Saturday, November 1, 2008

When A Joke Just Isn't Funny

I have been repeatedly accused of having no joy in my life. I have been repeatedly told that I have no sense of humour anymore.  This lament has become standard commentary, that I receive almost daily, and it is tired and old.  Let's be honest, a lot of comedy today is based upon "othering" someone, or playing on tired stereotypes that are reductive to human dignity.

Daily as I become more aware of my privileges, things that I would have laughed at five years ago seem horrid to me.  I have come to realize that in many cases,  I am only in a position to laugh because said commentary is not a reflection on my life. 

When I wrote about Chris Rocks latest HBO special, I received the usual lighten up, it's just a joke.  When I listened to his latest screed all I heard was anti woman, patriarchal privilege that left a sour taste in my mouth.  Clearly as a woman I have a vested interest in being treated like a person of value; however that does not excuse Rock or comedians of his elk of routinely resorting to calling women bitches and hos for a cheap laugh.

What many don't realize as they sit there loudly guffawing at the latest homophobic, anti woman, racist etc., commentary is that they are participating in the very hierarchy that in other situations will create them as an other.  Unless you are a straight, rich, thin, able bodied, white male at some point in your life you are negotiating an area of stigmatization.   Hierarchy continues to exist because we continue to affirm it. 

We must come to realize that nothing exists outside of discourse.  From the moment the body is born it is encoded with social meaning that no one individual can escape.  If there is any hope of dismantling the social constructions that create some as less than so that others may profit, we must all actively engage in not only asserting our individual humanity, but our common humanity.

Rape, child abuse, fat jokes, racist jokes, etc., are not funny. This is someone's lived experience and may be a point of pain.  When I hear comedians joke about slapping a bitch, I think of the women in the audience who have fretted over the best way to cover bruises and black eyes.  When I hear comedians joke about spankings they received as children, I remember my own painful dance with the belt.

Comedy is meant to uplift the soul in laughter, not take us to the darkest moments in our lives that may trigger horrible memories.  It certainly does not exist to make us feel that we are less than the person sitting next to us. 

I love to laugh and in fact I do it quite often, I simply do not believe that my personal amusement should come at the cost of the dignity of another.  Language means something, it is how we understand and encode our world, therefore there is no such thing as a simple, harmless joke if it creates someone as 'other'.

I have a long way to go in understanding and accepting the different ways in which my body is privileged and how this affects my view of the world.  When I wrote a post recently about advertising and domestic abuse, as much as I believe in the equality of trans and lesbian women, I did not see the erasure in the advertising.  I admit this openly because it is only in admitting the ways in which we are blind that we can grow.  It had to be pointed out in the comment thread for me to see it.

Even the most vigilant amongst us will make mistakes; however we truly go wrong when we either do not attempt change,  or do not acknowledge our faults when they are presented to us.  As an imperfect being I expect to keep making mistakes and I am quite tolerant of the mistakes of others, my problem is with the select few who purposefully intend to demean another for profit.  When I use the word profit I mean either monetarily, or as an attempt to maintain unearned privilege.

As a species we are not so limited in imagination that we cannot amuse ourselves without resorting to the worst elements of society.  When we stop and laugh, though it is a joyful experience, I believe that we should all take the time to think about whether this joke was really free of constructions that were reductive.  A moment of joy should not be gained through the minimizing of another human being.

11 comments: said...

I have so much respect for you. Truly.

Jadelyn said...

Again, you have hit it right on. This is something fairly new to me, because while for years I refused to laugh at my father's racist jokes, it's only in the past few months that, as I've involved myself more and more in the progressive minds of the blogosphere - like you, Cara at The Curvature, everyone at Shakesville, the people at Feministe and Feministing - I've started noticing the jokes-that-aren't-jokes in everyday life. I'm a woman and have called myself a feminist for years, but only in the past few months have I started noticing rape "jokes" for what they are.

So I'm suddenly getting these looks from my boyfriend when we're watching TV and something comes on that I would have laughed at in the past, and this time I just stare at the screen with either a stonelike expression or what he calls my "You Have Just Crossed A Line" expression. To his credit, he tends to take it pretty well, and usually is willing to listen to why I'm no longer finding it funny. But I know that my dad and some of my more conservative friends are getting unhappy with my new unwillingness to play along with them. I'm getting used to the "here she goes again" sigh and roll of the eyes when I give them the YHJCAL look. But it hurts every time, because I know my criticism is going to be dismissed with "Don't you have a sense of humor anymore?"

I've got a long way to grow as a progressive, I know that. But thank you so much for reminding me that it's legit to not laugh at that kind of shit, no matter what people want me to think.

Jack Stephens said...

Chris Rock is a horrible comedian; he's funny in some instances such as talking about European immigration and racism and as well as being scared of "Al Cracka" instead of Al Queda. But more often than not he resorts to the type of stuff that you have mentioned.

One can be extremely funny without resorting to that type of bullshit. If anything, it just shows how lazy a comedian is. A perfect example would be Canadian comedian Russel Peters and Dave Chappelle, they both tell jokes on race and other sensitive topics but Chappelle tends to put new twists and spins on old jokes and plays off stereotypes (most of the time) while Peters just tells the stereotype as if that is supposed to be the joke.

Dori said...

Thank you Renee.

Your words on these topics are as usual, both a call to action and a soothing balm.

Its soothing simply because I know that I am not crazy, that I am not over sensitive, and that not finding oppression funny is legitimate.

You also have reminded me to continue speaking out and telling people that these things are simply not funny, and are actually more (as mentioned above) at the same time lazy, ignorant, and reinforcing.

Vera H. said...

I remember I wouldn't go out a guy because he found all of the "slapping bitches and hoes" jokes so funny, and I really got dogged for that, but when I found out later he had hit a woman, I felt vindicated.

Not saying that all who find such junk funny are abusers, but I certainly don't call many of these people my friends.

Danyell said...

Actually, I don't think that comedy is only to lift people up. I think humor is a viable, potent way to deal with things that ARE tragic and ARE NOT funny. Because if you didn't joke about it, it would be just too depressing to go on. I've made jokes about my own mental abuse by my father when I was a kid, because that's really the only way left to talk about it.

BUT- I think there's a distinct difference between what I'm talking about and making a joke at other people's expense. The latter is not cool, but it often takes a fine toothed-comb to tell the difference between the two. I think it is possible for White, rich, males to be stigmatizes and to make assumptions where they're coming from. I'm not trying to play the POV of the "poor little rich boy" thing here. But I do think some people try to make off-color jokes in an attempt to discuss something difficult but then just outright fail at it. These people are not always actually racist or sexist- they're just not good comedians.

I'm of the belief that everything can be funny if told properly- even things that offend me. Comedy is an art form that is ever-evolving and I do respect someone that can make me laugh at some things. I don't like the idea of "taboo"- I think it's archaic and stunts development. But there is a difference between progressively offensive comedy and just offensive-offensive comedy.

Scott said...

I was in the room when this blog post was conceived. We were watching the latest Real Time with Bill Maher and he was pleading on behalf of all comics to Obama to give the comics of the world material to work with. I'm sorry, but I thought it was a funny bit when he said Obama should bring his half brother over from Africa and it would be funny to see him run around the White house press room chasing the press with a skull on a pole. Or for Obama to inform his African brother that we're having the French President over for not to eat him. IMO this was not an attempt to 'other' because there are tribes in Africa that still practice canabalism, and yes, some tribes do run around with skulls on poles.

But thats not the point, most comediens pick on everyone, not many are excluded. Bill's point I think was this, just because Obama is black, should not exclude him from the kind of funny we've experienced with Jr as president.

Deb said...

I've been reading for a long time, but I've never commented before. I don't have much to add, I'm just here to absorb and hopefully find where I need to see more clearly, but I had to comment on this post, because it said so well what I've felt for a long time, but couldn't have put into words.

I get these comments a lot, also, and it has always made me angry to have those making their awful jokes try to place some kind of blame on me, just because I don't think or act like them.

So, thanks for this post. It is helpful to see that I'm not the only person with a fantastic sense of humor who finds little to laugh at.

Amber Rhea said...

Beautiful post, Renee.

Rebecca said...

"I'm sorry, but I thought it was a funny bit when he said Obama should bring his half brother over from Africa and it would be funny to see him run around the White house press room chasing the press with a skull on a pole. Or for Obama to inform his African brother that we're having the French President over for not to eat him."
- Scott

I get the impression that this is meant to mock the ways in which many white people see these "jungle bunny" caricatures...and the comedians who then play on these beliefs but in an uncritical, in fact encouraging, way. Rather than an attempt to point out that there are still people who cannibalize and use "skulls on sticks."

nia said...

I was also expecting commenters to chime in with their usual "lighten up, it's just comedy" when you critiqued Chris Rock's jokes about black women.
I couldn't help thinking: If these were black men listening to white men say the same things about them - would they be so generous with their "it's just comedy" excuses?