I’m quite a fan of John Rogers, screenwriter, showrunner and comic author. Sure, he’s partly responsible for the Halle Berry Catwoman movie, but he also wrote the pilot for Global Frequency, the best TV show that was never made. He’s also a generally clever and interesting guy, whose blog is always worth a read. There are two of his posts in particular that I find myself referring to over and over again: there’s the one on writing action scenes that I’ve already mentioned here, and there’s this one on humour, written in response to the Don Imus controversy in 2007. Here’s the bit I always come back to:
Humorists don’t use jokes to establish power. We use jokes to steal power. We use jokes to steal power from the audience. We use jokes to steal power from smarter, better looking people. We use jokes to steal power from powerful men and women, politicians and celebrities. I do believe that this balance, these scales are hardwired into us culturally. This is why we tolerate celebrity-bashing humor — the comedian is our proxy in levelling the playing field. “Britney may be rich and beautiful but she’s still a redneck” … and therefore not better than I am. This is also why shock humor tends to work. The boundaries of polite, acceptable behaviour are set by society, which is immensely powerful. When you break those boundaries, you are stealing power from society at large. It does help, however, if you have a larger purpose in mind than petty larceny.
If we could arrange to have this printed out and mounted on every flat surface in the vicinity of every political cartoonist, maybe shit like this wouldn’t keep happening. Not just the cartoon, but the cartoonist’s defense – he’s “pushing the envelope” to avoid everything becoming too PC. No, he’s making a joke at the expense of hungry children and ethnic minorities. Let’s have a look at it in regards to the John Rogers quote above – is he taking power from the powerful? Is he bollocks.
The “shock humour” clause can be used as a defence of PC skewering, if that was what was really going on – if the butt of the joke was actually hand-wringing liberals, then he’d have a case. But is it? See above, re: bollocks.
I’m also a fan of Frankie Boyle, who’s humour is almost exclusively of this type. In most cases, even though he’s joking about horrible things – even when he’s joking about the victims of horrible things – his jokes actually are being made at the expense of the audience. His standup routines often contain moments where the audience makes “ooh, steady on” noises, which he’s always able to respond to with “you all laughed at [horrible thing A], but [horrible thing B] is too much now?!”
Making a joke about X isn’t the same as making fun of X, and it isn’t the same as saying that X is funny. As Frankie Boyle puts is, a joke is a proposition, a way of discussing something without necessarily advocating or agreeing with it*. Very often, humour that involves taboo topics works by juxtaposing the horrible topic against an inappropriate attitude or situation – the joke comes from the contrast, not the horribleness. If, as in the Daniel Tosh case, someone reacts to a joke by saying something like “rape is never funny”, you should be able to respond “of course it isn’t – that joke wouldn’t work if rape was funny; it works because rape is horrible”. If you can’t, then congratulations: you’re the arsehole.
Not as much as of an arsehole as writing a completely humourless post about humour, but well on your way there.
*As an aside, there’s a difference between defending something by saying “it’s a joke” and saying “it’s just a joke”. Jokes are not “just” anything; they’re art, they’re rhetoric, they can be powerful and affecting – implying that a joke is a fluffy bit of nothingness that can’t do harm is a bunch of crap.