is a political choice: know enough to balance the offense with the humor.

On an anonymous message board, three things happen. One, there is no gating mechanism: we don’t know if it is “OK” to laugh at a joke because we can’t see the teller. The second is that it becomes really easy to express outrage in a mostly anonymous fashion. The third is even though we seek to minimize confrontation IRL, there is no reason to do this online. So you have to be extra careful around here. Again, it is just politics, a different social millieu, and we either adapt or get booted.

I heard something similar just yesterday on the radio. David Lee Roth did a promo spot for a radio station, wherein he referred to himself as an “enigma”. “But I usually only let other enigmas call me that,” he said.

I, uh, don’t really have anything else to add.:o

Last week ago, a coworker who I consider a friend was complaining about the broken mouse at his computer. He said something like, “It’s trying to bring me down” and I added: “It’s just trying to bring the white man down.”

Then he said, “Yeah, the mouse is black.”

And I said, “Yeah, because it works for me.”

“The mouse is lazy, like all black people,” he said.

I laughed, knowing where we were headed.

“But at least it’s a good athelete and has nice teeth,” I said.

“Maybe I should bribe it with fried chicken and watermelon.”

We cracked ourselves up. However, if he had been having the SAME conversation with another white person, I probably wouldn’t have thought it very funny.

It would be crazy to expect everyone to laugh all the time. When that story about the mother who put her baby in the washing machine came out, I couldn’t help but to giggle, to the horror of one of my coworkers. Perhaps I’m insensitive, or maybe sometimes laughter is bodily function that can’t be helped. I wouldn’t make fat jokes at work because a lot of the people I work with are overweight, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t laugh if one of them told a fat joke. I would never tell a dirty joke around my religious parents, but I wouldn’t hesitate telling one to my siblings. My right to tell a joke doesn’t preclude the right of others to be offended.

I think if you’re going to play around with risque humor, you have to find the appropriate audience. If you find yourself saying “it’s just a joke” all the time, then you need to find another audience or revamp your humor.