Why is one joke funny and another not? “The Aristocrats” joke went from being a vaudeville staple to being a postmodern anti-joke (it’s so bad it’s funny). The joke goes something like this: “A family walks into a talent agency with a one-of-a-kind act. They put on a performance, containing all sorts of lewd acts (embellished greatly by the joke teller) for the talent agent. The talent agent, astounded by the act, asks ‘What do you call yourselves?’ the father of the family answers ‘The Aristocrats’, ba-dum-dum-ch.” Back in the days of vaudeville (early 1880s until the early 1930s) the very idea of aristocrats acting in anything less than a sophisticated manner, was comical.  In todays culture, we constantly see aristocrats acting in a manner that is beneath their social stature (Paris Hilton jumps to mind), so the idea is more commonplace than comical. Comedy has evolved alongside other cultural aspects to better suit the environment that surrounds it. Cultural evolution is a constant driving force that can not be stopped, so let’s try to steer the direction it goes in.

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Popular comedy today involves playing off of issues that are socially taboo. Unfortunately the very act of making light of these subjects makes them less taboo and more socially acceptable. So what is the solution? You could try to censor all media and force this change or, the longer term solution, try to create a culture in which a joke at the expense of women, is just not that funny. The Huffington Post recently ran an article called “I Witnessed Hollywood’s Sexism Firsthand — And Said Nothing”, about the author’s experience with sexist behavior at an Oscar party.  In every social situation there’s that person, or maybe it’s a few people, who try to liven up the event by acting like a misogynistic pig. Maybe they really are a pig, or maybe that’s the only way they know how to be funny. In either case, you need to decide how to deal with it.

Choice 1: Laugh along with them, to show how cool you are for going along with the crowd and in no way help to change anything. Choice 2: In a very loud and opinionated way tell the person (or people) at fault, how wrong they are. Then, give a lengthy lecture about how jokes like this hold women back, get deemed a buz kill and never get invited to another social situation again. These choices both suck. Society has given us no-win social protocols to deal with. After all, it’s okay to say anything, as long as your just joking, right? The only way to win in no-win situations is to cheat. Keep in mind, with every time you cheat there is a danger of getting caught and called out on your actions. The best way to successfully bypass the rules is to become a feminist ninja. No one sees the feminist ninja coming, he or she swoops in, makes their move and swoops out without being detected. So how can this be accomplished?

If you are a charismatic person, who is comfortable drawing attention to yourself, you can beat the braying jackasses at their own game. Comically belittle the misogynistic viewpoint, this is very fun and I recommend it to any one who ever has the opportunity. When you turn the tables around, these people become the ones afraid of slipping up and becoming social outcast, which is a nice change of pace.

Realistically, most people would not feel comfortable using this approach. To do this  takes a special kind of confidence that most of us don’t possess, and that’s okay. Maybe you simply say “I don’t think that’s very funny” and move on. Maybe you start a side conversation with someone else, who’s sympathetic to your views, in which you point out how comments like these are hurtful. An offhanded quip like “Thank God there are no children around to hear you say that” is a way to defer attention from your own discomfort, while still pointing out, what was said is not okay.  Use whatever comes naturally to you. Spend time considering your style, and while keeping that style in mind, play out some scenarios in your head. If enough people create an environment where misogyny is not accepted, we can steer our cultural evolution in a better direction.

So, the next time you’re at a party and someone tells an offensive joke like; “What do you tell a woman with 2 black eyes?”, how will you answer them?

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3 thoughts on “What Makes it Funny?

  1. “The only way to win in no-win situations is to cheat.”

    Lessons from Star Trek.

    I’d like to advise against Choice 2 because not only does it make you unpopular, it promotes another stereotype: Women, or liberals, or whatever label you receive in other people’s heads, are annoying and scary with their “social justice” rebukes.

    I know because it works on me. And then the jokes just get moved out of earshot of the scary social justice types.

  2. I think I should clarify something. My previous comment might have been misunderstood, because I have mixed feelings about this issue.

    On the one hand, I understand the offensiveness, and I think it should be communicated. I mean to help with that by giving feedback, because dialogue works better than monologue. (Observe how often monologues immediately precede demise in film. There’s got to be something to that.)

    But I also enjoy jokes that would be found offensive by others, if they heard them. I don’t believe that’s a reason to modify my sense of humor, although I know others disagree.

    So consider this the closest you’re likely to get to a reasonable response from the misogynist camp.

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