Saturday, September 23, 2006

Why Is This Funny? Jokes About The Disabled

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere:

A question about Comedist theology and its relation to morality this weekend. I received this picture in an e-mail, entitled, "If you laugh at this, you're a bad person." It's funny. Does this make us bad for laughing at it?

The fact that Ray Charles is blind is operative in the joke, but what's the rest of the explanation? There seems to be five reasons why this picture could be funny:

(1) We are simply laughing at the misfortune of someone else. Like third grade kids, we are picking on someone for being different, making ourselves feel superior. This would be mean, shallow, and nasty.

(2) This is not just any blind person, this is Ray Charles, a god. No one had soul like Ray, no one could play and sing like Ray. He was not only elevated as a celebrity, but also because of incredible talent. Yet, here he is doing something embarrassing and at the moment he doesn't even know how embarrassed he is going to be. There is a disjointed nature between who he is and what he is doing. So, like the Marx Brothers who specialized in showing those of great status being brought down a notch, it is the humanization of Ray Charles that makes it funny.

(5) Because we've all done really stupid things before without realizing at the time how dumb they were, in this picture Ray becomes the everyman. We can empathize with him because while we may not have done that exactly, we've done something equally embarrassing in our own lives. Contrary to (1), finding the picture funny is not mean, but empathetic.

Which do you think it is?

A second question because this touches on an issue I was discussing with BJ about offensive humor. What is it that makes jokes about the disabled offensive? In a joke about a group distinguished by race, religion or hair color, it is when the joke turns on some aspect of the negative stereotype about them. So if an Irishman is drunk or a blonde is stupid in your joke, then you are socially reinforcing false and harmful beliefs. When you say that a "Jewish man with an erection who runs into a brick wall breaks his nose" you are doubly harming the reputations of Jewish men. These properties really don't universally belong to the members of the group.

But jokes like the one above that turn on a blind person not being able to see or a midget being short, they really do all have the property. All women may not be bad drivers, but all blind people really can't see. Is the offensiveness, then, in pointing out someone's limitations? Are we supposed to pretend that those with disabilities don't have them and it is a social faux pas to even point them out, or is it that we are pointing them out to get a laugh? But just as being African-American, Jewish, blonde, Polish is not really something wrong, but rather something to be celebrated, ought not being part of the blind, deaf, or short-people's population also be a part of someone's identity that should be celebrated and we surely can celebrate it with humor. So when I say, "What is the definition of eternal love? A tennis match between Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles," is that offensive or merely absurd?

Along the same lines, would it matter if the picture were photoshopped and not an actual photograph? Would that make it better or worse?

What do you think?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve