The Limits of Humour

I’m teaching a course on Comic Drama in the Winter Semester at WLU and so I’ve been thinking in the past few days about the nature of humour/comedy/genre/farce/absurdity, etc.  Heck, I still don’t even have a reading list together, so if anyone has any suggestions, I would be more than happy to entertain them.  Just drop me a line.

Begging for help with my course is not why I am writing this, however.  

One of the ideas that I had regarding course delivery was to start off each class with a relevant joke or reading or something.  Whether it be a knock knock joke when we are talking about structure, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” when we are talking about dated humour, or describing a situation like what I will get into below… I want to start off each class with an example, then move into the theory and the plays.

Yesterday, as I was basking in the post defense hangover, I watched as twitter blew up with discussion of a few interrelated stories.

  1. Daniel Tosh, comedian, told a crowd of people in regards to a female heckler: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”  The defense offered for publicly suborning assault?  There are “awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”
  2. Anita Sarkeesian, feminist writer and cultural critic who started a kickstarter campaign to get funding to study gender in video game culture had a video game made about her where the whole point is to beat her to a bloody pulp.  The defense offered for the hate-speech game?  It’s just a game…

There’s no real point in my going on at length about how and why these particular cases are seriously problematic.  Indeed, Tosh looks like he is liable to lose support from his network and the twitter account of the man who created the Sarkeesian game has been mysteriously suspended.  I join the condemnation of these acts, of course, but I’m wondering how I am going to insert them into my class on comic drama.

Tosh’s stance on “awful things in the world” is a position that I have heard time and again in recent months, especially following the whole debacle a few months back.  Individuals claim that they can make jokes about anything they want, without consequences, because they have the seemingly God-given right to make those jokes.  The smarter ones cite George Carlin for some kind of evidence that white, privileged men can make jokes about violence, race, money and it can be funny.

Thing is, they are stepping on a few questions of privilege and comedy without thinking about what they are doing.  Are there jokes that are funny?  Certainly.  Humour seems to be largely a social construct, but it does seem to be the case that there is some kind of a concept of humour across cultures.  This seems to be a part of the general human condition.  There are also jokes that are simply not funny.  Either they are not told well, they are offensive, or they lack structure (or something else), but there are certainly jokes that are not funny.  Are there jokes that are so offensive that they are inherently unfunny?  Here we step away from a philosophy of aesthetics and into ethics.

  1. A joke can be immoral itself, or 
  2. It can be told for immoral reasons.  

That is, a joke suborning rape (an immoral joke) can be told by someone as an illustration of rape culture without the expectation that anyone will find it funny (say, in a classroom), or that same joke can be told for immoral reasons (for example, to actually dehumanize and degrade another person).  There are very few jokes that are structurally immoral, I think.  Think, for instance, of what the philosopher Noel Carroll calls “moron jokes,” which are jokes that defame or degrade a social out-group.  In Canada, Newfie jokes are the prime example of these.  I’m not sure if these are structurally immoral in the sense that you can swap out the “moron” group of the joke.  They are unpleasant, they are derisive, but they rely on an interchangability and basic humanity of the other in order for the joke to make any sense.

This is the basis of Plautine humour.  Plautus, the Roman playwright, knew that though we claim we want to see edifying and cultural drama, we really go in large numbers to see people falling on their arse.  More people would come to see Homer Simpson give a public talk than Professor Frink, both in the fictional Springfield and in the real world.  Making fun of other people is not structurally immoral in the sense that, if done right, you recognize that you are liable to be the person who is the butt of the joke next.  It puts all humanity in the same place: a buffoon incapable of doing the simplest of tasks.

There are jokes that are structurally  immoral, however, and the distinction is when there is no possibility of switching out the roles.  That is, as I just spent the past five years of my life talking about, one of the primary discoveries of feminism of the past 50 years was that the way that we gender in society is through certain narratives where men take on certain roles and women take on other roles.  Men are the active agents of narrative, women are the passive acted upon objects.  One of the logical conclusions of this narrative structuring of gender is that rape in particular works to gender us.  Men rape.  Women are raped.

Now we have recognized that this is how gender works, we can undermine the binary and men who have been raped by their partners or by strangers can come forward and give a name to their experience.  The work can happen now, but it was only possible through the recognition that the structure of rape is such that it feminizes the person who is being raped.  It forces that person into a certain gender position of victimhood and dehumanization.

So to come back to the joke.  If the narrative rape is structurally about the gendering of bodies, such that femininity is in part defined by the ability to be raped,then rape jokes can’t swap out individual groups and thereby make a claim to general human fallibility.  It merely reinscribes privilege.

The counter argument that I find particularly fascinating about the Tosh case is, IF he really wanted to make a joke about rape in order to test the boundaries of what can and cannot be joked about – then why didn’t he talk about being raped himself?

Why didn’t he say: “Wouldn’t it be funny if [I] got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped [me]…”?
There’s another possible counter to what I have just said and that is encapsulated in the video by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay “Thank You Hater!”
There, the tone is everything.  There we have moved into sarcasm, which upsets the structure of the rape joke altogether.  Part of what it is to be rape (an essential quality of it) is that it is an enforced dehumanization and an enforced feminization.  You can’t want it.  You can’t desire it.  Once you do, it ceases to be rape.  Indeed, to seek out objectification is a very complex position vis-a-vis one’s sexual identity (think BDSM).  In Fay’s song, she expresses regret that she won’t be raped in the eyes by the internet troll, and she plays with the gendering that comes with rape by presenting herself in a mid-1950s costume and song.  This is… to put it mildly, a bit more “meta” than what Tosh did.  Further, though it is related to Plautine humour where the interchangability of the object of derision is the point, this complicates that position by insisting on the humanity of the people who are putting themselves out there online.  The humour offered by the trolls is dehumanizing, while this song insists of feminine agency through irony.  (Can you tell I like this video?)

Structurally, rape jokes told by privileged white men against women… not funny.  Immoral.  Predicated on dehumanization and violence.

What about the other point noted above?  A joke can be told for an immoral reason?  In the case of Tosh, I wasn’t there and I don’t really want to get into specifics of supposed “context.”  Similarly, in the case of the Sarkeesian video game, I haven’t played it and I don’t want to.  So, does that undercut my position?  Not at all.

Even if we grant that the video game and what Tosh said are jokes or analogous to jokes, then you merely have to look to the larger cultural position to recognize that the work the jokes are doing is to dehumanize and assault a particular group.  If we would be (rightfully) upset at a joke that posited that it was funny to lynch a black man, why would we possibly accept that an analogous joke about a woman was somehow ok?

The cultural argument is, in some ways, the more obvious one to me, though undoubtedly there will be people out there who don’t see it.  North American culture is a culture/is a network of cultures that is/are biased against women acting as fully independent human beings.

So, I doubt anyone has read this far, but at least I got some of my thoughts down on “paper.”  Now, if anyone has any comments, please let me know.  Also, if you have any suggestions for my Comic Drama course, please drop me a line.

The links below are just a smattering of what I have found in the past few moments.  There’s a lot out there for you to learn more about this, if you are so inclined.
Tosh Links

Sarkeesian Links


3 thoughts on “The Limits of Humour

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