Mandy Len Catron wrote an essay for The New York Times’ Modern Love section called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”, which I remember got a lot of traction a few months ago, because the lovelorn are an easy audience to appeal to. The essay was half memoir, half study—a retelling of how Catron attempted asking an acquaintance 36 questions proposed by psychologist Arthur Aron on how to make strangers closer, each query becoming progressively more personal the farther down the list she went.
So of course my girlfriend and I tried it, because it seemed like a fun thing to do. We took turns answering each question, exchanging stories, until we got to question 32: “What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?” She answered rape. I answered autism.
All academic studies on humor aside, the one simple, important thing to remember is that jokes are—or at least can be—how we connect with people. When a group of friends cackle at the same joke, they realize that they share roughly the same sensibilities, and that brings them closer. So when we say that something is too serious to joke about, we mean, “These are my sensibilities, and I would take it as a sign of respect if you don’t joke about what I don’t laugh at,” which is fine. If that kind of thinking was more prevalent, you wouldn’t have friends on your feed talking about how one basketball team “totally raped” the opposing team, or friends calling something “otis” when they see something stupid, when stupidity and autism are two very different things.
At the same time, the idea of keeping a sufficiently sensitive topic away from the hands of humor is a troubling notion. The best jokes are usually the ones that challenge our sensibilities, bordering on offensive in the interest of revealing greater truths, which is why Louis CK is so fucking engaging. (See: his infamous “Of Course, But Maybe” bit, where the final punchline about slavery totally flies despite the fact that Louis CK is a dumpy white dude.) You can joke about slavery, you can joke about the holocaust—hell, even College Humor (which had, not too long ago, veered away from its fratboy aesthetic and gone into the territory of sly scholarliness) managed to joke about 9/11 without downplaying its significance.
I am of the belief that any topic, no matter how delicate, can be joked about, given the right approach, the right delivery, the right timing. But you see people joke with stereotypes, about how black people act, how women think, and seeing that kind of unfunny humor on your feed makes it easy to believe that treating something with respect means granting it the utmost gravitas. The problem isn’t that some topics are too serious. The problem is, some people just don’t know how to fucking joke.
On a related note: Telling a joke and reacting to one are two different things. I’ve always been fascinated by the apparent disconnect that happens when a politically correct friend laughs at an extremely offensive joke. It’s always satisfying watching a very uppity, inoffensive friend of the tumblr SJW breed cackle when you say “Have you seen Stevie Wonder’s house? Neither has he!” And you’re reminded that no one is immune to the joy of schadenfreude. In Breakdowns, a collection of comics by Art Spiegelman, one strip entitled “Cracking Jokes” talks about how human beings approach humor. He wrote, “Most humor is a form of aggression and hatred. Our savage ancestors laughed with uninhibited relish at cripples, paralytics, amputees, midgets, monsters, the deaf, the poor and the crazy. Everyone was your potential enemy whose weaknesses and misfortunes might be to your benefit.”
When insults are used as the main instrument for comedy, a primal urge is satisfied, and we’re for a moment transported back to the days when cultural sensitivity wasn’t a thing. But we’ve come a long way since our prehistoric days. We’ve become more sophisticated, and turned comedy into not just a pastime of exercising hatred but a clever way of tackling serious issues. (See: The Daily Show with John Stewart) Plus, no one wants to admit that they have the same sensibilities as a caveman.
I remember, when I was still in college, I’ve had more than one professor bring up how humor can be an instrument for challenging power. The worst jokes are the ones that aim down, the ones that make fun of the weak and oppressed, while the best jokes are the ones that aim up, that target the powerful.
That’s how you can joke about slavery without insulting people of color. That’s how you can joke about poverty without taking a shit on the poor. That’s how you can joke about the stigma attached to certain mental conditions without railing on people with special needs. That’s how you can joke about sexism, misogyny, the patriarchy, and all the shit that comes out of those things, without downplaying the plight of women. Don’t make fun of the ones who suffer. Make fun of the social ills that cause their suffering, and strip them of their power. By extension, to not joke about the ills of society is almost the same as keeping silent. Rendering a topic exempt from the treatment of humor does more harm that challenging the sensibilities of other people who hold that topic close to their heart.
To make it your goal in life to be inoffensive is at best, cute, and at worst, trite. The job of high quality comedy, I believe, is not to respect your defenses, but to lower them. I suppose, in the same vein as Arthur Aron’s question, a good joke asks the right questions. Why do we laugh at the things we laugh at? And by extension, can we joke in such a way that people laugh for the right reasons? A good joke disarms. And in the face of an oppressive power structure, a good joke can dismantle.