“Don’t you know what a joke is??”
“It’s JUST a joke” is an odd phrase. “Just” in this case is generally used dismissively, as in “something not worth talking about”. Which means the sentence translates to “The thing I just said is not actually worth the words I used to say it, in fact it’s not even worth enough to hear or in any way think about, but I said it all the same.” It’s oddly self-effacing. If the joke was told, and when challenged has to be defended, or even clarified, then it overtly isn’t irrelivant. It’s also not ‘less than normal conversation’ or ‘less than something serious’ first because the speaker, yanno, said it, but also because we seriously spend a shit-ton (1400lbs) of internets talking about when jokes are and are not ‘funny’. G’head, yoohoogle “Louis CK isn’t funny”, “Bob’s Burgers sucks”, “Adam Sandler sucks”, “Stephen Fry is stupid”.
People go on seemingly endlessly about why this or that isn’t funny. Which means “It’s just a joke” should actually be “It clearly wasn’t a joke, it was an attempt, but apparently it wasn’t funny to someone so I need to diminish their opinion to make their critique meaningless.” Or, “It was a joke to me, but not you, so I need you to be wrong about stuff so you can be wrong about this, and if I can kinda imply your sense of humor is the problem it’s completely your fault and that’s even better!”
One example of thousands is when Sarah Silverman came under extreme criticism for a joke she told on Conan O’Brien. The joke was revisited in 2001 but had originated several years before. She was called out by Guy Aoki for it, and both appeared on an episode of “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher to discuss the context of the joke and their various takes on its interpretive value.
As she tells it, the joke is fairly simple: “I was filling out a form for Jury Duty, and I didn’t want to be on a jury but I didn’t want to lie on the form. A friend of mine said ‘Just write “I hate chinks”.’ But that sounded pretty awful to me, so I thought about it and I was smart, I wrote ‘I LOVE chinks’. See? Smart!” Silverman asserted it was a satirical examination of racism, Aoki countered that it would be satire if it had been “done better”. Maher asked for an example of how that was possible from Aoki, and the conversation quickly dissolved into a shouting match.
In order to truly pull apart the joke it is necessary first to say that Aoki was not wrong that the term “chink” has been used to the present as a pretty strong slur. In fact, only a few weeks before the taping of that “Politically Incorrect” episode a Southeast Asian teen had been killed in California and the word “chink” appeared scrawled near his body. As recently as 2012 groups of men were tweeting about killing Asians after watching the movie “Red Dawn”. Truly, the slur and it’s use as a tool of oppressive racism and bigoted violence was a key component of his objection, and he was fully justified in that aspect of his assertions. The trouble is it became the focal point of most of the ensuing debate (read: yelling orgy) and that’s why I think this deserves another look in a less heated climate. At this point the joke is nearly 20 years old.
The key to the argument, was the assertion several times that it was “…just a joke…”. This is a similar argument to men who make rape jokes and excuse it, or gay jokes. It is hard to dispute as truly the intention of any joke is to make someone laugh (a key point that will be revisited later in this post). What is also interesting about the Silverman example is that the original Conan joke, in Silverman’s stand-up, had variously also used the word “nigger” and black SAG activist Ann-Marie Johnson was also on the panel that night.
Johnson provided another perspective on the subject of slurs and their power perhaps; but it left the situation to one of “Oppressed Minorities vs. Whitey” on a show already designed to maximize studio reactions to quips and short retorts not thoughtful analysis, which almost never ends well.
I think I should also preemptively defend myself in that I have no desire to kill the joke. First because it’s already dead, but second I am interested in how it got broken down then, and how potentially offensive jokes are used in a variety of social and public venues now. Everyone on the panel agreed that it was appropriate to dissect the joke and its presence in the wider discussion of race or oppression more broadly.
There’s no point in saying they were killing the joke by taking it apart or I’m doing so now, they all agreed that was appropriate and that the issues surrounding the joke were illustrative of important issues in American culture. Plus it’s not hard to find discussions and think-pieces and editorials (literally hundreds) on the phrase “But what if the joke wasn’t/was funny”.
My final reason for contributing to the massive bulk of what’s available on the subject of offensive humor is that I’ve found breaking down the true issues surrounding the defense of “it’s just a joke” isn’t actually done all that often. “It’s a joke” is deployed, the discussion quickly turns to whether or not it actually qualifies as a joke, which begins the death spiral of everyone competing with each other on whether or not it’s funny.
It’s worth trying to question not whether or not something IS a joke, but what is meant when someone SAYS it’s a joke. The exchanges that resulted on that long-ago episode of “Politically Incorrect” provide several insights to flesh out the core of several concepts in the phrase “It’s just a joke” and how they operate.
Finally, to the question of whether or not Silverman should simply shut up with using bigoted terms as Aoki suggested (I think somewhat cavalierly), meaning perhaps Silverman should only be allowed to tell jokes about her own people. Maher answered such a suggested limit is antithetical to comedy. Humor is decontextualized and it is essentially telling truth to power so any comedian can tell whatever joke they wish and if it falls flat then that’s the way it is.
David Spade agreed with Maher, using the examples of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and how their humor and coarse language was considered extremely offensive at the time and is now referenced as ground-breaking. Spade concluded “…all comedy is a risk”. I will break that down too, whether or not ‘humor’ is ever free from scrutiny and if calling something a “joke” becomes Carte Blanche to do and say whatever the hell someone wants. If there truly are limits, how best to find them and apply them?
“Has Your ‘Black Friend’ Actually Given You Permission…?”
The very first issue that has to be considered is the word “chink” itself. How is it applied within the body of the joke, the intention? Silverman eventually eluded to the idea she was using satire to high-light how people can sincerely believe they’re not being racist when they talk about their ‘black friend’ even though they probably are. The proof being that “I love chinks” is really damn racist, even if it’s sincere, perhaps especially if it’s sincere.
That quickly rounded to a discussion of the power of racial slurs at which point Maher utilized a common response that “Blacks call each other ‘nigga’ all the time, why can’t I?” That argument has been discussed on this blog as well as many others.
I won’t revisit my earlier explorations into power and the word “Nigger” except to ask essentially the same question Johnson did, which is “…why would you want to??” More specifically, doesn’t the very fact you’re demanding that ‘right’ from the people you want to use it against prove it’s basically insulting? It proves you’ve got more power than the people you’re using the term against. It’s clear you’re not within a category ‘they’ recognize as already having permission. Johnson even said “I love it when white people try to ‘define’ blacks. I think I’m the one who gets to define that for myself.” Meaning she also gets to define who is and is not allowed to call her ‘nigga’.
Which is a key issue, by using the word “Nigger” when it’s clearly inappropriate, it’s a power play. Silverman admitted that overtly, and the joke depends on it being present even if unstated. Johnson and Silverman may not have intended to suggest the One-Drop Rules and The Paper Genocide of the previous centuries but the historical antecedents are definitely present in the attitude. There’s white and there’s “not-white” and that unspoken line is still there even if unspoken. Which means when the line is given voice it can be extremely jarring.
Maher, if anything, emphasizes Johnson’s point by saying “If you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t even know you were ‘black’.” Hopefully his statement was unconscious, but it did double-down on the very line Silverman’s joke is pointing, and the very “What gives you the right to ‘decide’ if I’m black or not?” dominant position that ticked Johnson off.
The point that ‘black’ is something less-than or ‘other’ and that the person with the palest skin in the room has a valid claim to determination is steeped in historic bigotry. In this way unfortunately, Johnson and Silverman completely agreed. I say “unfortunately” because they couldn’t hear it in each other. One is reminded of John McCain years later drawing a similar contrast of soon-to-be President Obama by saying “He’s not an Arab, he’s a decent family man….” As if the two are mutually exclusive.
Maher seems to also forget the details of his own industry by saying “It’s in every song. Nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga, it’s in every song!” Perhaps, but those songs are released primarily on white-owned labels to predominantly non-black audiences. Going by that standard, Al Jolson is the greatest black singer of all time and should be counted as a resource on the Black Experience.
Which is exactly the objection Johnson is raising, and exactly the mock Silverman is making. You’re not ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ just because you paint your face or because you have black friends, or even because you think you can use a word like “chink” or “nigger” with impunity. ‘Blackness’, like any cultural construct is a collection of experiences that span a life-time and a social environment.
Part of any social identity is being able to recognize membership of one’s self and it being reciprocated by fellows. No one ever thought Jolson was black, he ‘played’ black, just like Silverman’s comic character ‘plays’ at being racially clever. In so doing, just like Jolson’s Sambo character, it highlights how pervasive the racism was, not how enlightened the performer is.
“Just because YOU didn’t laugh…”
So why don’t women have a sense of humor? Rape is fricken hilarious! Look at any college frat, they think rape is the funniest thing ever, it must be because they’re chicks. Maybe it’s genetic…
A central aspect of humor is camaraderie. It should come as no surprise that us anthropologists have spent some time breaking down what exactly ‘humor’ is cross-culturally and how different jokes play to different audiences. The simple truth is there’s almost no such thing as a Universal Joke. Although Charlie Chaplin is about as close as it gets.
There are generalities though, like walking up behind someone and making a loud noise. Or seeing someone trip over something. Humiliation of self and others is one of the most common forms of humor throughout the world.
Erving Goffman described mean jokes as “Denigration Ceremonies” and they appear all over the world. The classic Leprechaun tales are a good example. The Daribi of New Guinea have children bury empty boxes in the ground with promises they’ll fill with treasure. The Southeastern Woodland tribes of the US and the Ndembu of Zambia using masks to scare the bjezuses out of each other.
There’s tons of theories about why that’s funny to us as a species, everything from self-congratulation at having not done the very thing the other person just did, to a psychological tension release over a sense of understanding the other person’s pain (which then relates to our own pain, eventually forcing us to push the pain away with a a sense of gratitude that they’re hurting not us). Which is all fine and good, except that’s incredibly technical and not very helpful. The fact is, we laugh at such things, a lot. So let’s look less at why the human brain is wired that way and focus on the fact it is.
Slap-stick is about as far back as we can get. It’s in the oldest theatrical documents we have available and it’s all over the place. That’s actually where ‘satire’ comes from. The Ancient Greeks invented a form of bawdy humor that took common ideas and items and blew them so out of proportion to reality that they were only barely recognizable. The characters in the play are humiliated by the audience watching the performers and seeing them try to perform their daily lives with such over-the-top nonsense constantly getting in the way.
Eventually their whole world falls apart as the ever expanding absurdities compound into one giant mess. The ‘funny’ was in the exaggeration of things that we take for granted in our daily lives. It was the playwright saying to the audience “See what idiots we must look like to aliens?” and the audience responding basically, “Yep, we probably do look like total idiots, but that’s the way it is.” Chuckle chuckle, guy falls over chair, fart joke, end scene.
Plato’s “Symposium”, for example, does not do subtle humor. One joke in the piece is that the banquet everyone is attending is hosted by a wealthy man so concerned with displaying his wealth that the silverware at the dining table is too heavy to lift.
In the Aristophanes play “Thesmophoriazusae” an older man dresses as a woman infiltrates a women’s only festival and is turned in to the authorities by an effeminate gay man also dressed as a woman such that the straight man has to be ‘rescued’ by his friend from the clutches of the Athenian authorities. The straight man’s friend does so by repeatedly swooping in on a crane, wearing various disguises from other plays such as Andromeda and Helen of Troy. That’s not even the main scene of the play and it’s considered one of Aristophanes’ greatest works. Suck on that “Twelfth Night”.
So the reason frat guys laugh at stupid shit is because it’s stupid shit they’ve all done, or similar to what they’ve all done. They’re performing their own Greek Satire. They’re mocking themselves, but they’re also emphasizing their own group cohesion and shared identity. Since a key aspect of that identity is that women are something outside of their circle, the humor is often directed at the things which are outside their circle, which includes women. That their humor is often extremely sexual hints at the fact that though they’re in, literally, an ‘All Boys Club’ they still want to date women, and they want to have relationships with women.
Which means there’s a disconnect between their desire for women and their desire for the camaraderie of their fellows. Their humor reflects the fact that they want to dominate their lives, which results in a lot of domination jokes. The women which are already in the jokes easily become the victims of their humor. I am not justifying rape, I am saying why the jokes might exist.
It’s worth saying that to an Ancient Greek, what Sarah Silverman did wasn’t satire, hell “Some Like It Hot” isn’t. To an Ancient Greek, “South Park” is satire and only barely. Some may claim that’s because ‘Satire’ has evolved. Except it hasn’t. “South Park” is still around, frat boys still do stupid shit and post it to YouTube, and “America’s Funniest Home” Videos is into it’s 40th season or whatever… The third installment of the “Jackass” films, themselves a spin-off of the hugely successful MTV show “Jackass”, came out in 2010. The show celebrated grown men hitting each other with hammers, crashing bodily into cars, and getting run over by stampeding bison.
By that standard, if Silverman were truly attempting satire and using exaggeration to high-light vice or stupidity the joke’s punchline would have been “So I wrote ‘I fucking love all the niggers, chinks, spicks, faggots… And all those retards that get caught buying drugs!’. See? I’m not a bigot, I’m smart…” But that’s not what Silverman did, probably because she knows the people she’s catering to wouldn’t be all that impressed.
It’s likely, given Silverman’s standard audience (like the “Conan O’Brien Show”, or “Politically Incorrect”) that approach would have been treated as ham-fisted, even crude and simplistic. Her audience could well have been insulted by that approach not because they felt she was highlighting something they do and mocking them for it, but because she was directly insulting their intelligence at suggesting they wouldn’t get a subtler joke.
Telling it that way would change the very essence of the joke. Instead of being about covert and passive racism, it would be about mocking people who are thoughtless and belligerent. It may actually be that Aoki was failing to notice a key aspect of the joke as she originally told it: who ended up laughing and who did she intend to laugh?
“What if that’s not actually the joke you told?”
The problem with Silverman being expected to ‘do satire better’ is that had she done the satire ‘better’ it wouldn’t actually be the joke she was making. The joke she was making, or at least the joke she said she was making, was against people who use veiled racist comments to excuse themselves from being counted among the ‘true’ racists of the world. When really they’re all racists one’s just ‘cleverer’ about it and therefore gets away with it more often.
In that sense Silverman’s actually making a scathing critique of people who say things like “Post Racial America”, because she’s emphasizing that’s just bigotry in a new and more pervasive, destructive form. It’s the illusion of enlightenment at the expense of entire cultures to not be regularly insulted just so you can feel better about yourself and use them to emphasize your own open-mindedness.
If she told the joke Aoki wants her to tell, the one that emphasizes that “chink” is derogatory and she knows that, it’s a different joke. Ultimately, if she tells the more Ancient Greek satirical joke, the one that points to the punchline and sign-posts, “Punchline here, this is the punchline! This is where I say something I don’t actually believe in order to make fun of people who do this!!!” She’d be mocking people who are loudly and obviously racist and then deny being racist out of sheer bloody-mindedness. She wouldn’t be mocking the other kind of racist, the one who says “They don’t see color” and are therefore ‘allowed’ to call people whatever they want.
Silverman’s making a joke at the expense of veiled language, of intellectual dishonesty. She’s making a joke at the expense of Maher, who says things like “The word nigger is in rap music so I can call you that because it’s okay now.” I’m driven to wonder if, on some level, Aoki is angry not so much because the joke had the word “chink” in it (though I’m certain that’s a factor), as much as he’s angry that Maher and people like Maher sitting right there and talking about the joke didn’t get that the joke was on them.
In that case his true contention with Silverman is not, in fact, that her joke was inexpert. His trouble is that her joke reveals something even he wrestles with articulating adequately, so much so it becomes necessary to guess at what his true frustration is from the fragments and half-finished thoughts of the remainder of the cross-fire.
When Maher challenges him to express what would be a “good” version of the joke Aoki is flummoxed. He ends up looking like he’s expecting an impossible standard. Which is why Spade reacted by saying that comedy was “risk”, and Maher jumped on the idea of telling truth to power. They were both trying to fend off the inevitable idea of censoring humor over hurt feelings.
I think their anticipation was premature but I also think Aoki’s stuttering was sincere rather than thoughtless. I don’t think Aoki was genuinely expecting there be some arbitrary limit on what jokes can be told and when. I think he simply had trouble articulating that he felt the joke wasn’t funny and could have been done better, not because he didn’t laugh, but because he felt on some visceral level that Maher and others weren’t laughing for the right reason.
The only reason Aoki could readily find was that it felt like the joke was too easy, like it was punching a kid already at a disadvantage. Which meant the only solution he’s able to offer, the only way they would be made to laugh at the joke for the ‘right’ reason, would be for her to tell a different joke. In short, Aoki isn’t mad the joke didn’t “land”, he’s frustrated that it didn’t hit what he thinks it should be aiming for: The Bully.
The fact that Maher, and people who say things like “You say Nigger, why can’t I??”, the fact that The Bully wasn’t getting the joke, that it was even possible The Bully was TELLING the joke, put Aoki in an impossible situation. He was left with trying to convince The Bully the joke he just laughed at shouldn’t actually be funny to him, it should be funny to the victims. But The Victim isn’t laughing and The Bully is, so clearly something went wrong.
By the same token, Aoki may have himself missed the fact that The Bully, in this case Silverman, was actually laughing at the joke in a sense of self-reflexive irony. The ‘funny’ being The Bully truly hoped The Victim would laugh along with The Bully for finally realizing something about themselves. I certainly don’t hope to speak for Aoki, or Silverman, I’m trying to use only the arguments they offered during that episode to pull apart, but my simple answer to the question, “Isn’t it funny how I just realized this about myself?” is, “I’ll laugh when I finish picking up my teeth.”
Offensive humor is actually offensive, it’s supposed to be, and that’s the bottom line. Spade’s not wrong, humor is a risk. Maher’s not wrong, it’s telling truth to power and that can be dangerous and it can cross lines that one has been told not to cross. But Aoki and Johnson aren’t wrong either, it can also be kicking someone when they’re already down.
They’re also all correct that there are consequences to ‘offensive’ acts and one has to be willing to accept the resulting boos and cheers from the audience, whichever comes. If comedy is “Risk” sometimes you fail. The consequence may very well be someone telling you that the joke wasn’t funny and you having to accept that it wasn’t and move on with life. If anything that’s the only real definition of a “joke” to take away from this whole mess: did the audience laugh? If they did, it may still be an insult but also funny. If they didn’t, it was just an insult.
“So Who Laughed?” (see, I said I’d get to it)
By Aoki focusing on the word “chink” so heavily, and Maher not realizing the joke was truly on him in the first place, the entire debate became one of “what’s funny” or even “Is [insert racist term] funny?” rather than “why did/didn’t someone laugh?”. Any joke is at a disservice by being removed from its audience. Aristophanes was writing for a group of all men who were drooling drunk at a Dionysian Festival. If he didn’t make the jokes so obvious you could find every punchline even if you couldn’t find your ass with both hands, he’d lose the audience in the first act.
Silverman isn’t talking to a group of Asians, if she were it’s likely that at the least she’d craft the joke differently (if she expected the majority of them to laugh anyway), or she might not tell the joke at all. By the same token, if all she does is tell jokes about how much airline food sucks no one who’s never flown will have any idea what the hell she’s talking about. Seinfeld wasn’t talking to black inner-city gang members, Richard Pryor wasn’t talking to Japanese retirees.
By Aoki expecting Silverman to change the joke to cater to his audience and not hers, or only speak to her own people and keep her ideas within her own group, he’s also engaging in the kind of divisiveness that the joke itself is attacking. It assumes that there is not a joke to be had between cultures and their interactions, both good and bad. It assumes that the power disharmony itself cannot be mocked. Which demonstrably it can, it’s the basis of almost all racial humor both positive and negative.
The joke as told by Silverman calls attention to the assertion that Maher makes during the discussion, “you say it, now I can” which actually translates to “If you say it you can’t call me out when I do”. It speaks to assertions that the power dynamic is now equal and we are moving into a ‘post-racial’ world (which means if you bring up race it makes you the racist) for the fallacious assumptions they are. There’s even a term for it: The Tu Quoque Fallacy or the “I Know You Are But What Am I??” defense.
So What’s The Point?
Easy, there is no resolution to this situation. The joke isn’t devoid of context, as Maher might hope. It’s swimming in context. One hundred years in either direction and the joke isn’t the same, one country over and the joke isn’t the same, one demographic up or down and the joke isn’t the same. Humor always exists in tandem with its audience.
The joke is demonstrably racist, that’s the intention. All of the panelists acknowledged it, most people who tell rape jokes acknowledge they’re sexist, most people who tell gay jokes acknowledge they’re homophobic. Whether or not they are considered funny by the audience is entirely dependent on whether the audience feels the person telling the joke has the freedom to do so. It may or may not be bigoted but it certainly tries to be, and makes fun of people who are by replicating their behavior. At some point ironic bigotry is indistinguishable from actual bigotry, so it certainly has the potential to be flat out bigotry with no humor at all.
The joke is not “just” a joke because there is no such thing as “just” a joke any more than there is such a thing as “just” a book, or “just” a phone company. It has a context and it has a relevance and it is a thing with substance and value within society. It has cultural currency to a greater or lesser extent depending on those present to hear it and understand it.
A joke can be criticized and should be criticized for its content. Telling a joke does not leave one free from ridicule, it is not a shield against becoming the victim of someone else’s “joke”. It also does not leave one free from negative reaction, no audience is required to laugh. Blaming the audience is possibly the only true sign that something really wasn’t a joke and wasn’t intended to be, and was actually a thinly veiled attack. A joke teller blaming their audience is removing the veil and just attack. Which is the most important lesson to draw from much of this debate.
Jokes are another part of discourse, they’re an aspect of language that most people use. Some laugh at some jokes, others laugh at other jokes. Some barely ever laugh, some laugh all the damn time. It is not wrong to dissect a joke because they can be quite useful for revealing ideas central to a culture and how they view themselves. They’re cultural artifacts.