AI: Humor III: When it’s Offensive


In the last Humor AI, I asked what it was about slapstick comedy, awkwardness, or other negative situations that made them funny.  There was a really excellent comment on that post that made the point that people seem to use laughing at other people’s awkwardness or misfortune to distance themselves from it and/or to signify some understanding of the situation.

That plays directly into one of the places I’d intended to go with this series of posts – all of us have at some (probably far too many) points encountered humor (or “humor,” but strictly speaking since someone find it funny, the term applies here) targeting a marginalized group of some sort.  In the various activist blogospheres over the last few years, there’s been no shortage of discourse over misogynistic, homophobic, or otherwise offensive jokes, and what makes them offensive, and I wanted to talk a bit about the nuances involved in what makes jokes that touch on that sort of subject matter funny versus offensive. 

It is my intuition that the idea of creating distance between the joker and the joked-about is a major key to distinguishing between humor that’s funny for all involved and humor that ends up being offensive, but there’s a lot of nuance to that, and probably some other things at play.  So today I ask:

What sorts of humor really get under your skin, and how does the context affect that?  Is there any humor that gets directed at you that you find funny but that you know others might take offense to (even others taking offense on your behalf)?  What are the factors that can make the difference between something funny, something malicious, and something subtly harmful even though it seems innocuous to most?  And perhaps most importantly, how have you (or how would you) explained these things to someone who asked you?

P.S. – My initial image search for this post’s featured image and the associated rage made me realize I really should know better than to google “get back in the kitchen.”

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 3pm ET.

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  1. Though rape is never funny, I find rape culture jokes roll-on-the-floor hysterical. The examples are few and far between, but it takes the mind of a brilliant satirist to pull off effectively. Same goes for racist vs. racism jokes and so on. Pointing out the absurdity of bigotry is funny in ways that bigotry itself can’t be.

  2. I’m a Jew who’s laughed at holocaust jokes, when I know they’re intended in the spirit of humour rather than genuine desire to offend. I think the intent of the person telling the joke can make a huge difference. There’s also a certain level of distance which needs to be maintained from tragedy or atrocity in order for it to be the subject of humour in any sense approaching the appropriate, and the greater the distance the more appropriate it becomes; would anybody reading this be offended by a joke about the goths sacking Rome? I would guess few if any would.
    On a lighter note, I’m also Canadian, and I don’t know of a single Canadian who’s had anything harsher to say against jokes about us than “we actually pronounce it more like “a boat” than “a boot””.

  3. TBH, I tend to find most jokes at the expense of a marginalized group to be offensive. After being found to be “lacking a sense of humor,” certain people have taken it upon themselves to rectify the situation and desensitize me by directing sexist, ableist, racist, and homophobic jokes at me; in the process I have become less tolerant, or “oversensitive” and “too thin-skinned.” /shrug

  4. I don’t think theres any difference between what makes offensive and non-offensive humour funny, just the consequences of failure. If you think an offensive joke is funny, it’s not offensive to you and if you don’t then you don’t think it’s a joke. This dichotomy has very little to do with subject matter either, it’s no just for ‘obvious’ things like racism,sexism, etc. A good non-obvious example would be singular-they vs ‘non-standard’ genderless pronoun arguments where what one person sees as humourous another sees oppression of the worst kind.

    It’s often said that a joke isn’t funny if it needs to be explained, probably true. But that doesn’t mean an explanation/justification of the joke in question shouldn’t exist at least in theory, (I could write several essays explaining my opinion on the nuance of the humour in the music of Agoraphobic Nosebleed as an example, but it would be rather dull reading.)

    Putting aside the matters of timing, environment and difficulty getting sarcasm across on the Internet. Looking back on ‘offensive’ material I found funny at the time but somewhat regret now, it’s usually a joke that is several steps removed from the apparent justification. eg. You hear somebody lampoon the absurdity of racism with satire. Soon you are laughing at/telling other offensive jokes not because of the point, but because they remind you of that original joke. Then jokes that remind you of those jokes, and so on to the point where it’s impossible to illustrate the original, legitimate point… if it’s still there at all.

  5. John Waters once said something along the lines of, “Nothing is in bad taste, as long as it is funny.” As taste is subjective, I don’t believe there will ever be a consensus as to what is crossing the line and what is not crossing the line. Although I do believe that if someone made a truly funny joke at the expense of homosexuals, John Waters would laugh.

    Although I agree with this (to an extent), having spent a few years working with the developmentally disabled and also having taken some classes in the field of education that involved studying special education, I don’t find “retard” jokes funny anymore. But if someone told a joke at this group’s expense that was truly funny, would I laugh? I honestly cannot say-I can’t imagine what I can’t imagine, you know?

    As to how I have explained offensive humor to people, I have always detailed it terms of extremes and opposites. For example, I have known plenty of heterosexual men who make jokes with their friends about one or the other being gay. Are they homophobic? Possibly and often likely. But I like to think that sometimes it is about making fun of a person by illustrating what they are not.

    For example, having worked numerous times as a substitute teacher at a specific school, I got to know a number of the students. On more than one occasion with more than one shy/non-talkative student, I have made a friendly joke by telling the kid, “Will you stop yapping! Always yapping and talking! Do you ever stop talking!?!” Usually, this has gotten the student to smile and said student and his peers realize that I am not making fun of the shy/non-talkative student but that I am making a joke by flipping the reality of the situation.

    So with these hetero guys making gay jokes, are these types of jibes and humor offensive? Yes. Are they funny? Yeah, maybe, maybe not. Are they necessarily homophobic? Possibly, possibly not. And if a group of homosexuals make jokes with their homosexual friends about one or the other being heterosexual, are they being heterophobic or are they making a joke by illustrating an extreme or opposite, by suggesting that someone is behaving in a way that is contrary to their nature?

    And lastly, to illustrate this point a little further, I want to take a trip down memory lane, to a super bowl several years back where there was a Snickers commercial involving two greasy mechanics sharing a Snickers bar. As far as I remember, somehow these two manly men ended up sharing a Snickers bar and accidentally kissing, and being grossed out and embarrassed at having done so. I remember some LGBT advocacy groups being upset by this commercial, labeling it homophobic. I didn’t see it as such, I saw it as an example of two het guys doing something opposite/contrary to their nature and the humor I found in it wasn’t homophobic but plain old awkwardness.

    But what if we switched this commercial around a bit, to make it more relevant to the LGBT community? What if, instead of two manly men, we had a twink and a butch lesbian sharing a snickers bar and accidentally kissing? Most hetero people wouldn’t get the humor but would most LGBT individuals find it funny? I think some would….

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