Dark humor: funny or offensive?
March 10, 2021
“You can’t say anything nowadays,” “If this would have aired in 2021, they’d get cancelled.” In a world where one side claims hate speech is not being checked, and the other side claims free speech is under attack, the atmosphere of discussion has become pretty divisive. Whether in in-person debate or social media (especially Twitter), this discussion of the difference between free and hate speech doesn’t accomplish much largely because no one actually wants to listen. Their mind is made up of where the line is, and when they feel something has crossed it. The problem is everyone has different lines. We all are different people who have various experiences. One issue could feel distant to a person who chooses to think logically about an issue, and that same issue could be incredibly personal to another person who uses emotion to think about the issue. These two people would likely have drastically different lines because of this. While this phenomenon of how far is too far in political dialogue has absorbed the world in the last five years, it has bled into other fields. Specifically, and perhaps most interestly, comedy.
With more people gaining confidence to let their opinions be heard on the likes of Facebook and Twitter about things they like and dislike, comedy has become a target of sorts of what those on the right call “Cancel Culture.” Jokes are often edited up, taken out of context, and hijacked on the internet to paint comedians in a negative light.
The problem is that all too often the group offended by the edited clip of the joke, do not use their sense of humor to recognize what the joke is about. Instead, they immediately come to the conclusion that all jokes on taboo subjects are making light of things that are supposed to be taken seriously and that they are attacking those affected by these issues. However, these jokes are very, very rarely targeting the taboo subject but instead are making a larger point.
It is also seen that sometimes groups get offended on behalf of another group despite the joke not offending the group in question. Take, for example, a joke from the often controversial comedian Bill Burr who generated lots of buzz after his risky SNL monologue a couple months ago. Burr is known for his abrupt, observationalist comedy in which he starts by saying something clearly ridiculous tricking the audience into thinking that the joke will attack something that should not be targeted, and then slowly moves into a harmless punchline relieving the built-up tension. Burr is a master at this, which is why a joke he made about whether every single person in the military is actually a hero (“Even the guy on the battleship that points in the direction the plane is supposed to go in?”) drew a room full of laughter from armed servicemen and women in a VFW. That same joke, however, drew criticism from a general audience who thought the joke was too critical of the military.
In general, the strongest strategy for determining what is over the line tends to be analyzing what the intent of the joke is, and whether the target is attacking something about someone that cannot be changed. If so, the joke’s humor should be criticized. However, when these jokes target something someone’s done or doing that they chose with their own autonomy then the joke should not be criticized as harshly.
Comedian Ricky Gervais, known for his edgy comedy in The Office and while hosting the Golden Globes said, “People confuse the subject of the joke with the target of the joke, and they’re very rarely the same.” He is also a large proponent of the idea that nothing is off limits as long as the joke is well thought out. Gervais believes that, all too often, people rush to judgement without even trying to put in effort to recognize the comedy. He said, “You can laugh at anything. It depends on the joke.”
However, while Gervais thinks no subject is taboo, he doesn’t think that makes all jokes okay, funny, and non-offensive. Gervais said, “Free speech is one of the most important things to me, but I think it gets confusing when it comes to offense. Because for one, just because you have the right to say anything, it doesn’t mean you have to […] being nice is more important than being clever.”
Overall, people laugh at different things. What is funny to one, is not funny to all. There are some jokes that are indefensible, which target groups of people that cannot defend themselves. These jokes are clearly offensive and should be seen as such. However, when a joke is clever, doesn’t target the victims of a situation, and has a strong punchline there is no reason to try to think of reasons why you shouldn’t sit back, relax, and have a good laugh.