Trigger Warnings: Discussion of comedy relating to rape/sexual assault and other gross behavior.
I’m sure you’ve been here before. Someone tells a crappy joke about something that makes you feel gross. You make the mistake of telling the person how you feel.
“It’s just a joke, god, stop taking it so seriously.”
Comedy is one of the oldest and most potent forms of narrative and can be endlessly complex. It’s just as capable at diminishing societal structures as it is upholding them; lately it feels like comedy has done a better job propping them up than not. This topic has circulated quite a few times around individual incidents and the discussion about the incident in particular tends to bar a larger conversation about why this occurs at all, ever. But why do people (particularly men) make these jokes at all? To me, it is privilege acting in place of reality. Now, granted, comedy happens in many different forms and in many different ways and a lot of what we find funny differs from culture to culture, or what kind of comedy you’ve been exposed to. However, our comedy has been dominated by the same patriarchal norms as everything else, so I feel a lot of what people find funny is entrenched in the same bullshit that’s been around everything else. Hence, shitty comedy and shitty jokes. But what constitutes to “good” and what constitutes “shitty”? Here’s some of my loose guidelines for comedy that have served me pretty well:
- Comedy subverts the audience’s expectations.
- Satire kicks up, not down.
- Don’t make jokes about an intrinsic facet of someone.
- Don’t mock awful things that haven’t happened to you.
- Know your audience and don’t joke about things that you have no way of knowing about them.
- If you make a joke that hurts someone, fucking apologize.
(I can already hear cries of people not understanding how you can be funny adhering to most of those rules, in the distance.)
Privilege and patriarchy in Western society (which is what I’m addressing) often makes people not follow a great portion of these rules from the outset and keep reinforcing this nonsense. I believe this is because the expectations (and by nature, reality even) comedians or other joke-tellers work to” subvert” are vastly different than the people they are squashing down with their jokes.
It should stand to reason that a lot the problematic comedy that upholds this latticework of oppressive norms comes from men. Not only is the comedy rife with -ist behavior but a lot of how men react to being told their jokes are problematic is something that begs to be looked at. I believe so many jokes that tumble out of dude’s mouths are there because we’re still soaked in a culture that reinforces one idea but is incredibly different from a lot of people’s lived experiences. Hence, why some jokes a dude makes (particularly if he’s also white, cisgendered, able, or heterosexual, et al) tend to only be funny to other dudes. They predicate on subverting the expectations of a reality that they’ve inhabited their entire lives, one that that hasn’t been examined, and blinds them to other people’s. They make fun of groups of people they have had power over all their lives, they diminish experiences they’ve never lived in fear of or had happen to them, and they use painful subjects as fodder for punchlines because they’ve never been stung by them.
How are people even hurt by jokes, I seem to hear a lot. People who tell shitty jokes don’t even realize that they are shitty to someone, mostly going back to this idea that it is a reality that they don’t inhabit. And quite often the defense is that it is merely a joke and meant to be “funny.” The problem with this line of thinking is that jokes can fail. They can fail spectacularly and cause emotional distress for people if you choose to make a joke about something serious. I mean, just like you have eaten shitty versions of your favorite food, a joke is not going to be successful or worthy of a laugh every time you make it. The idea that a joke begs laughter by the virtue of being a joke, or your dazzling comedic taste, is faulty. It goes back to this egotistical idea of men being centered in this idea that everything they say, including jokes, is valuable. When they are criticized, rightfully so, they double down and refuse to acknowledge other’s feelings or that it failed. To do so would mean thinking about what their words mean, or that they somehow weren’t right about this reality they are fixated on.
This kind of egoism and defensiveness over criticism seems to occur a lot when I see call-outs happen from people who were hurt or upset by comedy. It is this conflict again between the reality that makes these jokes seem reasonable and people who are actually hurt by these topics in real life. Men who grab for rape as a punchline get salty because they want the freedom to really make that edgy joke, to really go THAT far to prove a point or elicit a joke, regardless of who is hurt by it. Jokes are more important than someone’s feelings. Especially in the case of where these men make money off doing jokes like this, whether it is a stand-up, or a webcomic, they feel that their job and cash flow is at stake if they can’t make any joke or content that they want. It is the terror that lurks in the dark for them – the idea that their freedom and livelihood is going to be gobbled up by some straw feminists telling them what to do. In reality, a lot of it comes down to content creators being aware that their audience makes their livelihoods possible and hurting people with jokes is a pretty terrible thing to do. It doesn’t take much to earn goodwill back with your supporters if you really listen and look at the criticism. Accept that people could be hurt, and just apologize. I don’t know why this is such a hard thing to do, but given that we’re dealing with privilege and years of ingrained beliefs, digging in your heels seems to be the thing shitty joke-makers like to do the most.
Now, despite the fact that there’s been some egregious examples of this shitty joke problem out there, what really kicked off this conversation that’s been happening in my brain over the past year was actually something that happened on Twitter.
Twitter has been really interesting to watch over the years that I’ve been participating in it; the idea of it having a unique brand of comedy that exists in 140 characters is pretty neat. A lot of it focuses on hyper-fast jokes that setup and hit the punchline in a couple words, other times it undermines normalcy with absurdist or even Dada-esque flights. Some people make jokes as part of their normal minutiae and others tend to make it the focus of their Twitter persona. While Twitter has an extremely high quotient of funny ladies, the problems I’ve had recently have fallen squarely on the shoulders of male-dominated discourse and joke-telling. Despite it being a brave new medium for expression, I find that a lot of it still supports an ultimately male-envisioned reality. Jokes that routinely focus on casting the dude in question as the gross, macabre or ultimately “weird” can be funny but fall along the same lines despite being anti-egotistical. There’s nothing funny about jokes that cast you as a sexual predator, and there’s nothing subversive about your boners, dudes. I got mad at two of my friends for doing weird jokes about flashing people at a fairground and masturbating on public buses. Two things similar to this have happened to me in my life and both times it wasn’t hilarious or “weird,” it was scary and upsetting. This is the largest and most confusing example of “people making gross jokes living in a reality remarkably different than their audience” being that they use situations that alienate a lot of us (particularly women) as fodder for self-deprecating humor rather than remarking on why these things are a problem. The problem with a lot of it that focus on sexual situations in particular is that history has long been about men being amused by their sexuality, their aggressiveness and their own folly. However, it is the mark of privilege to suggest that it is hilarious to any of us on the receiving end have found it laughable this entire time.
So, what can we ultimately do about this? Keep saying something. Keep speaking up. Deconstructing humor, having discussions about why these kinds of jokes are not okay and most importantly, people looking into their privilege and the criticism and not being giant douchebags about it. Take your audience seriously. Examine your situation and how it differs from other people’s. Stop trying to do satire when you are the dominant ruling party. Stop trying to hide behind irony – there’s nothing ironic about ape-ing the prevailing culture. And most importantly, learn how to listen and apologize sincerely when you fuck up. Because at some point, you probably will. Apologies will go a long way – it might not be very funny, but sometimes things aren’t.