Jokes about racism or sexism or homophobia are funny. Racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes are not.
The distinction is pretty simple. Humorous messages use social axioms and shared knowledge as tools to tell stories, violate expectations, and make people laugh. They convey attitudes, both through the assumptions they make about this shared knowledge and through the information they make explicit in the telling. It is possible – although not always easy – to parse some of the attitudes included in a package of jokes, and therefore it is possible to point out when those attitudes are bigoted. Some jokes reinforce stereotypes, some parody them. Some jokes endorse discrimination, some make fun of it. Some jokes use prejudice as a foundational axiom, some point out the absurdity of prejudice itself. The simple fact that a message is supposed to be funny does not change the need to criticize it if it endorses harmful attitudes, so it makes sense to be attentive to the difference between reinforcing, endorsing, or utilizing group bias on the one hand, and parodying, making fun of, or exposing group bias on the other.
Sometimes – perhaps frequently – there is room for disagreement about whether a given joke about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is endorsing or parodying the attitudes in question. As any literature student knows, interpreting texts can be a challenging and contentious enterprise. It doesn’t always help to ask the comedian about his or her intentions, either, because we are frequently unaware of our own biases, and because post-hoc explanations of controversial jokes may be devised simply to save the author’s skin. Still, if someone makes an ambiguously prejudicial joke, and when asked to explain proceeds to spout bigoted nonsense (as Seth MacFarlane did after his transphobic episode of Family Guy), perhaps such an “explanation” really should help the audience understand the original attempt at humor in less favorable terms.
I don’t mean to imply that one should interpret an ambiguous joke one way or the other in all cases. I do, however, want to dispel the myth that those who criticize prejudicial humor are drawing arbitrary lines. We should resist communications that endorse prejudice against social groups, and be careful not to confuse them with communications that criticize (or merely point out) such prejudice. This simple, ethical statement can apply to jokes just as easily as to any other message. Those who seek to insulate all humor from criticism simply because it is humor are the ones drawing an arbitrary line.
Some instances of comedians veering into nasty territory are pretty obvious, like “Kramer” actor Michael Richards’ racist tirade from a 2006 standup show. (Click here for video. A transcript is available within this CNN show – do a search for “Kramer” to get close to the starting point.) Some are not so clearly distinct from the comedic act, like Adam Carolla’s recent bigoted comments about GLBT people. Some are more superficially lighthearted while still carrying harsh prejudicial implications, like the David Letterman skit I wrote about in January 2010.
Dave Barry’s pieces about men (and women) present another illustrative example. Barry regularly employs hyperbole and irony in his columns, so it can be hard to determine whether any given sexist statement is endorsing or making fun of sexism. However, many of the exaggerated gender stereotypes he employs seem to be framed as jokes that are “funny because they’re true,” in addition to “funny because they’re exaggerated.” His underlying assumptions seem fairly plain in his interpretation of a book about gender differences. For these jokes, the sexism is a communicative tool and a foundational axiom, not the thing being ridiculed in itself. I chose Dave Barry for this example because I actually enjoy his style of humor: it is important that we not let our own appreciation for an author blind us to his or her biases.
The “Whitest Kids U Know,” a New York City comedy troupe, provide a more genuinely funny example of joking about prejudice. At the end of one video version of the “Classroom” sketch, actor Trevor Moore makes explicitly racist comments. (The relevant part of the video starts at about 4:00, so I’ve included that start time in the hyperlink. Click here for video. Click here for a partial transcript.) This racism is not a tool to communicate a separate humorous message, nor is it supposed to be “funny because it’s true.” Instead, the sketch satirizes racism itself, and the joke is more successful than those listed above.
At best, bigotry is funny because bigots are asinine and it can be fun to laugh at them. At worst, bigotry can completely sour an attempt at humor. My interpretations of the above examples might be debatable, but the point I’m making about comedy does not depend on them. “It was a joke” is not automatically an excuse for prejudice. The distinction between jokes that endorse prejudice and jokes that parody prejudice is not arbitrary. And those who challenge a joke for its prejudicial implications are not being “oversensitive.”
Transcript of Whitest Kids U Know video clip, starting at 4:00.
[Two possibly-teenage men, one White and one Black, are standing next to each other. Both have their arms crossed and defiant expressions on their faces. The white teenager has previously been referred to as "Scotty." A police officer approaches.]
Officer: Hey! Kid! What are you doing?!
Scotty: Hanging out with Black people.
[Scotty and his unnamed companion exchange a fist bump.]
Officer: Where are your parents?!
Scott: They’re dead.
[Scotty claps his hands and vanishes. Cut to a scene in a middle class kitchen, where the actor who played Scotty is wearing khakis, eyeglasses, and a collared shirt under a sweater, while pouring coffee into a mug with a US flag on it.]
Oh, hi there. My name’s Trevor Moore. I’m the actor who played Scotty in that last video. Now you’re all probably wondering how we managed to pull that sketch off – and the answer lies in good old fashioned Hollywood magic. Through new amazing technology, I was filmed in front of a blue screen, while the Black actor was filmed elsewhere. Then my image was put together with the Black person’s image, later in post-production. That’s right, due to modern miracles I was able to record that sketch safely on a secured sound stage, while the black actors were actually filmed many miles away. I was never in harm’s way for a moment. Isn’t technology wonderful?