We can't take a joke anymore: The inflated dangers of pushing the envelope and crossing the line

The humble gag has become a ticking bomb in the age of the Internet. Here's why humor has become so fraught

Published April 8, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Chris Pizzello/Comedy Central/Charles Sykes/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Chris Pizzello/Comedy Central/Charles Sykes/Photo montage by Salon)

I won't start by asking if you've heard the one about the comic whose four-year-old tweets came back to bite him in the ass. That would be a lame, jokey way to begin a discussion of lame jokes, and lately we've decided to take jokes very, very seriously indeed. Whether we are the American Jewish Congress -- denouncing Trevor Noah, the new host of "The Daily Show," as a "sexist anti-semite" -- or Patton Oswalt -- defending Noah with a series of 53 tweets forming a labored parody of the contortions today's jokesters must undergo to avoid offending anyone -- we have loaded down one of the humblest forms of literature with some pretty heavy baggage.

How did the joke become so fraught, so potentially combustible? It's not just the professionally funny who stand in peril of getting burned. The week before Noah's stupid tweets came to light, author Jon Ronson had been making the rounds, talking about his new book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." Several of the most egregious examples he found featured ordinary people whose lives were wrecked by social media, all for the sin of cracking bad jokes.

Most notoriously, there was publicist Justine Sacco, who, trying to make fun of the attitudes many clueless, privileged white Westerners hold toward Africans, ended up being mistaken for the very sort of person she intended to mock. And then there was poor Lindsey Stone, a caregiver for adults with learning difficulties who had a running joke with a friend where they took goofy photos of themselves in front of signs, disobeying whatever the sign ordered the public to do. After posing next to such a sign at Arlington National Cemetery, she somehow ended up serving as the symbol, to countless irate souls across the Internet, of a "dumb feminist" who "hates soldiers." Both Sacco and Stone lost their jobs as a result.

The Noah controversy prompted scads of people to remark that they were more dismayed at the unfunniness of Noah's tweets than by the fact that he had trafficked in stereotypes about Jews or had, with bro-ish cruelty, disparaged "fat chicks." But this is not the least bit surprising; almost all jokes that cause such uproars are bad jokes -- with the possible exception of those whose offense consists entirely of the use of forbidden words. In "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag wrote that in pure camp "the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails." With offensive jokes -- the quintessential example being the case of Earl L. Butz, forced to resign from his post of secretary of agriculture in 1976 after he was overheard making a racist jibe on an airplane -- the essential element is hilarity that fails.

Jim Holt, author of the valuable treatise "Stop Me if You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes," has a theory about why it is always the worst jokes that cause the most trouble for their tellers. Such jokes, he told me, "barely aspire to the status of a joke at all." Butz, for example, listed three crude physical desires that he claimed were all that was needed to satisfy black voters. As Holt writes, only the three-part structure indicated any attempt at wit; beyond that, this "joke" was "merely a clumsy enumeration of racist stereotypes."

By contrast, a competent joke presents an "incongruity" -- what philosophers consider the foundation of all humor -- and then, in an instant, prompts us to reconcile it in our own minds with a clever resolution. We laugh with pleasure at the leap we make ourselves, whether we do it by recognizing the multiple meanings of words -- "Have you taken a bath?" "Why, is one missing?" -- or a variety of human folly -- "Pretentious? Moi?" -- or a combination of the two: "Take my wife ... Please." One example Holt uses in "Stop Me if You've Heard This," is a remark Ronald Reagan made when journalists challenged his position on abortion rights: "I notice that everyone in favor of abortion has already been born."

The quip, Holt writes, compels those who hear it, just for a moment, to "switch to the assumption that there are two kinds of people: the born and the unborn -- which is exactly the way that opponents of abortion like to see the issue framed.” The trick is that, on a cognitive level, the hearers are "more likely to accept the incongruity-resolving proposition because it feels like a conclusion they deduced for themselves."

In other words, good jokes, even when we don't agree with them, bamboozle us into momentarily feeling as if they're partly our own ideas. When those jokes are unfair or prejudicial, they implicate us by calling forth the biases almost everyone has lurking in the darker sectors of his or her psyche. They're the jokes about which we say, "It's funny because it's true," even if the only truth in it is our own evil inclinations. The comedians who now specialize in this form of humor -- Sarah Silverman is a good example -- excel at walking a razor's edge between indulging our worst urges for the sheer transgressive thrill of it and holding them up for ridicule.

Bad jokes, on the other hand, register as entirely someone else's doltish stereotype or maliciousness. Noah's gags about Jewish women refusing to perform fellatio or "fat chicks" hoping men will become drunk enough to sleep with them are unclever clichés, and mean-spirited on top of that. We recognize them as the mental furniture of an unimaginative bully. Probably there is a troglodyte somewhere who thinks Noah's early jokes are funny, but that's not the audience for "The Daily Show," and certainly not the crowd that welcomed Noah, a young, biracial South African, as the brave new face of liberalish TV comedy.

That's the other thing about jokes that makes them so volatile at the present moment: their potent ability to define who belongs and who doesn't. The most glaring form of exclusionary joke is the racist sort -- Earl Butz again, making a remark defined by the assumption that the people around him, a contingent en route to the Republican National Convention, not only included no blacks, but also included no one who would repeat what he said. He was wrong about the latter, and like so many miscalculating would-be jesters, he paid dearly for it.

As everybody knows, however, virtually the same joke can be received as uproarious when told by a member of one group and offensive when told by a member of another, although how a joke plays also depends on whom it's told to. Blacks, women and other disadvantaged or marginalized people claim a license to talk trash about themselves, a license not granted to whites and men. But since the very idea of a prohibition on certain subjects tends to incite the bad-boy leanings of many comics, there will always be controversies over self-styled rebels, comedians like Dane Cook, whose entire shtick depends on their audience's puerile delight at imagining legions of shocked schoolmarms. That vein of humor becomes not only a badge of identity for the people who embrace it, but an opportunity to portray themselves as wronged and oppressed by the very people they're accused of wronging and oppressing.

Lindsey Stone's silly joke of being photographed disobeying signs, on the other hand, was intended for an audience of one: the friend who shared that hobby with her. The pleasure both women got from the gag had less to do with its actually funniness -- Stone herself described it as "dumb" -- than with camaraderie the pair got from swapping the pictures. The whole point of in-jokes is that they make you feel that you're in. But it's the point of plenty of other jokes as well.

So much of the defense of Noah has to do with the ostensible role of the comic as social gadfly, breaker of rules and challenger of limits. In the statement it issued on behalf of Noah, Comedy Central, the cable channel that produces "The Daily Show," asserted that their new hire "pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included." That's meant to sound heroic, but it also jibes uncomfortably with Freud's theory, laid out in "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," that comedy, like dreams, provides an outlet for suppressed and unacceptable impulses, always either aggressive or erotic. It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to perceive that comedy, particularly stand-up, is often a carnival of barely suppressed -- or gleefully flaunted -- rage, not all of it directed at fighting the good fight.

What we less often acknowledge is comedy's role in binding people together socially. A joke, with its doubled and layered meanings, relies on the teller and her hearers sharing a dense network of values and conventions, beginning with the most basic one: speaking the same language. As bad as it feels to be the butt of a joke, it can feel just as bad not to get it all, to be the outsider who misses the references and has no idea what's going on. In addition to making people laugh, jokes define the parameters of a community, which is one reason why Jewish humor -- the jokes of a people who for generations have sought to preserve their distinct identity while living, often precariously, inside other societies -- has flourished so spectacularly.

Jewish comedy now permeates Western culture so completely that most gentiles do get it, and as a result sometimes think of themselves, when it comes to jokes, as honorary Jews of a sort. One defense of Noah against charges of anti-Semitism points out that he belongs to the tradition too, because his mother is half-Jewish. This isn't terribly convincing. The idea of Noah as a sort of Jewish comedian is almost more insulting than the stereotypes he trafficked in. Surely, if he were Jewish, he'd be a lot funnier about Jews?

More common is the argument that Noah deserves extra forgiveness for his offensive jokes because he belongs to one of history's most persecuted out-groups: South African blacks. Because these arguments tend to go no further than that observation -- as if its merits were self-evident -- we can only guess what's being implied. That the need for racial diversity in late-night comedy programming trumps the need for a host with no public history of other prejudices? That it's impossible for a discriminated-against, and therefore Good, person also to be a discriminator, and therefore Bad? There's a tragic naiveté to this conviction that suffering prejudice somehow inoculates someone against harboring prejudices against others; it simply isn't true.

Noah's biggest critics, however, are people who already dislike the liberal slant of "The Daily Show" and are cynically jumping on the opportunity to scold the left's new darling the way the left has scolded theirs. Who doesn't relish giving the other side a taste of its own medicine, garnished with accusations of hypocrisy? "The Daily Show" and its spinoff "The Colbert Report" have transformed the landscape of American humor, not by cracking political jokes -- which have been around forever -- but by making humor and satire the primary lens through which millions of Americans view politics and the news. Their jokes have formed yet another kind of community, one founded on taste and sensibility rather than race, faith or gender.

Apparently, at some point Noah thought someone would find those tweets funny, and you do have to wonder who he thought that might be so if they actually exist we can stay as far away from them as possible. It's on social media today that all of our swirling identities collide. Quips and silly photos, intended for one particular group of insiders, drift free of their original social context and become lodged like errant blood clots in exactly the wrong places, wreaking havoc. Arbiters debate whether privileged people have the right to satirize the bigotry of other privileged people because their mockery might fall into the hands of true bigots who will cluelessly view it as approval.

No one knows whom they're talking to now, or who'll end up hearing what they've said in the future. Can they count on their listeners being One of Us, capable of picking up the subtleties that make humor work, the shared references, the layered meanings, those cognitive leaps that bring us so much delight? Probably not. To tell a joke is to assume we have something in common, and for all our high-tech interconnections, that may be the biggest gaffe of all.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Books Comedy Humor Jim Holt The Daily Show Trevor Noah