Afternoon Inqueery

AI: On Humour

Last week saw many international comedians make their way down under for Sydney’s Comedy Festival, and while I couldn’t really afford to catch their main acts, a friend of mine managed to score free tickets to a last-minute improv gig, which many of the visiting comedians were encouraged to participate in. I tagged along, not knowing what to expect but hoping for the best. The show turned out to be a traveling gig, the premise of it being comedians were provided with a phrase (often a non sequitor or absurd situation) that they then had to use as the basis of a joke as part of their ten-minute ‘set’. Sounds potentially interesting, I thought. ‘Gives you a clear view into the mind of a comic’, a tagline for the show read. Being a fan of comedy and an admirer of the skill and intellect it takes to be a stand-up comedian, I must admit I thought I was in for a bit of a treat. It turned out to not be exactly what I was expecting.

As it actually turns out, most comedians, when put under pressure will resort to doing whatever it takes to get a laugh out of most people, which in this case meant throwing women, people of colour, and the queer variety under the bus. Tom Ballard, an openly gay Australian comedian even remarked ‘I normally wouldn’t be saying these things, but they’re just all I seem to be able to come up with’ as he finished his set with a quip about how ‘women are crazy and black people are awful’, which was met with raucous laughter from the audience. Yes, I understand what he tried to say here but it still doesn’t take away the fact that he (and others) resorted to it. Is marginalising a whole group of people the easiest way to get a laugh out of an audience?

Many people I talk to would say that that’s where a lot of humour comes from and that it’s all in jest, why am I being such a stick in the mud, as I flash my PC police badge in their drunk-with-privilege eyes. But that’s not the kind of humour I appreciate. Give me Mitch Hedberg’s absurd observations of life any day, or the kind of comedy that highlights injustice and makes people see their own prejudices, like the stylings of Jamie Kilstein or Stuart Lee. What about you, dear readers?

Is it possible to be funny without resorting to stereotypes and not stepping on anyone’s toes? Do you have a favourite comedian that you appreciate for this reason? How do you feel about humour that does employ that device?

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Bip lives in Sydney, Australia, where she attempts to study how viruses work and hopes someone gives her a PhD for it. Apart from microscopic organisms, she also has a soft spot for animals, humans and robots. Bip was raised Muslim and female but is now skeptical of both.


  1. May 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm —

    It’s like when you meet people in cocktail party contexts. They learn one thing about you, and then they make the same joke that everyone makes, thinking that they’re being original. That may be adequate for some random person you just met, but surely comedians can do better. At best, a stereotype is an old and overused joke. There are plenty of ways to make fun of a group, so why always go for the same things over and over again?

    Actually in general I just don’t care for comedy, so whatevs.

  2. May 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm —

    I agree with you 110%. It’s a cheap laugh, and they know it. There’s a pool of research that suggests that jokes can do real damage to a cause. It trivializes and normalizes hatred in very dangerous ways. Let me see if I can find that paper I wrote….

    • May 3, 2012 at 5:08 pm —

      Found it! These two are pretty decent sources. I have a whole nine page review about sexism in culture that goes into a little more, if you’re inclined to read it. I find that when I have to say, “That joke’s not funny,” it’s easier to do when I’ve got some research to back me up.

      Nelson, T.D. (2006). The Psychology of Prejudice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

      Walsh, K.R., Furisch, E., & Jefferson, B.S. (2008). Beauty and the patriarchal beast:
      Gender roles in sitcoms featuring mismatched couples. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 369(3), 123-132.

  3. May 3, 2012 at 8:39 pm —

    I have long dreamed of doing a PhD on this very topic. (I will look up those research papers immediately!) Humour does have a lot to do with fear, and what could be more fearsome than negotiating delicate social situations around the minefield of prejudice and offense?

    I think stereotype humour (racist, sexist, etc.) is certainly the easiest at a pinch – but, certainly less effective and satisfying. It panders to a lot of in-group/out-group anxiety and appeals especially to people who are concerned about such things. For some this means racial comedy, for others cultural (like the Young Ones). It seems to me like the difference between reaching for a blunt instrument or a scalpel, but perhaps that is a poor analogy.

    Humour is one of those quirky human impulses that we don’t get to choose (like kink, in a way). We laugh at what we find funny and what we find funny is a reflection of ourselves, our experiences, and our culture. It’s pretty disappointing that Australians are still tickled by some pretty low-brow things, but I am sure there are low-brow comedians in every culture.

    (Personally, the comedy of early Mighty Boosh, Xavier Michaelides, Stuart Lee, and Monty Python tickle me a great deal.)

  4. May 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm —

    SMBC covered this last week:

    There is a certain usefulness in shared experience, but that doesn’t have to equate to hurtful stereotypes. Eddy Izzard will offend some Christians with his take on the Bible, but he also parodies fruit, cats, Hitler, Darth Vader, and his awkward adolescence.

  5. May 4, 2012 at 4:56 am —

    Oh man, do I dislike Tom Ballard. He performed at O-week at Sydney Uni and was just generally unpleasant. In the way he spoke it came across that the only sort of gay is a gay man and prattled on about being gay for a bit. Then, after clearly only addressing gay men in the audience for the past minute or two, asked if there were any gay people in the audience. My girlfriend and I just sat there through the awkwardness because he clearly wasn’t talking about us. Then later on our friends wanted to know why we hadn’t put our hands up. Ugh.

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