Funny or Not?


We certainly love to laugh. But when should we draw the line for humour? When does a joke go too far and become an offence? Aiden and Samantha, in the context of multiculturalism and political correctness respectively, argue that there are consequences to our inconsiderate words.


WORDS Aidan Wondracz

In Japan, a smile can mask embarrassment. In Iran, a ‘thumbs- up’ can mean a big ‘fuck you’. Employing Ricky Gervais as the host for the Golden Globes for three consecutive years can only mean one thing – people will get offended.

With his hair neatly combed and in a suit finely pressed, Gervais caused the most bloodiest of messes. He went from insulting Jodie Foster’s ‘beaver’ to promulgating the corruption of the Hollywood Foreign Press – the very people that employed him for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 ceremonies. Was Gervais trying to be offensive, or was this just his British humour being lost in translation on the American shore?

Simon Pegg (that funny ranga from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) ascertains that the British are friendly people who use irony as a form of humour. This is often misinterpreted as offensive by cultures that do not fully grasp the concept. To be honest though, because irony is a form of humour, it is still prone to that awkward silence that follows after a bad joke – simply because it just may not be funny. In an interview with the Dalai Lama, Karl Stefanovic told him a joke that runs like this:

[quote]The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, “Can you make me one with everything?”[/quote]

To that the Dalai Lama just simply looked at him in silent perplexity. The fact that the Dalai Lama needed a translator should be a blatant example of how the humour of a joke can be lost in translation. For those who understood the joke, you still mightn’t have felt like laughing – for the humour is comparative to that of a ‘knock, knock’ joke, where the only reaction is a strong feeling of sympathy for the poor person who worked so hard on trying to be witty.

As a university student, with my busy study schedule, contemplating and mooching off my parents for money, I find that I have no time for the delicacies in life (such as humour); which means that when I do manage to squeeze in these sparing moments, I want people to get straight to the point. This is what Ricky Gervais does for me and he did it splendidly during his hosting years for the Golden Globes Awards.

Yet the actors themselves didn’t find him amusing at all. Robert Downey Jr. labelled him as “mean spirited with vaguely sinister undertones”. This comment, however, is a bit ironic for a country that idolises comedians such as Lisa Lampanelli, whose racially focused insults are comparable to no other. So the real question is – why are Lampanelli’s insults considered more acceptable than Gervais’s? Gervais inadvertently answers this question as he explains the difference in thinking between Americans and the British:

[quote]Americans applaud ambition and openly reward success, while Britons are more comfortable with life’s losers.[/quote]

Sarcasm may be well understood in America, but when these actors come together at the Golden Globes, they are coming together to reward each others’ success – not to be ridiculed. This is perhaps why Gervais has been shunned in America; simply because he chose to ridicule these people at the wrong time. The cultural difference here is not the language itself, but the way of thinking and upbringing.

It appears that whilst cultural differences may influence the success of a joke, it all really comes down to the simple question of why no one is laughing – was the joke really that funny to begin with?



WORDS Samantha Lewis

Have you ever heard a comedian tell a joke that made you stop and question whether or not you, or anyone around you, should be laughing? Are there things that should never be joked about, because there’s a risk some people might be offended? Or should we allow jokes to be made of everything, and simply exercise our right not to listen?

What prompts me to write this is an article I read by Clementine Ford on ABC’s The Drum website, entitled “Jokes at the victim’s expense are no laughing matter”. In it, she chastises Seth MacFarlane, creator of the TV show Family Guy and host of the 85th annual Academy Awards, for many of the segments he participated in during the show (including a song-and-dance routine about seeing actresses’ boobs on the big screen). But what really got the public blood boiling is that some of the scenes shown during the routine came from films in which the female characters were being raped. Ford uses this as a springboard to discuss the complexity of pulling off a politically incorrect (non-PC) joke, so that “the victim of the act [isn’t] the victim of the punchline”. This sort of defeats the purpose of non-PC humour that prides itself on being able to joke about everything in a cathartic sort of way.

Rather, according to Ford, a punchline drawing attention to the culture surrounding the act itself is what makes a good joke. The first that springs to mind here is Louis C.K.’s joke about the political position of the White man in the 21st Century: “I’m not saying that White people are better, I’m saying that being white is clearly better!” Ford gets into the meat of her argument via another example of comedian Daniel Tosh who, in response to a female heckler complaining about a rape joke, said: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that lady got raped by, like, five guys right now?” I think we can all agree that this isn’t actually a joke, which might disqualify it being used as an example of non-PC humour, but what it does show is how thin the line is between humour and offensive statements disguised as humour.

I’ve asked a bunch of my friends whether they think offensive jokes should be censored. The majority of them rightly say no. People should feel free to say whatever they want, but that does not mean they aren’t responsible for the consequences of their words. The thing about free speech is that the speaker (especially if they’re a public figure, like a politician or a comedian) becomes inextricably linked to the opinions they put forward. With that freedom comes the simultaneous responsibility to defend their opinions if others disagree with them. Refusing to justify something to a group of people who find your point contentious usually indicates laziness, or an unstable foundation on which your opinion is based. In either case, you should probably back out of whatever it is you’re doing. While this doesn’t guarantee that every person who ever puts an opinion forward should be compelled to justify it, it does help audiences determine who we can take seriously, and who we can’t, whether it be on the stage, or at political podiums.

Comedy is a symbiotic process that depends almost entirely upon audience reaction. A comedian will not enter the public sphere armed with jokes that they know will piss a lot of people off, turning comedy into provocation disguised as non-PC humour, which they justify with the idea that people who are offended ‘need to lighten up’. That’s the difference between MacFarlane and Tosh. The latter was threatening and provocative, while ignoring social or comic implications. The former was provocative and arguably tasteless. But he was obvious in what he was trying to say about society, that comedy is a tool used to bring taboo subjects to the forefront of public discussion, for better or worse. MacFarlane’s performance may have been non-PC, and his lack of justification for his choices may lead some to suggest he find another line of work, but it arguably aligned with what Ford said about critiquing the culture. MacFarlane’s jokes and the reactions that they sparked demonstrated that humour is divided, relevant and necessary for continued dialogue on important issues. Shutting him down, and therefore shutting down the issues he represents, is no doubt less beneficial for all of us in the long run.

Another point worth making is that there’s much debate surrounding the responsibility of the audience in its relationship to particular forms of humour. Some say that certain non-PC jokes should be off limits because it reinforces stereotypes and focuses its degradation on minorities who can’t defend themselves. That isn’t true. We can defend ourselves. No matter how much you rally, picket, or heckle, there are always going to be people in the world whose thoughts you don’t agree with. Sometimes, these people will have a microphone and an audience. As far as I can see, sitting there and attacking them for their beliefs will only confirm one thing: you both disagree on something. Upon walking into a comedy show, you understand that what you’re about to experience is underlined differently than something similar you’d experience on the street. You understand that there will be a sense of irony, satire, or sarcasm underlying the jokes. If the comedian’s humour doesn’t cross over into your own, or if you don’t believe they’re handling the subjects with as much delicacy as you think they should, then you’re more than welcome to stand up, and walk out. Remember, comedy requires talent, and talent is on a spectrum. Sometimes, a comedian is on the lowest part of that spectrum.

Ultimately, we are the deciding factor on whether a comedian’s career lives or dies. If they want to stay in comedy, they’ll use their talent to put their finger on the public pulse and see how we react. We can conclude that we can’t take their branch of humour seriously, that we can see through their claims that they’re being ‘provocative’ when they’re really just being assholes. Either they’ll change what they joke about, or they’ll be staring at a lot of empty seats at their next gig.