Friday, October 27, 2006

Some Jokes Are More Equal Than Others

This Is How We Do It?

Some really interesting stuff from a couple of you in the comments section of the last post. Fun to think about humor in a little more depth.

Humor doesn’t translate well. It’s situation specific and fluid and so dependent on lots of almost unconscious references and right brain intuitive connections that it probably just can't make the journey across cultural barriers easily.

So when you do satire you can be pretty sure you’ll offend somebody.

And from my experience cross-culturally, when you do pretty much any kind of humor 'across culture' you're gonna get some ticked off folks and a whole lot of blank looks :^) Given how ethnically and ideologically diverse America is, you can't really do humor in any kind of public way without running the risk of hurting some feelings or confusing some people.

But unless you want to eliminate satire altogether--which would cut down big time on the general merriment quotient and remove one of the best and most powerful tools to remind us of our common pretentiousness--the goal of satire should be to take the risk to be funny but to do everything you can to avoid gratuitious offensiveness. Tricky, but I definitely think it's doable. Risk free humor simply isn't very funny cuz the risk part is what gives it the spice and the kick.

It's also much more immediately accesible and even more emotionally powerful than prosaic approaches. I suppose a nuanced, subtle and prosaic discussion of the extent of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world or among blue collar whites in the Southwest would be more 'fair' and illuminating in one sense than hearing Borat singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well,"
but who can deny how much more immediate emotional power Cohen has to show that anti-Semitism is alive and well and how fundamentally stupid that prejudice is.

Seems to me you need both subtle nuance and broader satire in the tool box. Some folks like nuance better but most likee their satire and jokes more.

Having said all that, it's clear some jokes are more equal than others.

Seems to me it’s all about the spirit of the thing. Some examples of good satire/bad satire:

P.J O’Rourke and Steven Colbert:
Risk taking guys without a hostile edge that satirize specific people and situations but do it to expose failings we all share (and privately think are funny in our best moments).

Carlos Mencia and Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G): Mencia's a really funny working class satirist. Really connects in a human way but unfortunately also packs some underlying hostility. Too soon to tell. The jury is still out. Cohen is hilarious and can be winningly self-deprecating. Doesn't have the undercurrent of anger you feel with Mencia but he goes way over the top sometimes into gratuitous offensiveness.

Anne Coulter and Bill Maher: Very funny political/cultural satirists. Coulter is truly vicious. Maher makes me laugh as much as anybody I know right now and is pretty intellectually honest but he won’t win any humility contests anytime soon. Makes him hard to hear sometimes. Too bad. Great satirists are usually pretty bright folks and arrogance is a common weakness in the genre.

South Park and The Simpsons: The ultimate satirical toons. Lemme do some Rocky Mountain bragging. South Park was created by Colorado folks. South Park is actually a real place in Colorado where I do a lot of climbing. Like I've said before, there's gotta be something in the water in the Rockies. Or maybe it's the lack of oxygen.

In my mind SP is super creative and really cuts to the heart of what's going on but goes way over the top into offensiveness for offensiveness' sake at times. The Simpsons, on the other hand, hit it just about right.

I wish most religious folks weren’t so afraid of offending people.

You've got a whole lot of exceptionally kind people in Christian communities and a good number of folks who genuinely want to be bring groups in conflict together, so the willingness to risk misunderstanding and give offense is low. You've also got a lot of folks who are pretty emotionally fragile--the church is for hurting people, after all! And all of us have a deep and not entirely healthy fear of being laughed at. So I understand why things are the way they are.

But I know there are a lot of very funny types out in the pews with a satirical sensibility because I’ve met some of them. It’s a shame we probably won’t get to hear from ‘em.

Some of us could use the laughs.


Blogger Scott said...

Having seen Mencias live in a show, he is really good. Somehow he had a everyone in a mixed-ethnic crowd not just laughing, but somehow thinking the joke wasn't on them.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

The guy kills me every time I see him. I think he gets away with it because he offends everybody and that's a big part of the attraction. He's sort of an inner city version of Don Rickles--folks come to the show cuz they know its going to be an insult fest but they don't mind cuz everybody gets it at one point or another. And he's unashamed to go totally low brow (pretty rare right now) and lowest common denominator which also works pretty well across culture. Everybody digs potty humor no matter where you come from!

2:40 PM  
Blogger anhomily said...

well... I made an attempt at a humorous blog piece - it is much more difficult to be humorous in writing than I realized. I have never really sat down and tried - actually I feel like the only times I have had to write have been serious academic situations.
I came across one site that really does use humor and theology together in a thoughtful provocative way that is neither offensive nor satirical...well at least their recent series that tabs Batman as a Lutheran, and Calvin and Hobbes as Calvinist and Hobbesian at the same time :)
check it out -

10:51 AM  

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