When is a joke funny? What makes it funny? Andrew O’Hehir from Salon says this question is “unresolvable and inherently subjective,” but from what I can tell, jokes as a very general rule get laughs when they illuminate something a lot of people think or experience but don’t feel they can talk about (“forbidden thoughts” as O’Hehir terms), when they mention something nobody thinks about but suddenly realizes is absolutely true (this is Ellen DeGeneres‘s specialty), or when they have the shocking-I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-that factor. We laugh when we are uncomfortable, when we can relate, when it’s surprising, when it soothes our anxiety, and all of this is healthy and good…usually. As they say, laughter is the best medicine. But does it cure the sickness or treat the symptoms? Arguably, either.
I’ll admit that I didn’t finish watching the Oscars this year because I wasn’t entertained by Seth MacFarlane‘s hosting. I can laugh at a good episode of Family Guy as much as the next person, but at the Academy Awards, a tradition of reverence and anticipation for me, Seth’s jokes were distracting and disturbing and made me confused and suspicious about his intentions. I was not the only one. Reviews of his performance were largely critical, calling him tasteless and offensive. Others found his comedy hugely entertaining but did not specify why. After reading several reviews from both perspectives, I have come to realize that MacFarlane was not in fact ridiculing the butt of his jokes (women, Jews, LGBT, etc.) or encouraging unfortunate institutions (rape, domestic violence, racism, etc.). He was ridiculing the society in which these institutions and disdain for these groups exist. He was attempting satire.
Satire is a wonderfully appropriate form of comedy for this day and age (with Stephen Colbert as the rightful king, followed closely by David Sedaris), but it is also a finely tuned science of subtlety and sarcasm. In order for satire to really work it has to be undeniable, nearly impossible to mistake as genuine, but also subtle and smart. In order for that to work, the context usually has to prime an audience with expectation. On shows like Family Guy and The Colbert Report, where the entire point is satire and everybody is watching for the same reason, it works like a charm. Anywhere else and you are treading on tricky ground, littered with spoken words and unspoken meanings.
Context assists clarity, and clarity means everything in distinguishing between good, effective satire and bad, ineffective satire. Good satire is only funny if you agree with the social criticism it is making; if you don’t already agree, good satire makes you annoyed or it makes you think. If you agree with the social criticism it is attempting to make, bad satire can make you laugh because you hear what you expect and want to hear; bad satire also makes you laugh even if you disagree, because you hear what you expect and want to hear.
Good satire is an excellent political and social tool, simultaneously easing tension for some and stimulating minds for others. Where good satire might help cure the disease it refers to, bad satire only serves to treat the symptoms while feeding the virus.
Here is a short video with several snippets of MacFarlane’s performance:
On this dangerously slippery slope where spoken words and unspoken meanings intermittently collide and overlap, adding laughter to the mix is like sloshing a bucket of soap suds down the hill. Laughter produces endorphins that elevate our mood, relaxing us, reducing pain, and generally making us feel good. The physical sensation is what does it, and laughter plays a huge role in our lives. We have pleasant associations with things that make us laugh.
What does that say about the effect of mean comedy, bad satire, and jokes which belittle people and groups? If we laugh, we will feel good and reduce pain, leaving a happy and pleasant association with the joke in our minds, even rape jokes, domestic violence jokes, Holocaust jokes, jokes which demean or sexualize women, etc.
In her excellent review, Victoria A. Brownworth of The Advocate writes that Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance drew attention to and called out Hollywood for its own sexism and problematic double standards. She takes the almost unique position of defending MacFarlane, who is a staunch women’s rights and LGBT supporter in his own personal life, and pointing to his satire. In her conclusion she writes:
Maybe MacFarlane was just a messenger. And the message actually is coming from us. No wonder we’re upset.
I think her position is understandable and I agree that MacFarlane’s intentions were pure and his attempt honorable, but not everybody fully recognized the satire in his jokes, and instead just found the jokes funny because they are in the vein of most popular comedy, which is often shocking and mean.
Based on the overwhelming criticism and undefined approval, MacFarlane’s Oscar performance was full of bad satire. Regardless of his good intentions, his performance lacked clarity in a context which demands it. The majority of people either thought his humor was tasteless and offensive, or they thought it was hilarious without explaining why. Both are signs of poor communication of satire.
We need to be more careful about the jokes we tell and hear. I understand the value of laughter in easing the tension of maintaining constant “political correctness,” but laughing without thinking might only reinforce the institutions and standards which make life without laughter seem unbearable. Laughter is medicine that will treat the symptoms of our patriarchal and troubled society, but laughing at bad satire and mean jokes without thinking will only feed the virus which invites medicinal laughter in the first place. Thinking about why something is funny is the first step to making sure it doesn’t feed the virus. Understanding why will help us examine our comfort zones, our forbidden thoughts, and our shock reflexes. What is normal and what is shocking, and how do the jokes we laugh at and repeat inform those perspectives?
Let’s keep laughter healthy, not just for our bodies, but for our minds.
- You do realize that satire is often meant to make you feel uncomfortable, right? (shesaidwhaaaaat.wordpress.com)
- Be careful and watchful of your words (transientreflections.com)
- I’ll tell you what’s funny (salon.com)