It's Never "Just" a JokeComplications Ensue
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Friday, November 25, 2016

We had an interesting office conversation today, about the late comedian/troll Andy Kaufman, which then drifted into whether sexist and racist jokes are okay. I don't appreciate them. One of the women in the office said she enjoys them because "it's just a joke."

But why do we tell jokes? Jokes are meant to make us uncomfortable in some way. We laugh when something goes wrong. A joke is always a setup that is derailed.

There are absurdist jokes, of course, that are just all about the derail:

"I went to a restaurant that serves breakfast anytime. So I asked for French toast in the Renaissance." -- Stephen Wright

Our expectations are foiled, and we laugh out of the cognitive dissonance.

But most jokes are at someone's expense. "Tragedy," as Mel Brooks said, "is, I stub my toe. Comedy is, you die." For example:

My lover's been bugging me for the key to my apartment… finally I said, 'No, I'll let you out when I'm ready.' -- Heidi Foss

To dissect my friend Heidi's joke a bit, the setup is the assumed attempt on the part of the lover to have a closer relationship. The derail is that the lover is actually imprisoned. Note that the joke works because it's sort of horrifying. ("When I'm ready" is a nice touch because it mirrors the familiar conversation: 'I'm not ready' for a closer relationship.)

Stereotype jokes are at the expense of a whole group of people:

Q. How many Harvard students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.

The point of the joke is that Harvard students are conceited. Here's another:

Two blondes were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?

The point of the joke is that blonde women are stupid. Oh, and slutty.

So why do I think it's not okay to tell racist or sexist jokes? Because the point of a joke about a stereotype is that it's only funny if the listener believes that the stereotype is, in some way, true. Change one word in the joke:

Q. How many Columbia students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.

That joke isn't funny, because almost no one thinks that Columbia students are particularly conceited.

Two Canadians were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?

What? Huh? Not funny. No one thinks Canadians are particularly dumb.

Now, jokes at the expense of Harvard students aren't particularly awful. Harvard students are on top of the academic heap. So the joke is sort of "telling truth to power." But jokes at the expense of blondes are not completely innocent. If I tell a blonde joke, I'm saying that, to some extent, the intelligence of women with blonde hair is suspect.

"But it's just a joke." Well, nothing is "just" a joke. If people didn't already suspect blondes of being dumb, the joke wouldn't land.

Now, there are stereotypes that are hurtful, and stereotypes nobody really minds:

Q. How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. None of your fucking business!

Most New Yorkers will laugh at that joke, because they'd agree that New Yorkers are brusque.

Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a lighbulb.
A. Three.

What? Oh. Zen Buddhists are inscrutable. Right.

But then we get into jokes based on not so innocent stereotypes. For example, jokes about how money-grubbing [Hittites] are. [Hittites] don't find them funny, because we don't see ourselves in them. Also, the stereotype of [Hittites] as being stingy is part of a whole package of anti-Semitism that, in the middle of the last century, ended up in mass homicidal violence.

Similarly, jokes about how lazy [Sumerians] are, or how dishonest [Assyrians] are, are part of a whole package of racism that ends up with unarmed [Sumerians] being shot by cops, and candidates accusing [Assyrians] of being rapists and murderers that ought to be kept out of the country.

The point is: when you tell a joke based on a nasty stereotype, whether intentionally or not, you are saying the stereotype is, in some way, true. Nothing is ever "just" a joke. By making a joke, the teller is saying that the stereotype is in some way true.

And by laughing at it, you are agreeing.

In fact, the whole reason for these jokes is so that the teller can put down a group of people and get away with it; and the listener can buy into the putdown and get away with it. But in this case somebody's not telling truth to power; they're telling lies, and they're punching down.

Of course, it's impossible to dissect racist or sexist humor without sounding terribly unfunny, like you "don't get the joke":

Q. How many militant feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

But jokes have power. We wouldn't tell jokes if they didn't. Jokes are how we allow ourselves to communicate truths that can't be communicated openly. That's why traditionally the court jester is the only person who's allowed to confront the King; he's allowed that privilege because his jokes are deniable. That's why, in dictatorships, you can go to prison for telling a joke at the expense of the dictator. That's why some cartoons making fun of Mohammed triggered riots.

Jokes based on false stereotypes have the parallel power that they can communicate a lie that no one dares communicate openly any more. The reason some white people tell jokes about lazy [Sumerians] is because they don't dare say things like, "Well, everyone knows how lazy [Sumerians] are." But turn it into a joke, and "it's just a joke," and you get away with it. And they are all the more hurtful because the target is supposed to laugh them off. So the target has no recourse, unless they're witty enough to craft a good comeback.

And that's why it's never "just" a joke.



While I agree entirely with your thesis and argument, I think it's entirely possible to re-phrase many, probably most, jokes so that they will land or be funny with the problematic elements removed. Replacing the stereotype with another, named, type that doesn't have the correct symbolism (Canadian for Blonde) won't do it because it creates a set-up that is neither going to be understood nor satisfied but removing the concept of stereotype altogether frees the rest of the joke to carry on working, always assuming it was funny in the first place.

For example:

"Two friends of mine were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?

If any averagely gifted humorist told that well enough I'd laugh and I imagine plenty of other people would too. Remove the element that's directed at a stereotype and you still have the same cognitive dissonance and the language play, both of which are funny.

Of course that won't work on jokes that exist only by dint of stereotype recognition, of which lightbulb jokes are a prime example, but I think that kind of joke is pretty niche in the first place.

By Blogger Bhagpuss, at 4:52 AM  

Excellent post! This will now be my go-to article link when someone says "it's just a joke!" Thank You!

By Blogger DMSamuel, at 10:42 AM  

This is so good, and timely, Alex. It reaches people on multiple levels. I hope you consider publishing it wider.

By Blogger Holly Richter-White, at 9:37 AM  

That is very kind of you. Where?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:56 PM  

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