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Has America Lost It's Sense of Humor?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Sunday Aug 23, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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In the 1994 movie Dumb and Dumber, Lloyd (Jim Carey) sells a dead bird (Petey) to a blind kid in a wheelchair. Clearly one would have to have psychopathic tendencies to find dead birds or handicap children funny, yet despite personal preferences and tastes for comedy, people who enjoyed this film overwhelmingly found this scene hilarious. More recently, jokes about Jared, the former pitchman for the Subway chain, have been flooding social media. Many of these jokes have to do with him getting raped in prison. Again, prison rape is clearly not funny, but yet the "6-inch or 12-inch" jokes continue. Jerry Seinfeld recently commented on how political correctness is ruining comedy. Comedians such as Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Tracy Morgan, and many others are continually under attack for the "inappropriateness" of their jokes. Has America lost it's sense of humor or is something else going on?

Nothing New

People being offended by comedy is nothing new. Let's not forget the 1990's with Denis Leary and Roseanne Barr. The 1980's with Andrew Dice Clay and the pre-Disney Eddie Murphy. The 1970's with Richard Pryor and George Carlin. And arguably the first comedian to shock America with his comedy, Lenny Bruce, who in 1964 was arrested for his public use of obscenities. The main difference was that these comedians performed in an era before social media when only the really offensive material made headlines. The small segment that made up the extreme politically correct were insignificant in a world where "newsworthy" still meant something. Today, the vocal minority has global exposure, can sell their outrage to others with the right emotional pleas, and turn their minority into a large enough group that cannot be ignored. This raises the question, is social media helping to expose this "social injustice," or is social media simply creating this "social injustice"?

What's Funny?

There is a well-known paradox of sorts to those who study humor either scientifically or professionally; the more you analyze humor, the less funny it becomes. This makes the questions "what's so funny about..." difficult to answer. We don't know why exactly one person finds a joke funny when another person does not. Humor is a very subjective area to which nobody has a privileged position, meaning nobody's declaration that a joke is not funny has any more truth to it than another person's declaration that a joke is funny. If you don't find an attempt at humor funny, realize that it is perfectly reasonable to say "I don't find that funny" or even "I find that offensive," and those who say "that's not funny" or "that's offensive" are expressing an opinion, not stating a fact.

How Political Correctness Spoils Comedy

To be good social justice warrior, so it seems, one needs to express outrage at any hint of inequality, discrimination, or moral wrongdoing. Take the Petey story from Dumb and Dumber. Petey is the dead bird that got his head cut off by thugs attempting to send a threatening message to Lloyd and Harry. Lloyd duct-taped the head back on the bird, then sold it to a blind kid (in a wheelchair) pretending it was still alive. As a social justice warrior, we can say that there is nothing funny about animal murder and mutilation, threatening through intimidation, and taking advantage of handicapped children. We would be right, but we would also be conflating irony with inequality, discrimination, and moral wrongdoing. A handicapped boy did not really get swindled into buying a dead bird. We can laugh at the irony presented in the situation knowing that "no animals or children were harmed in the making of this joke". Personally, I find it a bit opportunistic attacking comedy and comedians when there are more than enough sincere offenders out there.

Sacred Cows and Taboo Topics

I can't help but notice the hypocrisy when it comes to what is and what is not fair game as the targets of satire, ridicule, and criticism. Very often, the same people who insist that religion must be open to satire, express outrage at satire that might offend people in virtually any other way. If anything has changed in the last decade regarding America's ability to take a joke, perhaps it's the exchange of one sacred cow for a whole herd. To many people, their religious beliefs and practices represent them as a person more than the color of their skin or the presence or absence of a penis. If the purpose of sacred cows and taboo topics is not to hurt other people, then we need to think more about why some topics are acceptable fodder for comedy and others are not, and act consistently with the underlying reasoning rather than our personal preferences.

Not-So-Cruel Intentions

If we quip by warning Jared not to drop the soap in prison, are we somehow endorsing or even supporting rape in prison? By not actively speaking out against the scene in Fletch Lives where Chevy Chase humorously infiltrates a KKK ceremony, are we being racist? Does laughing at comedian's jokes about their own obesity make us accomplices in fat-shaming? The answers are no, no, and no. In all of these cases, our automatic response of laughter and amusement does not translate to a reasoned endorsement of a particular stance of what might be a serious social issue. Some of the best comedians are known for their self-deprecation or making fun of a caricature of themselves usually by playing on stereotypes. When we laugh at Jim Gaffigan talk about how pale he is, in no way are we expressing our anti-pale tendencies. But what if we are very outspoken about the inappropriateness of pale jokes? Could that mean something?

A Lesson from Freud

Like the anti-gay male preacher who spends his weekends with male prostitutes in hotel rooms, or the "family values" guy with an active account on the adultery site "Ashely Madison," much of this "outrage" can simply be a result of a person's own guilt in finding humor in what might be a politically incorrect joke. In Freudian terms, this is known as reaction formation, or the process of pushing away threatening impulses by overemphasizing the opposite in one's thoughts and actions (Personality, 2010). By expressing our outrage, we are really attempting to hide the fact, both publicly and privately, that we find humor in the joke when we think we shouldn't. Lashing out at comedians, humorists, and satirists may help us deal with our own guilt, but at the expense of others by advocating an extreme and perhaps unfair position.

As someone who loves and appreciates virtually all kinds of comedy, I would not want to live in a world where the only kind of acceptable comedy is the kind that could not reasonably offend anyone. We would be stuck with a bunch of stand-up comedians reading Dixie cups and Bazooka Joe comics (okay, that could be pretty funny). I think most people can appreciate the difference between the idea of selling a decapitated bird "fixed" by duct tape to a blind kid and actually doing it. The former is hilarious (to me, at least), the latter... not so much. Before lashing out at a person for his or her attempt at humor, think about your own motivations for doing so, as well as the likely intentions behind the joke. Sometimes a bad joke isn't a political statement against social justice supporting inequality, discrimination, or moral wrongdoing; it is simply a bad joke.

Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. (2010) (5 edition). Boston: Pearson.

Podcast Episode: Has America Lost It's Sense of Humor?

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