Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What Is Funny?

One of you sweet and erudite readers once pointed out that much humor is aggressive, intended to attack someone in a way which has an in-built defense: I was only joking!

Something like that must be at work when people make sexist or racist jokes. We have examples of the latter from a few conservative sources: First one wingnut made a gorilla joke about Michelle Obama. Then another passed on an openly racist joke about Barack Obama. Both joke-makers have apologized or near-apologized, by the way.

What makes those jokes racist is of course the fact that they are not just about the Obamas but about all people of color, just as sexist jokes are not only about the woman superficially attacked but about all women. Likewise, what makes jokes like that 'funny' is the person's ultimate agreement on whatever racist or sexist premise the jokes use as their launching point and the delicious shock one gets when the premise is expressed openly. Or so I think.

But of course I have no sense of humor, being a feminazi with the intention of turning all men into eunuchs. Hence the shearing scissors hanging off my belt and my inability to laugh at funny jokes.

What's funny is this: Jokes about other groups can be very funny even when they are based on silly group stereotypes, as long as the group being made fun of is roughly equal in power with the group the joke-teller belongs to. The British joking about the French doesn't come across as really insulting and neither do those old jokes about a world of either heaven or hell based on which European country provides the lovers, police officers and chefs, because nobody is earnestly ranking those countries in terms of power, ability and such.

The funniness of jokes can get pretty complicated when we introduce people of a particular group telling demeaning jokes about their own group, say, or when friends kid around about the racial, gender or ethnic groups of each other. Mostly the premise of those kinds of jokes is a more intricate one than in the former case, because the laughter may be double-layered: At first one laughs at the surprise of the joke coming from that person and then one laughs at the premise itself. Or perhaps not. It could be that we internalize all sorts of crap and find ourselves laughing with our enemies?