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The Philosophy of a Controversial Joke

Isadora Mosch considers why we laugh at things that aren’t funny.

“Why can’t Helen Keller drive?
Because she’s a woman.”

I admit that laughing out loud when I heard this joke about the famous blind and deaf writer was not my finest moment – as a woman or as a decent human being. As soon as I stopped laughing, I came to a rather disturbing conclusion: either I was sexist against my own sex, or something else was going on that I was not fully aware of. I chose to investigate the latter option before spiraling downward. As a person whose career is centered around overanalyzing the details of my underwhelming life, an analysis of this joke was bound to happen eventually.

Discovering all the nuances that make a joke funny yet cringe-worthy, perhaps even morally repulsive and offensive, or even just layered and self-critical, is an unfunny business. We run the risk of sucking the humor from a joke after exposing its true nature. But this is a risk any philosopher worth her salt simply must take. Philosophers have to find out what the wizard looks like behind the curtain. It’s who we are.

Hypnotized Into Stupidly Laughing

One reason the Helen Keller joke may (at least at first) seem funny, is because the punch line is unexpected. According to this ‘incongruity theory’, humor arises “from the intersection of two incompatible scripts or frameworks in a given text” (Dannagal G. Young, ‘The Privileged Role of the Late-Night Joke’, Media Psychology, Vol. 11). This means that in order to initially think a joke is funny rather than appalling, the brain must be engaged enough to expect one ending, but then be surprised by a different, absurd ending. But why doesn’t the offensive nature of the joke halt my laughter dead in its tracks? Because the context or tone gives a ‘discounting cue’ that tells us the message being communicated does not need to be seriously engaged. A humorous tone also encourages us to anticipate a lighthearted, funny ending, regardless of the content. In order to stay in the good mood the joke creates for us in the first place, we expect a positive pay-off, even before fully comprehending the joke. And as I am likely demonstrating, any attempt to critically process a joke threatens to decrease that initial good mood. So the motivation to critique a joke is simply missing. In a sense, I was hypnotized into stupidly laughing upon hearing the Helen Keller joke simply because of the context and tone, not to mention the unexpected (that is, unexpectedly offensive) ending. That is, I laughed not because it was offensive, but because of how incongruous and unexpected the offense was. And my laughter bewitched me into forgetting (at least for a second) to analyze why I was laughing.

Deadpan comedy is an interesting foil to this theory. Here, the tone isn’t always humorous-sounding, so there is no discounting cue – yet we still laugh. With deadpan humor, we must first analyze a statement to decipher it as funny, thereby bypassing the knee-jerk, thoughtless reaction to a funny tone and lighthearted context. In the TV show The Office, sensitive idiot Michael Scott (Steve Carell) turns seriously to the camera and says, “There are certain topics off-limits to comedians: JFK, AIDS, and the Holocaust. The Lincoln Assassination just recently became funny: ‘I need to see this play like I need a hole in the head’. And I hope to someday live in a world where a person could tell a hilarious AIDS joke. It’s one of my dreams.” Comedy, Michael is seriously theorizing, can make a tragedy funny once enough time has passed. He wishes quite seriously to soon be able to acceptably joke about AIDS, implying that he hopes AIDS will someday be a distant tragedy. The sentiment is serious, even decent, and the incongruity of the joke about Lincoln followed by the comment about AIDS encourages the audience to laugh because we are critically engaged with his words.

Joking about a topic that was previously off the table enables us to discuss a real life problem without whispering or sugar-coating it. The late Joan Rivers explained, “by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you could look at it and deal with it. It was no longer something that you couldn’t discuss and had to whisper about. When you whisper about something, it’s too big and you can’t get it under control and take control of it” (‘With Age, Joan Rivers Learned to Say Anything’ at npr.org). Her intention behind joking about controversial topics was to clear the path to talk about these issues more, rather than joking in a way that makes the audience merely accept the punchline without engaging with the joke’s content.

So comedy can reveal serious issues. But it can just as easily obscure them by rendering them trivial. For example, Daniel Tosh regularily requests that his viewers send him online clips for him to air on his TV show Tosh.O. After once requesting for his male viewers to film themselves touching women’s ‘rolls’ [of fat] on their stomachs, he warned, “But be careful! Because they like to pretend like they don’t love it” (at cc.com). The point of Tosh’s request seems to be to infantilize women and objectify their bodies, whilst claiming that those who do not enjoy the ramifications of this just do not get the joke. The tone and context of this joke does not invite the audience to critically engage with it. It’s analogous to slapstick comedy, only instead of featuring clumsy or self-embarrassing acts, this joke focuses on publicizing men’s physical harassment and humiliation of women (surprised, involuntary participants), and the women’s supposed ‘overreactions’ to such harassment, without inviting commentary on it. Rather, he explicitly encourages his audience to help him showcase the supposedly irrational reactions to something he deems trivial and simply amusing. In effect, by trivializing the harassment, the audience is discouraged from talking openly about the objectification and physical harassment of women. So rather than even simply acknowledging the problems of sexual and physical abuse, he is apparently encouraging an environment in which these problems can thrive.

Making Conversation

Other comedians illustrate a more responsible attitude. During one of her stand up routines Wanda Sykes says this about abortion:

“I’m pro-choice. But the thing is, when you say you’re pro-choice it’s almost like pro-lifers hear something totally different. It’s like they hear you’re pro-abortion, which is ridiculous. That’s the worst decision a woman is ever faced with. Nobody is out wanting to have an abortion. Nobody’s pro-abortion. It’s not like women are out having abortion parties or anything. ‘Girls, let’s do something crazy! You thinking what I’m thinking?’” (Wanda Sykes: Sick and Tired DVD)

At first, Sykes seems to be doing something similar to Tosh – making light of an issue some people would refuse to talk about at all. But the difference is that rather than suppressing conversation she makes it a conversation by pointing out the absurdity of some peoples’ reactions to the issue.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele seem to have a similar discussion-oriented motive for their comedy routines. In one sketch, the world is taken over by zombies, and Key and Peele, both cast as black, are some of the only survivors. The zombies, all of whom are white, show no interest in eating them, and one zombie even rolls up the car window and locks the door as Key and Peele sneak by. It becomes apparent that the white zombies are racist. At first, they are outraged, but as they happen upon a group of black survivors having a fun-filled barbecue, they realize that this (importantly fictional) scenario is one in which racism actually works to their advantage (see ‘Racist Zombies’ at cc.com). Through this sketch they point out the absurdity in racism, rather than laughing at its victims’ ‘overreactions’.

Comedian Louis C.K. provokes his audience with borderline offensive slurs, but because of the context, tone, and his overall self-depreciation, the audience understands his comedy as self-loathing rather than hateful toward others: “I don’t stop eating when I’m full. The meal isn’t over when I’m full. It’s over when I hate myself” (Louis C.K.: Chewed Up, DVD). His statements about rape, sexism, racism, and elitism, do not eclipse the issues by encouraging the audience to laugh at something without thinking about it. Instead, he encourages the audience to realize the insanity, injustice, and bigotry in various mindsets. His punchlines require those recognitions:

“The male courage, traditionally speaking, is that he has decided to ask [out a woman]… And if she says yes, that’s her courage. And the courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine… How do women still go out with guys, when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women…You know what [men’s] number one threat is? Heart disease” (ibid).

C.K. does not gloss over the fact that women should be afraid of men sometimes; rather, it is the focus of his joke. He is using comedy to highlight a cultural and historical inequality. As a white male, C.K. runs the risk of commenting on topics from a privileged perspective, creating a barrier between him and the marginalized. Instead, he uses his perspective as a white man to challenge other people to reflect on their own privileges and actions. This directly contrasts with how Tosh enacts his privilege by minimizing atrocities: to him sexism is funny not because it is absurd, but because women supposedly overreact to sexist behavior. This ‘hate comedy’, as I call it, comes from a perspective of superiority, where the humor comes at the expense of other people. In this way, the viewer is encouraged to identify with the position of superiority rather than with the oppressed. Other comedians, such as C.K., Key and Peele, and Sykes, encourage us to identify with the victim and recognize the inequality and injustice of the position of privilege. Rather than trivializing and minimizing the absurdity in an institution or an event, they point to it and magnify it, opening the door for discussion.

Change The World While Laughing

I would not say it’s a comedian’s responsibility to encourage people to talk about controversial issues. However, it is the comedian’s responsibility to recognize his or her enormous power in affecting peoples’ attitudes and beliefs. To use one’s platform as a comedian to maintain oppressive advantages is reckless at best and an abuse of power at worst. On the other hand, to open a dialogue about taboo topics is a laudable, even honorable use of a comedian’s power.

What about the audience? What is our responsibility? After reflecting on the power of comedy, we must ask ourselves, should we laugh at hate comedy, now that we recognize its truly oppressive form?

Now, you might be thinking, “Can’t you just leave me alone while I laugh at a joke?” You might not want to think about the political ramifications of a joke. The point of a joke, you might think, shouldn’t be to change the world. But to this I reply: what better way is there to change the world than to do it while laughing?

© Isadora Mosch 2015

Isadora Mosch attended law school for a semester before realizing that philosophy was her true love; and that true love cannot be denied. She is now a fifth year PhD student in Philosophy writing on the philosophy of grief and other emotions at the University of Georgia.

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