God, can’t you take a joke?

(CN: rape jokes, racist jokes, analysis of same, accusations of humorlessness)

So last night, while gaming with some friends, a buddy of mine made a silly joke.  It wasn’t particularly clever or intellectual, but it did involve a goofy sound effect and facial expression.And I laughed.  For approximately 10 minutes straight.  Full-on gasping, coughing, face-turning-red-can’t-breathe laughter.

This was not an isolated incident.

Seriously – I laugh a lot.  Like, a LOT a lot.  Shit just strikes my funny bone, and out come the giggles.  I actually got in trouble once for trying and failing to STOP laughing my ass off during a formal awards dinner, back in high school.  My father’s even exploited this trait, whispering things to me that he knows set me off in settings where it would be incredibly inappropriate to bust out laughing.  And when I laugh, it’s a full-body, no-holds-barred affair, which can occasionally turn into a feedback loop – that is, the fact that I’ve been laughing so long and so loud is itself funny to me, and prompts me to laugh more!

And the thing is, I like to laugh.  It makes me happy.  In college, my roommate was the master of the stealth pun – he’d sneak terrible, terrible jokes into regular conversation with a straight face, and just sit back and wait for anyone to notice.  It was great – it was like looking for hidden easter eggs in real life!  If you were attentive, and actively looked for something to laugh about, you would be rewarded with something funny in about one out of every three sentences, no matter what the conversation was actually about.   So, y’know, I’ve trained myself to want to find things funny.

It’s been said that the person who most vehemently declares “I do so have a sense of humor!” is the person least likely to actually have a sense of humor.  Duly warned; however, I do think most people who know me would agree that I am Sense-Of-Humor-Girl.

One of the things I find really, really, extremely, hideously irritating is that whenever feminists (for the purposes of this post, I’m going to use “feminists” as a short-hand for all social-justice-y progressive types) express outrage at something offensive, these are the comments that come out of the woodwork, sure as death and taxes: “Oh come on, lighten up, it was funny!”  “Why do you have to take everything so seriously?”  “Everything’s ok in the name of comedy!”  “You just don’t get the humor, that’s why you think it was offensive.”  “God, can’t you people take a joke??”


Have they considered the possibility that maybe the joke just wasn’t that funny?

My good friend Kaoru has a post where he discusses why certain types of jokes are simply not all that funny, in ways tied to their offensiveness:

Now, what was the problem with these jokes? They were just jokes, right? What made them offensive and why should a comedian who’s supposed to make people a bit uncomfortable if they’re doing comedy right apologize for making somebody feel uncomfortable?

The answer is that in both cases, the comedians were “punching down.”

Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying.

You could argue that an offensive, unfunny joke is unfunny just because it’s offensive, but I don’t think that’s true.  I’ve laughed at plenty of offensive jokes.  Hell, I’ve told them.

And on the flip side, I think it’s a little simplistic to say that a joke is offensive just because it’s unfunny – as if, had the comedian’s timing or delivery been just a little bit better, suddenly the offensive joke would have been ok.

I think the two are tied together.  I’m positing, as a working hypothesis, that the same sense of mingled surprise and recognition that we get when a joke challenges our perceptions and tickles our funnybone is more or less the exact opposite of the sense of weary resignation and disgust we feel when someone falls back on trite stereotypes and generalizations to make an offensive “joke.”

What determines which category a joke falls into?  Well, some of it comes down to the intelligence level of the joke itself, and the creativity involved in it.  A good joke works on several levels – it makes you laugh at the obvious funny thing, but then when you peel back the layers, there’s more funny things to laugh at too.  A good joke may use stereotypes, but it subverts them, turns them on their head, comes at them sideways, to make us look at something in a whole new way.  A bad joke just goes “Hur hur, this stereotype exists, isn’t that funny?”

Another aspect, one that ties into Kaoru’s point above, is this: how much pain does the joke cause?

Now, you can make a good argument that a lot of really good comedy is going to involve some pain.  After all, it can sting to have a preconception shattered.  Even if we’re not going high-concept, a lot of decent meat-and-potatoes comedy revolves around pain.  Heck, a lot of comedians have made a career out of turning their own painful experiences into self-deprecating humor.

However.  Think about the funniest stories you tell your friends – the ones that start with “No shit, there I was.”  They’re fuckin’ hilarious now.  But were they when they happened?

Most of the time, no.  At the time the stories took place, you-the-storyteller were afraid or embarrassed or in pain or supremely uncomfortable.  It only became funny in retrospect, after the initial pain started to fade.

I don’t know about you, but pain erodes my sense of humor.  Physical pain, emotional pain – I can still recognize that something would be funny in other circumstances, but it doesn’t make me want to laugh.  Sometimes it can just piss me off.  (There’s a reason why funerals are rarely laugh riots.  Rarely, not never.)  It’s like there’s a sliding scale – the greater the pain is, the funnier the joke had better be.  If the humor is greater than the pain, it can be wonderfully cathartic.  But if the pain is greater than the humor, it kills the funny right there.

The reason why I’ve been thinking about this, by the way, is that SpouseMan has been toying with the idea of trying his hand at stand-up comedy.  Accordingly, he’s been listening to a LOT of comedians lately.  And I’ve honestly found a lot of it offensive.   At first, it worried me – am I becoming one of those “humorless feminists” people talk about?  Has my increased awareness of problematic material removed my ability to appreciate something I would have found funny before?

Answer: no.  It’s true that before becoming more educated in feminist ideas, I would not have found certain jokes offensive.  I would, however, have found them boring – deserving of no more than a perfunctory “I acknowledge that a joke has been told” chuckle before I moved on and found something more interesting to pay attention to.  All feminism did was give me the tools to understand why jokes about, say, how all wives are nagging bitches, didn’t exactly knock me dead with laughter.  And that made me more interested in the mechanics of why some “edgy” jokes work and some don’t.

With that in mind, let’s look at some examples.

Racist jokes

A friend of mine, who is Black, was visiting the other day, and the subject turned to racist jokes.  Now, our circle of friends is pretty multicultural, but despite that – or perhaps because of it – some pretty racist shit gets said amongst the group.

And we laugh.  Gods help us, we fuckin’ laugh.

And that… is curious.  So we talked about it.  And the rough explanation we came away with is: a racist joke is only funny if you’re pretty goddamn sure the person telling it is not actually a racist.

So when K makes a joke to J about how all Black people are lazy, and J makes a joke back about how all Jewish people are greedy, they both laugh – because K is Jewish and J is Black, and they’re good friends who like and respect each other, and they’re pretty goddamn sure neither one is actually racist.  When my elderly neighbor from our old apartment complex said the same thing, SpouseMan and I kinda squirmed uncomfortably in our chairs and looked for an excuse to leave the conversation… because, well, we were pretty sure she was actually racist.

(A note to all you budding internet comedians out there: telling a racist joke and then having your buddies reassure everyone who’s offended that “Oh, no, he’s totes not racist!”… not the same thing.  The audience has to ALREADY know you well enough to know you’re not racist, otherwise it doesn’t work.  Someone wrote a wonderful bit about how “ironic” offensive humor only really works in private settings, but I can’t find it now, and that makes me sad.)

Here is a (to me) absolutely hilarious joke that is pretty much entirely made up of racist stereotypes:

If you can’t watch the video, it’s Gabriel Iglesias’ “Racist Gift Basket” bit, where he describes playing a prank on a fellow comedian by having a, well, racist gift basket delivered to his hotel room.

First off: when you watch the video, you’ll notice that Gabriel takes great pains throughout the whole thing to demonstrate to the audience that he is not racist.  He reiterates at several points in the story that G Reily is in fact his friend; he also makes it very clear the whole way through that he recognizes how very wrong this whole setup is.  When he’s trying to explain what he’s doing to the (Black) lady at the front desk, his body language becomes very ashamed.  He even lampshades the fact that the audience is withholding judgment to see whether or not the joke is actually funny, and acknowledges this as valid.

Ok.  So that helps keep it from being overly offensive – but what makes it funny?

Well, think about the point of the joke – the things that are pointed out.  How willing the people in the store were to suggest racist items, once they knew that Gabriel and Martin were doing something off-color.  The reaction of the woman at the front desk as soon as they explained what they were doing.  The fact that G Reily actually loved pretty much everything that was included in the gift basket, until he twigged to the fact that it was intended to be racist.

It says something interesting about the taboo placed on the idea of racism, but not on the individual racist acts – none of the workers in that store, for instance, would consider themselves racist, but they all came up with racist suggestions pretty quickly.  It addresses how the idea of racism can color thoughts and perceptions.  In some ways, a lot of it is ridiculous:  fried chicken, for instance, is pretty delicious in anybody’s book.  It shouldn’t be considered negative – except that our culture has tied it into a whole bunch of negative racist stereotypes, and so a tasty snack becomes a symbol of hatred, based solely on the thoughts in someone’s head.  I’ve actually heard some POC say that they dislike eating fried chicken or watermelon in public – not because they dislike those foods, but because of the connotations.  The taboo of racist stereotypes is strong enough to cause people to police their own eating habits.

It’s taking stereotypes, shining a light on them, and making them look kinda silly, while questioning why they have such power, and raising questions like “if you actually like something, is it racist to say you like it?  Does it matter who’s saying it?”

Now, you’re not thinking about all of that while you’re laughing at Gabriel Iglesias doing voices.  All of that is under the surface, but it’s part of what makes the joke rich and complex and memorable.

(Meanwhile, the only part of the joke that falls flat for me is when the woman who originally refused to deliver the basket changes her mind when he offers her $50 – because the observation that people will do something they consider morally wrong if you pay them enough is a) not new and b) kinda depressing, when you think about it.  Not offensive, but not funny for the same reasons that a lot of offensive jokes are not funny.  Luckily, it’s just a throwaway line.)

To contrast, let’s look at this “joke”:

This Super Bowl sucks more dick than adult Trayvon Martin would have for drug money.


What’s the takeaway here?  “We shouldn’t mourn the death of a child, because he was a young Black man and therefore destined to become a drug addict and a prostitute.”


Old tired stereotype, i.e.,  Black people do drugs?  Check.  No pressing reason to believe this person is not, in fact, racist?  Check.  Indifferent to causing pain by mocking a dead child 2 days after the one-year anniversary of his death?  Check, check, check.

This is set up like a joke, so I’m going to assume it was intended to be somehow funny.  It fails in just about every way it’s possible to fail.  (Later tweets defending this one get more transparently racist even while trying to deny racism, and the pretense of humor vanishes – they’re awful, but I’m not getting into them here.  Despite the temptation.)  Suffice to say, when you’re actively mocking a real person who was killed, and whose family is currently mourning them, and you’re doing it by making unsubstantiated attacks on his character in ways that play into stale racist stereotypes, and you’re not even doing anything more clever than “All A are B.  Person X is A.  Therefore, person X must be B!  Comedy!”, uhhh… you are both unfunny and offensive.  You have maximized offensiveness while simultaneously minimizing any possible humor.

“But wait” you say.  “That’s not racist – Trayvon really was a thug!  He used pot, and got suspended from school!  And Todd Kincannon also mentioned white kids he considered to be the same, so it can’t be racist!” (Note: this is really how he defended the tweet.)  …Really?  We’re going here?  Well, ok.

How about the fact that plenty of white kids (including my own brother) experimented with pot and got in trouble in high school, yet went on to become mature and productive members of society?  It didn’t surprise anyone, either – no one looked at my brother’s white-boy wannabe-punk 16-year-old antics and went “Oh man, there’s a future crackhead in the making right there.”  They rightly understood it was a teenage phase that he would (and did) grow out of.  But when a Black kid does the same thing, he is obviously Doomed Forever.  Or how about the fact that the “White Trayvons” Kilcannon mentioned are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold???  So apparently in his mind, “Black kid who tried pot” is the equivalent of “White kid who murdered a bunch of innocent people.”  Hmm, can’t find anything racist there…

… anyway, that tweet depresses me, so let’s move on to:

Rape jokes

The reason why rape jokes are generally not funny is that the target of the joke far too often is not the rapist, but the rape victim. In the Tosh example, he’s not making a joke in which the five hypothetical rapists (and the idea that rape is intrinsically funny) are ridiculed and mocked for being awful, he makes one in which the woman he’s talking to needs to be brutalized by five people in order to shut her up.

A number of his defenders have described this as “edgy.” “He’s challenging our perceptions of rape!” No, he’s not. He’s going for the easy out by playing to our prejudices about rape victims and women who he implies are best kept quiet by forcing them into sex. People were telling that joke when Lenny Bruce was playing to crowds of three. People were telling rape jokes in fucking Pompeii, for the love of Ceiling Cat! That’s not edgy, it’s entirely predictable.

The thing is, rape jokes can be funny.

But what makes them funny is that the comedian in cases like that isn’t taking a shot at the victim. They’re punching up, addressing how terrible rape is and how awful the perpetrators of it are. In some cases they’re addressing rape culture, the tendency to look for rational excuses for a behavior that boils down to “that person gets off on forcing people to have sex,” or even recognizing how easy some people have it (i.e. men, who don’t really have to worry about rape all the time).

(the above is also from Punching Up.)

That’s about the best introduction I could give for this section 🙂

I’m going to embed a video for my first, positive example.  I thought about using Wanda Sykes or George Carlin, but most people already know those examples, so I’m going with something different.  I really don’t like this clip, though.  Not because I don’t like the bit – I do – but because it’s too short.  I’ve heard the rest of the bit, but this clip cuts off before we get to what I consider the really funny part:

If you can’t view it, it’s comedian Jo Koy telling about his mother, warning him about “those drugs” they put in the drinks in “those bars” – “They call it roopies.”

But they cut it short.  The bit goes on – Jo getting more and more indignant, his mother getting more and more insistent.  And here’s where, to me, it gets hilarious.  After Jo spends some time condescendingly trying to placate his mother, absently reassuring her, she comes out with something along the lines of, “Ok, fine.  You’re going to ignore me, you’re going to leave your drink alllll over the bar, and then the next morning you’re going to wake up and say ‘Why does my butt hurt??'”

…ok, so why is this funny?  It’s making a joke about rape, about date rape drugs, about men getting raped – already a topic that is unfortunately viewed as humorous rather than traumatic.  And it even indulges in victim-blaming.  This should be offensive.  Why did it make me fall over myself laughing?

Well, primarily because, to me, the humor doesn’t come from the fact that Jo Koy could get raped.  It comes from the fact that he’s so very sure he couldn’t be, and that his mom is out of touch.

See, throughout the whole joke, his mom is presented as a naive woman who has no idea what she’s talking about.  She’s heard about drugs in drinks, and that it’s bad, and despite having no idea what the drugs are for or why it’s bad, has decided she should be scared of this.  Jo, on the other hand, knows exactly what roofies are, and as a man, is smugly convinced that he’s immune to this.  His mom, he tells us through his tone and body language, just doesn’t understand how it works, or she’d immediately know too that he’s in no danger.

And then with that one line, she completely shatters all of this.  She demonstrates that, contrary to expectations, she knows exactly what a date-rape drug is, and that unlike her son, she also understands that men aren’t immune to it via magical testosterone-shields.  It throws the whole rest of the bit into sharp relief, as you realize that she and her son were having two totally different conversations this whole time.  And that sudden swerve into a new paradigm, that surprising contrast between what we’d been led to expect about this woman and this conversation and the reality – that’s funny, right there.  Suddenly Jo is the one who looks foolish, for completely underestimating his mother’s knowledge and blithely assuming something that, in reality – as she points out – isn’t safe to assume.  (It’s also funny because having a parent suddenly say something graphically sexual in nature is pretty excruciatingly awkward, and that’s a feeling most of us are familiar with – we laugh, half in mockery, half in commiseration.)

So yeah.  Despite its problematic elements – despite the fact that some parts of it are offensive – that is a joke about rape that I honestly think was goddamn funny.  Because despite engaging in rape culture, the point of the joke was about puncturing the assumptions people make, both within rape culture and about each other.  It wasn’t about strengthening rape culture ideas.

I would also like to point out that for some people, the problematic elements may outweigh the humor.  That doesn’t mean those people are too sensitive, or that they don’t “get” the humor – it simply means that for them, the problematic parts cause more pain than they do for me, and as pointed out above, pain really can cancel out humor.

As a counter-example, well – Daniel Tosh’s bit, referenced above, is as good as any.

For those who aren’t aware, Tosh made a comment about rape jokes always being funny.  An audience member called out that rape jokes are never funny.  Tosh replied, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?  Like, right now?”

What the fuck.

He later tweeted, in response to criticism, “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”

Ok, here’s the thing: this is true.  One of the true joys of humor is that it can sometimes be used to transcend pain, to help heal.  But whatever his intent may have been, that is not what he did.

As Elissa Bassist put it, “But would it be funny if this girl got gang raped right this moment, like right now right now? That’s not a joke. It’s an invitation. It’s a celebration of a violent crime, which is itself another violation. It’s not a way to cope.”  Using rape in this way – laughing at the fact that a woman can be made helpless, laughing at the idea of a woman challenging a man’s power being put back in her place in the most brutal way possible – is not humorous.  It’s not reclaiming anything.  It’s not turning anything on its head.  There’s no left turns into Bizarroland here to make us sit up, take notice, and giggle helplessly.

It’s just a man who had his power threatened by a woman, inviting the audience (and her) to imagine that woman being brutally violated in retaliation.  There is  nothing new or innovative about men brutalizing women in order to assert their power.  It’s an old concept, a tired concept.  A depressingly common concept.  It is actively hurtful.  And it’s not funny.

Did people laugh?  Sure, some did.  Some people laughed because they genuinely enjoyed the spectacle of a woman getting put in her place by a man.  This makes them horrible people; it doesn’t make the “joke” intrinsically funny, however.

Most, I believe, laughed because they weren’t sure what else to do.  Having someone publicly threaten another person, revel in the fact that they’ve threatened them – it’s honestly shocking.  It’s not something you expect to see.  It is nose-bitingly wrong.  And in that situation, a lot of times people do laugh.  It’s a fairly normal reaction to shock.  This doesn’t make them horrible people; it also, still, doesn’t make the “joke” intrinsically funny.


Fred Clark, in talking about the Left Behind series, often refers to the conjunction of Bad Theology and Bad Writing.  One is bad on its own.  Together, though, they actively feed on each other, each becoming both the cause and the effect of the other in a terrible feedback loop of terribleness.  When it comes to jokes, Bad Ideas and Bad Humor seem to work the same way.  The vast majority of jokes people accuse of being offensive are jokes that, at their core, are bad on more than one level.  The terribleness of the ideas they promote is part and parcel of why they fail from a humor standpoint.

And perhaps this is why feminists find such jokes to be legitimately unfunny – because we recognize trite, tired cultural themes for what they are.   When you were a little kid, the most banal, overdone jokes were fresh and new and innovative, because you’d never heard them before.  “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana??” you’d crow to yourself.  “That’s hilarious!”

In the same way, if you honestly don’t pay attention to overall themes in our culture – if you never take a step back and really look at how these fucked-up ideas are pounded into our heads over and over again – then yeah, you might not notice how tired these “jokes” are.  One guy complaining about his nagging wife may be pretty funny.  But then you hear another, and another, and another, and finally you start to think – if you’re paying attention – waitaminute, no one’s breaking new ground here.  And you start to see and hear all the other places in our culture where women are put down or dismissed for speaking their minds, all the places where men are “assertive” but women are “bitchy,” all the places where men are told that it’s ok to denigrate women, they don’t have anything important to say anyway… and suddenly, the nagging wife jokes are not only boring and unfunny, they’re boring and unfunny in ways that perpetuate pretty harmful and widespread ideas about women.

But you only see that if you’ve paid attention.  If you don’t think about jokes, you won’t notice it’s trite.  If you don’t think about society, you won’t notice it’s harmful.

Me, I think humor is important.  I also think the culture I live in is important.  I think they both deserve to be fully appreciated, and in order to fully appreciate something, you have to think about it.

And when you think about them, you notice these patterns.  You start to realize that some shit isn’t actually funny.

But it’s not because there’s anything wrong with your sense of humor.

(Note: this has been a work-in-progress post.  I’m still not sure I’m 100% happy with it, but I’ve tinkered with it long enough and it’s time to post it.  Since I started writing it, the Oscars happened.  I want to do a follow-up to this where I address what happened at and around the Oscars, but for right now, I just wanted to take a closer look at the “humorless feminist” trope.)


4 thoughts on “God, can’t you take a joke?

  1. But what makes them funny is that the comedian in cases like that isn’t taking a shot at the victim. They’re punching up, addressing how terrible rape is and how awful the perpetrators of it are.

    You know, this gives me a new perspective on the whole Penny Arcade dickwolves thing. Gabe and Tycho thought they were punching up – aiming a joke at game companies that design situations where you can only help a preset number of victims and no more, even though there are many more in need of help, effectively forcing your character to be a sociopath – and never quite got their heads around the idea that said joke might also be seen as punching down at rape victims.

    • Honestly, I kinda thought the original dickwolves strip was pretty funny. It was only later, in the ensuing kerfluffle, that I thought Tycho and Gabe were really out of line. I kinda wish they’d been decent about the rest of it, so I wouldn’t feel bad about enjoying that original joke. :/

      • Oh, I thought it was great at the time. I’d just recently gotten into MMORPGs, and was still adjusting to this alien concept of only helping the number of victims the quest said to help, so it was very topical for me.

        But my point is, they couldn’t let go of the fact that the joke’s main point aimed upwards long enough to see that they’d also unknowingly sent some shrapnel downwards as well. So I think they wound up filing the reaction in the “Moral Guardians who want to censor us” bin, because that’s what it often is when someone disapproves of a joke that punches up, because they wouldn’t relax their death grip on the idea that this joke punches up, therefore we have nothing to apologize for.

      • Exactly. If they’d recognized that, despite having good intentions, they had accidentally hurt people and apologized (ACTUALLY apologized) for that, the whole incident would have gone much better.

        I do understand the immediate reaction to instinctively defend yourself when someone dislikes something you write. But sometimes that reaction is the very thing that makes you come across as a douchenozzle.

        For the record, I like Tycho and Gabe. PA’s not my favorite strip in all of ever, but it’s pretty reliably funny, and they seem like the sort of dudes I could hang out with. To me, the original joke was one that walked that fine line – that is, to some people, it’s going to cause more humor than pain, and to some people it won’t. I think the problem is that they didn’t realize it was going to cause any pain, and didn’t want to listen to people when they pointed that out. I don’t think the way they handled it necessarily makes them bad people, but it WAS a bad way of handling it, and knowing that whole sordid story makes the joke, in the long run, less funny than it would otherwise be to me.

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