“You just can’t take a joke”

Are you a comedian who complains about people being too “PC” these days? Do you complain about people being “too uptight” or unable to take a joke?
Are you a non-comedian who dislikes seeing others criticize comedians for their use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or ableist humor? Do you feel that it’s all in “good humor”?
If you belong to either of those groups, please listen up, because I have something to say.
That “good humor” you’re talking about? The “rape jokes are funny” humor? That “it’s just a dumb blonde joke”? That joke that relies upon stereotypes about black people? Or the one that makes a punchline about the death of a trans woman?
 
That’s not “good humor”. In fact, so-called “humor” like that is pretty awful, because it involves Punching Down (capitalized for emphasis, not for grammatical reasons).

 
 
What is “Punching Down”? 
Consider the punchline of the joke.
Is it meant to make you laugh at women by way  of their gender? At a trans person because of their gender identity? At poor folks bc of their socioeconomic status? Disabled people because of a disability? Mentally ill people because of their mental illness?
 
All those groups are communities who have long been-and continue to be-discriminated against in society.They have been-and continue to be-denied the basic rights and dignity that all humans should be accorded. They have been-and continue to-experience all manner of oppression in society.
 
Such oppression manifests in a variety of forms. One of those ways is the use of Punching Down humor which uses marginalized groups as the punchline. Punching Down humor invites the audience to laugh at people whom society *already* treats with disdain and contempt. Punching Down humor is basically like saying “See that homeless woman over there? Let’s make her and her life situation the butt of a joke.”
 
That’s not at all cool (and I really hope I don’t have to explain why).
 
Now, I know that some believe that this is something incredibly minor and that “it’s just a joke, dude”.
To that, I say FUCK THAT NOISE.
 
Those jokes are indicative of the mindset of the person who creates them and/or makes them. Those jokes reflect the biases and prejudices an individual has against others. Others, I’ll remind, that large numbers of people already hold negative biases and prejudices against. Many advocates of social justice oppose the use of humor that punches down specifically *BECAUSE* we are advocating for a fairer, more just society for all. Getting there means ridding our society of all manifestations of oppression. Not just the ones that are viewed as the “big ones”. Even the so-called “little ones” are harmful, bc they perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized people.
 
When comedians complain about people being too PC (Jerry Seinfeld comes to mind), the message they are sending others is “we want to continue making jokes at the expense of those society already treats like shit and we think you should laugh at those jokes bc we feel entitled to your laughter, and really…why should we consider the impact our words have on others?”
 
So please, if you’re a comedian who makes jokes that denigrate homeless people, jokes that perpetuate stereotypes of gay people, or rape jokes (while there are a handful of comedians who can make funny rape jokes, they manage this by making the rapist the butt of the joke, not rape victims; this takes careful thought and consideration and really is not something I am confident most comedians are capable of) consider the people who are impacted by those words. Think about their humanity. Think about whether or not *they* would appreciate their identities being used to make others laugh. Give some thought to how society perceives these people. What discrimination do they face? What obstacles to their lives do they go through every day? What laws exist that make their lives more difficult, not less? What attitudes and beliefs do these groups consistently hear that undermines their humanity? Consider that further entrenches harmful prejudices about people who need compassion and empathy, but all too often receive mockery and disdain. And then give thought to how your jokes contribute to the negative stereotypes many people hold about people in marginalized groups.
 
And if you’re the kind of person who laughs at jokes that Punch Down or you launch into a tirade against someone who criticizes a comedian for telling sexist, homophobic, or classist jokes, then I ask you to take some time for self-reflection and examine why you’re laughing at jokes that treat disenfranchised groups so horrendously. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if comedy cannot survive without punching down, then it should fucking die.
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“You just can’t take a joke”
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3 thoughts on ““You just can’t take a joke”

  1. 1

    I only know two comedians capable of making funny rape jokes and one of them is Wanda Sykes. George Carlin might have been one if her were alive. It takes a certain degree of wit, cleverness and actual mental work to write a funny rape joke, and there are a hell of a lot of lazy comedians out there ,who coast on their past successes (Seinfield and Chris Rock are two of them.)

    The reason why some comedians were incredibly successful was because they didn’t punch down as a general rule, or rely on it for their main act (Pryor, and Carlin).

    Most of the comedians I like poke fun at groups they’re a part of. So if you’re a male and making fun of men, or black person making fun of black people like yourself, that’s different.

  2. 2

    I remember as a wee lad, I became very upset about jokes that made fun of boys. It was sort of a Baby’s First Outrage for me, since I noticed a pattern that the adults around me thought it was fine to joke about males and not fine to joke about females. Of course, as an educated adult I’m now aware that Punching Down is a thing, and that jokes about women Punch Down and jokes about men (sometimes) do not. (And regardless of whether you agree with this, jokes about children of any gender always punch down.)

    It’s a horrible thing to expose children to discriminatory jokes, and I think that’s still the case when the jokes punch up. To appreciate a joke that punches up, you first have to recognize that Punching Up is a thing, and that’s something children don’t understand. So I’m very wary of jokes at the expense of a group even when they’re told by a member of that group.

    Generally, though, I agree that discriminatory humor is a real problem and it’s not okay to say that it’s “all in good fun.”

  3. 3

    Let’s talk about South Park.

    Speaking as a young man who is both professionally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and questioning his sexuality, I happily await South Park’s cancellation. I’m sick and tired of being demonized and set up as a punchline for the media at large. When it jumped on the anti-social justice bandwagon and felt like beating the beyond dead horse trope of “political correctness” some more, it opened up a world of knowledge to me. South Park doesn’t give a damn about being funny, it only cares about being offensive for its own sake. It has no good reason to offend other than it can and when it does it’s only because their target is either an “asshole” or something other.

    They have done absolutely nothing original except insult everyone who is not a privileged intelligent straight white male. They’ve even had the gall to insult people like me who have Asperger’s. Sooner or later I feel that people are going to get older and wiser, look back on South Park, and realize that people behind the show are nothing but a gang of schoolyard bullies.

    I can the say the same to Family Guy.

    There is this cartoon that was made in Japan called “Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt” that I find so much more humorous than those two shows ever will be. It draws legitimate criticism I believe to the modern anime industry for it’s lack of diversity and individuality. It actually puts its characters in original situations and mainly makes fun of itself. It’s crass but hardly offensive.

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