Saturday, October 11, 2008

Making Fun Of vs. Joking Reference

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we consider another moral question in comedy. There is no doubt that humor can be used as a weapon. Indeed, our own Comedist security squad, the Fast Action Response Team whose motto is "If we don't kill, give 'em the gas", is among the most elite purveyors of the comic martial arts in the world. But the weapon can be used for ill as well as for good and we want to be clear on where that line is.

This issue has been rolling around in my mind for the last few weeks since TheWife thought a joke I had been trying to work into my routine crossed the line. It's a visual thing, but I'll try to explain it. At the start of a routine I've been working on lately around the fake rubber testicles hanging off of the trailer hitches of pickup trucks, I make the reference with an accompanying hand gesture using two cupped hands. I then pause and say, "For those of you who do not know sign language...testicles." I then remove one hand and say, "the sign for Lance Armstrong." She argued, convincingly, that it was making fun of a cancer victim and that is out of bounds.

But, the fact is that I wasn't making fun of Lance Armstrong or his cancer. At the same time Lance Armstrong and the result of his cancer are an essential, ineliminable element of the joke. There seems to be a difference here between jokes about and jokes that attack, that is jokes that make the referent the butt of the joke and those of which one is merely the subject.

This sort of thing pops up often. Every weekend I begin these homilies with a welcome to all brothers, sisters, and transgendered comedists and it is an authentic welcome. I want all to come here and feel the funny, especially transgendered members of the Comedist community who have such a rough time in the rest of society. The opening is also designed to give a laugh, not at transgendered individuals, but at the unexpected challenging of preconceptions. The essence of the joke is in setting up the listener to have one interpretation of a situation and then forcing an incompatible interpretation on them with the punch line, forcing their minds to try to reconcile the irreconcilable. The resulting short-circuit results in cerebral overload and thus laughter. In this case, it is standard religious fare to refer to brothers and sisters, presupposing that the two sexes exhaust the genders, but when you add in transgendered, you trip up that false presupposition. Thus the transgendered members of our community are not being made fun of, but are an essential element of the joke.

The question is tricky when the group referred to, like the transgendered, is oppressed. Even if the reference is not degrading, does the mere act of drawing attention to them, of singling them out with the joke, make even a mention with no malice whatsoever morally problematic?

A good friend admitted that he was made uncomfortable at my bit on Eskimo kissing because of the references to Eskimo women who are very much oppressed in northern culture (I'd say they are at the bottom of the totem pole, but that reference is itself in question).

Similarly, Melissa at Shakespeare's Sister takes umbrage at the use of the term "Caribou Barbie" to refer to Sarah Palin. The line is clearly a play on Malibu Barbie and the term Barbie is often used as an insulting term for women who use their looks, but come off as unintelligent and plastic. The converse "Ken Doll" is used to describe blow-dried, unintelligent plastic men (John Roberts of CNN was referred to in that way just today by a blog by a liberal economist that I can't seem to find; thought it was Brad Delong, but cannot find the post). Is there a difference in the two references because of the social context? Does the oppression of women break the comic symmetry?

As you consider that, here's another Lance Armstrong joke I wrote (only this one must be clear because it refers to his virility):

You know Lance Armstrong's girlfriend won't let him use yellow condoms because then he tries to finish first.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve