it ain't funny, bein' funny
“Laughter is the only thing that cuts trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.” ― Dan Jenkins
Trigger Warning: If you're the kind of person that thinks there should be something called a "trigger warning," then this piece is not for you. We'll be talking about topics, and discussing reasons. Opinions expressed may not be your own. So there. That's it. That's your "trigger warning."
Several years ago, a close friend of mine and I were riffing around, quoting the classic, early 80's movie, "Arthur." It starred Dudley Moore as a wealthy man-child and 'lovable lush." Like other actors and comics dating back as long as theater has existed, Moore had audiences in hysterics playing drunk-for-comic-effect. We were reciting some of the lines, stumbling around my associate's office... when a voice came out from the adjoining office that we needed to stop what we were doing, immediately! His wife rounded the corner and proceeded to lecture us on just how unfunny "Arthur" and Dudley Moore were. In fact, ANY actor/comedian/performer who attempted to present ANYTHING about alcoholism was NEVER funny. She sternly explained that she was the child of an abusive, alcoholic father and that her childhood had been seriously affected by his drinking. She said that her family was greatly damaged, and much of the hurt remained. She reiterated, that there was simply NOTHING funny about alcoholism.
We were left staring at the floor, feeling guilty and ashamed that we had upset her and rekindled terrible memories about her dad and his alcoholism.
And then it occurred to me. I had an alcoholic father. Our family had been badly damaged by his abusive behavior. I still live with those scars, and other family members had it worse. And yet I thought the movie "Arthur" and Dudley Moore's performance was hysterical. In fact, while I won't claim "Arthur" as therapeutic, being able to reduce the memory of an abusive, alcoholic father to a stumbling idiot gives you back some power and allows you to laugh at and mock this adversity. As the late humorist/sportswriter Dan Jenkins said, “Laughter is the only thing that cuts trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.”
"Arthur" was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1981 and would win 2 Academy Awards. Maybe it was funny after all.
Mel Brooks made millions off of "The Producers." It started out as a silly film starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder that told the story of a corrupt theater director who figures out a way to profit from producing shows that fail...so the director chooses to produce a terrible play glorifying the life of Hitler. Instead of a flop, the play within the film turns out to be a smash hit, featuring a feel-good show-tune, "Springtime for Hitler." Brooks, a Jew, would later produce a broadway stage version that was a full musical, and later a second feature film of that musical. All three versions of the shows were massive hits, and it goes without saying that some people were... offended (to put it mildly). A few Jewish groups and rabbis were apoplectic... what could possibly be funny about Hitler? The Holocaust? Nazis? Brooks (did I mention that he was Jewish also?) would respond that he understood the offense, but that "if we're going to get even with Hitler, we can't get on a soapbox because he's too damn good at that. We got to ridicule them. We've got to laugh at him. Then we can get even."
Brooks would of course create other edgy works like "Blazing Saddles," which plunged into the deep end with racial jokes (including liberal use of the N-word,) sexual innuendo, and overall bawdy humor. When asked how he could "go there" and deliver some of the risque punch lines in that classic, he would reply, "If you're going to step up to the bell, you better ring it."
Could Arthur, or The Producers, or Blazing Saddles be made today? The Producers film(s) are shown periodically and the stage version is still a box office draw. Arthur was remade (badly) in 2011, though it was not a hit. It's debatable if anyone would touch a piece like "Blazing Saddles" in our politically correct age.
“We laugh at what’s wrong because we know what’s right.” - Ricky Gervais
Though I'm not a professional comic, I am a full-time smart-ass. And beyond cutting up with friends recalling old movie lines, I'm known to bring a bit of snark to a conversation. From being the class clown in the early days to joking it up at the dinner party, I know from experience that it can all go wrong. You learn early that throwing out something as simple as a "Yo' Mamma so fat..." joke can backfire badly when you are informed that "hey man, his mamma just died of diabetes." (Or you realize you were one-upped by the kid JOKING that his mamma died?!) See... it's a minefield out there in Funnytown.
It happens to the best of 'em. Check out this hilarity when comic Mike Birbiglia talks about accidentally mocking someone with a disability. (From his special, "What I Should Have Said Was Nothing.") Funny? Or Horribly insulting and offensive?
Even the Pros are Tired of PC Culture
America's counterculture sprang up in the '60s and '70s as a pushback against the VietNam War, overt sexism, institutional racism, and countless other isms. Comedy was often front and center, not far behind rock 'n roll as the voice of the "younger generation." Old-style joke and storyteller comics in the Catskills gave way to a new brand of comic willing to blend social commentary with edgy humor - mocking politicians, religion, and the social mores of the day. Famed comic Lenny Bruce worked "blue," and his conversational style often included colorful language... enough so that "the man" would periodically arrest him for obscenity. His "vulgarity" was shocking to some, but his pointed barbs at the political establishment of the day really had them tied in knots.
“Political correctness is America's newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people's language with strict codes and rigid rules. I'm not sure that's the way to fight discrimination. I'm not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.” ― George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (2005)
Back then, the left was decidedly in favor of complete and unfettered freedom of speech - no matter what. The late George Carlin started out as a clean-cut, mild-mannered, suit-wearing comic that was happy to appear on daytime talk shows, tell some funny stories, and mingle with Merv and Dinah and Burt. He started to feel constricted by his own image as well as the rigidity of television and the popular clubs. He attended one of Lenny Bruce's shows when the place was raided and Bruce was arrested for obscenity. During the raid, "Johnny Law" started to shake down audience members. When Carlin refused to show any ID, he was hauled in and shared a cell with Bruce.
Carlin let his hair grow and started wearing jeans and T-shirts and smoking a little weed. Around this period, he would write his famous "Seven Dirtiest Words that You Can't Say on TV" routine. He would be arrested seven times for performing it. (It would also be a part of a landmark Supreme Court case concerning the FCCs right to censor 'obscene' material over the airwaves. The court held for the FCC, but qualified that the routine had been broadcast by a radio station over the public airwaves. It did not rule the material "obscene" but "indecent." It was noted that Carlin had a right to perform the material if he didn't cause a big ruckus, but broadcasters couldn't put it out on public airwaves. BTW, the DOJ weighed in in favor of the accused radio station on free speech grounds.)
Carlin's career took off, and another counter-culture comic was born. In a certain irony (especially when today's campus PC culture is considered,) Carlin loved playing colleges where he felt a sense of freedom to be himself and say what he wanted. If he were alive today, they wouldn't let him near the student union - even WITH his fame.
Slowly, the counterculture became the prevailing culture. Comedy clubs sprang up in malls and strip centers across the country. The landscape was wide open for great comedy chock full o' social commentary. On TV, Norman Lear brought us "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons." The wildly popular (and anti-war) M*A*S*H was a staple in most households. Cable TV brought us HBO and the Comedy Channel resulting in dozens and dozens of comedy concerts. Late-night television finally broke away from the showbizzy Johnny Carson Show with Doc and Ed and the Rat Pack and the glitter curtain and landed on snarky, gap-toothed smart-ass David Letterman who took that curtain down. It wasn't long before there were a half dozen late-night talk shows, all with their own personalities, all of them competing to book the wildest, craziest, or most controversial comics they could find. It certainly was a time to laugh.
Comics began to become rock stars in their own right. They were awarded sitcoms based on their acts, (Tim Allen's "Home Improvement," Ray Romano's "Everybody Loves Raymond," Roseanne Barr's "Roseanne," to name a few.) Comics were seen hosting award shows, game shows, and talk shows.
Meanwhile, the political winds were shifting a bit. The Reagan revolution had spurred a stronger and more focused right. The pendulum was swinging away from free love and dirty hippies. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich decided that there was no political benefit to bipartisanship. Through the Reagan years and then beyond, the Big Sort slowly occurred as conservatives and liberals filtered further apart in Washington and then the states. The two political parties slowly branded themselves relative to a culture battle. As the GOP struggled to retake the rural white south and form a broad coalition with evangelicals, their language was full of dog-whistle signals that appealed to racists. They would also begin to brand themselves as the party of "traditional" family values (read: patriarchal, straight, fundamental Christians.)
Democrats fought back by calling out racist language - forbidding under any circumstance the use of the N-word, for example. Demeaning or sexualized terms for women were also verboten. The handicapped would now be referenced as 'persons with special needs,' or even 'handicapable.' Most of these changes had been a long time coming and were a real and good-faith attempt to bring respect and equality to previously marginalized members of society.
Some conservatives weren't ready to take down the confederate flags (figurative and literal ones,) much less speak respectfully to folks from across the tracks, aisle, or the dinner table. Throw in a societal push for affirmative action and add the revolutionary call for same-sex marriage... and things began to get a little tense.
As culture lines were drawn and the new rules were being written for language, comedians were caught in the middle. Comedy is all about language, and suddenly, you couldn't even SAY those negative things! It didn't matter if things were said in the form of satire, or parody, or exaggeration-for-comic-effect, or even with sincere affection, if a perceived aggrieved class was referenced, you could find yourself with a string of canceled gigs.
When people express unhappiness with the new politically correct rules, you'll hear a response that sounds something like, "these are overdue rules of civility, a respect that needs to be paid to everyone equally." Absolutely true. Refusing to allow the use of the N-word is absolutely a reasonable demand. It's an ugly term used for centuries to demean and subjugate a racial class. But even with the most obvious words, there were complicated subrules and exceptions. The N-word was OK to be used within the protected class itself, but hopefully only in jest or affection. (But why should ANYONE be allowed to say it, critics asked if the word itself represented something awful?) Never was it to be used by an outsider.
In one sense, this kind of rulemaking was very effective. No longer could a boss or a store owner or a stranger scream racial epithets without consequence. There were costs to be paid if you did. Power balances actually shifted. Someone caught on a smartphone camera screaming at a waitress or a co-worker using such epithets would lose their jobs, their office, or their social standing. This did not go unnoticed, and soon the rules were expanding. Rules were applied retroactively. Soon the power games started in earnest.
Comedian Al Franken was elected Senator Al Franken. He toned down his comic persona and was accumulating a stellar record for progressives as a Democratic Senator. And then one day, a twenty-year-old goofy photo from his comedy days surfaced. In the photo, he was clowning around and making sexist gestures to a woman sleeping aboard a USO flight. He was mimicking a routine that was part of a bawdy USO show. The woman in the photo that accused Franken of sexist behavior was later revealed to have political motivations for her accusations, and other photos surfaced that showed that she, too had engaged in frat-house, bawdy behavior with other performers. But, too late. Senator Franken became Citizen Franken. (Franken would ask for an open and independent investigation regarding the allegations of sexism, but rather than do a deep dive into the matter, party leadership felt it was just too toxic to even talk about and asked for his resignation. He now regrets that he stepped down.)
It probably goes without saying, busting Franken for a 20-year-old, frat-house-style joke cost progressives one of their more brilliant minds in the Senate.
The language police kept widening the net. Speaking in unacceptable ways led to call-outs and accusations of sexism and racism. As social media became our primary mode of communication, callouts and "cancel culture" became widespread. Smartphones have cameras and audio recorders built-in. An idiot screaming pejorative obscenities at a fast-food worker might find himself/herself a "viral sensation" and also without a job and a pariah in his own community. (Good!) A teacher might be suspended for simply having an academic discussion that involves deep dives into these topics. (Bad!) Schools began to issue "trigger warnings" for any studies or topics that might be interpreted in any way as offensive or hurtful. In ANY way.
Academia has long been a sore spot for conservatives. "The Enlightenment" didn't work out well for established religions and other authoritative institutions. The elevation of reason and science over fear and superstition really put the squash on blind loyalties to 'the man.' Fortunately for the GOP, progressives are in charge of the new politically correct realities. Progressives are not known for keeping reason reasonable.
The language police have become omnipresent. A generation that has grown up with the new rules is now attending college. Many are filing into the workplace where they demand an absence of offensive speech or even exposure to controversial topics. Campuses have become battlegrounds to test "free speech." Conservative and liberal student groups invite controversial political speakers, and each group forms protests against the other side's programs. It doesn't help that the speakers that they choose are known to be radical and 'disruptive.'
What has this done to the college campus comedy hour? It's pretty much annihilated it. Tier one comics just dropped out of campus gigs, saying that they didn't need the headaches. Chris Rock dropped out, saying that colleges were "too conservative." In an interview with New York, he clarified:
“Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of 'We're not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say ‘the black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘the guy with the red shoes.’ You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
Jerry Seinfeld, not known for performing risque, blue material, rarely performs on campus either, saying that they are "just so PC."
"They just want to use these words," Seinfeld reasoned. "'That's racist. That's sexist. That's prejudice.' They don't know what the f--k they're talking about."
A few years ago, Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic poked around the National Association for Campus Activities Convention to see what the buyers of on-campus entertainment were looking for. A showcase of acts auditioning to get a solid gig playing on campus... comics, magicians, musicians, hypnotists... all were performing in front of a few hundred college bookers. Flanagan mingled with the student-bookers and entertainers to see what was selling. One performer seemed to set the crowd on fire.
A young gay man with a Broadway background named Kevin Yee sang novelty songs about his life, producing a delirium of affection from the audience. “We love you, Kevin!” a group of kids yelled between numbers. He invited students to the front of the auditorium for a “gay dance party,” and they charged down to take part. His last song, about the close relationship that can develop between a gay man and his “sassy black friend,” was a killer closer; the kids roared in delight, and several African American young women in the crowd seemed to be self-identifying as sassy black friends. I assumed Yee would soon be barnstorming the country. But afterward, two white students from an Iowa college shook their heads: no. He was “perpetuating stereotypes,” one of them said, firmly. “We’re a very forward-thinking school,” she told me. “That thing about the ‘sassy black friend’? That wouldn’t work for us.” Many others, apparently, felt the same way: Yee ended up with 18 bookings—a respectable showing, but hardly a reflection of the excitement in the room when he performed.
I guess it's inappropriate to judge comedy by laughter and standing ovations. Remember George Carlin's love of the freedom that college work allowed him in the early days? Caitlin noted that...
"The college revolutions of the 1960s—the ones that gave rise to the social-justice warriors of today’s campuses—were fueled by free speech. But once you’ve won a culture war, free speech is a nuisance, and “eliminating” language becomes a necessity."
Recognizing the pushback against some comics, comedian Bill Maher started a talk show on the Comedy Channel in the 90s called "Politically Incorrect." Its popularity earned a move to a nightly slot on ABC. Maher would riff on a topic and then lead a round table discussion between four other guests. The guests were often comics themselves or other celebrity figures including politicians, pundits, and journalists. It was often lively and sometimes contentious. And then came 9/11.
Commenting on George W. Bush's label of the 9/11 terrorists as "cowards," Maher would say, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, [it's] not cowardly."[ He emphasized that the terrorists were awful, terrible people, but disputed labeling them "cowards." (He was certainly not alone in this criticism, but his high profile drew a great deal of attention to his comments.) He would apologize, and explain that he had been critical of US military policy, and not American soldiers. His advertisers fled in droves, and within a couple of months, the show was canceled. It's what happens when you're "Politically Incorrect."
Maher would eventually be given a weekly slot on HBO, far from the sensitive ears of network censors and fickle advertisers. As I was working on this piece, Maher closed his HBO show with a brilliant rant on our topic today. (He, too, channeled G. Carlin.)
"College: where comedy goes to die. Kids used to go to college to lose their virginity, now they go there to lose their sense of humor." -Bill Maher
In the above clip, Maher brings up this year's comedy barometer... the Will Smith bitch slap. You knew we were going to get there sooner or later, right? It's the social litmus test for pure free speech comedy vs. political correctness (with some violence thrown in.) We all know what happened by now...we've seen it replayed on every news and entertainment show in the country. Rock makes a joke comparing Jada Smith's closely cropped hair to Demi Moore's military buzz cut in the 1997 action movie "G.I. Jane." On camera, the audience and Will Smith, her husband, laugh. Ms. Smith rolls her eyes and looks to her husband. He takes the honey-do cue and walks up and smacks a shocked Chris Rock on live, international television. Smith swaggers back to his seat and warns Rock to "keep my wife's name out-yo' fuckin' mouf." Smith was then given an Oscar for his performance. (Tough to tell if the award was for some Hollywood film or his performance only moments before. His indignation seemed so, so... real!)
For those of us that don't read Page 6, we had to find out later that this was just a man standing up for his woman's honor. (Which seems an odd concept for a couple that has an admitted open marriage.) Let's leave aside all of the now-tired debate on the rightness or wrongness of the joke and the rightness or the wrongness behind the reasoning for the schoolyard scrap... We're basically left with what Amy Schumer described as "toxic masculinity"... violence committed on an international stage by a (previously) well-respected actor... over a joke. What a fine example set for young folks that idolize their movie star heroes. What a great precedent for comedy audiences everywhere. Now you know - if a joke offends you, just strike back! An A-list comic? Get on stage and take a swing!
OH WAIT... It's already happened! I can't finish this article without getting steamrolled by current events! On May 3rd, Dave Chappelle was performing at a comedy festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Near the end of his set, a man charged up onto the stage with what appeared to be a gun with an attached knife blade and tackled Chappelle. Stagehands and security pulled the men apart and the suspect was arrested. (It would later be revealed that the suspect was in possession of the knife but was not holding it during the attack.) The attacker was 23.
Also at the comedy festival were Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx who joined Chappelle on stage. Rock would ask if the attacker was Will Smith. It got a laugh.
Other comics fear that their post-Oscar predictions are coming true. Howie Mandel was one of many that are furious and more than a little worried about the future of their performance careers.
We’re already as comedians being attacked as far as being canceled for something that you don’t like, something that you find offensive, something that you think is too soon,” he continued. “You saw what happened at the Academy Awards, and I thought that just triggers — violence triggers violence. And I think this is the beginning of the end for comedy.”
When the Comedy Terrorists Win
I've heard and read countless stories about the Vancouver, BC comedy scene. And it's really a little parable about what happens when we return to a gatekeeper system concerning speech. Especially if the gatekeeping is done by fellow progressives determined to "protect" us from ourselves.
For a great outline of some of Vancouver's history with the humor police, check out this great article in Quillette online magazine. Writer and comic Jessica Pigeau dives into how several comics in the area wanted to make comedy clubs "safe spaces," where audiences and fellow comics would not feel insulted or uncomfortable. Pigeau, a member of the LGBT community herself only felt comfortable writing about this because she has a good following and is fairly entrenched in the local scene. She notes that she has seen younger, inexperienced comics become ostracised for making similar jokes that she would make... maybe not as artfully, but still...
She tells a fairly well-known story (in comedy circles) of a young comic that was trans and was highly critical of LGBT humor that came from outside the circle of like-minded performers. The young comic became the de facto local gatekeeper and chased a couple of other comics off for making what "they" (this comic's preferred pronoun) determined to be inappropriate jokes. One fairly well-known local comedian took the stage after the gatekeeper and told joke or two referencing an LGBT topic (incredibly mild jokes that had been well received by other, mixed audiences.) Within hours of his set, social media was abuzz about what a bigot he was, and how insulted it made them feel. His career, locally, was shot. Clubs didn't want the appearance of booking a bigot, or the social media tirade thrown at them. Not long after this and a couple of similar incidents, Louis CK was booked to several sold-out shows at another popular club. Now, you remember CK and the problem that he had with his zipper? And how truly disturbing it was? There has been a lot of warranted soul-searching about whether Louis should be "allowed" back to perform publicly. However, he obviously had an audience, and they were buying tickets. When he booked several shows in Vancouver, the local gatekeeper would have none of it and fiercely challenged the club owners and other comics that might support CK. And then a strange thing happened, A couple of local comics challenged the gatekeeper, noting that the gatekeeper had ALSO admittedly been engaged in some abusive and predatory relationships. Oooops.
(I have intentionally avoided naming the comics involved, the Quillette article is well documented, and you can find this story told in detail elsewhere. Hey, I don't want to name them, who needs the wrath of the comedy police?!)
The gatekeeper faded from local view except when used as a bad example, as I'm doing now. Pigeau makes a larger point about how in progressive circles (of which she counts herself a member), diversity is prized and promoted. Local comedy albums, awards, niche festivals, and many clubs favor ethnic, female, and LGBT comics, but not necessarily for their ability to make an audience laugh. Pigeau describes some of these performers as "alarmingly amateurish," and points to one "extremely small safe-space monthly show that can only be described as painfully unfunny." The local comedy scene, once thriving, has been impacted, and not in a positive way.
In part, the current situation results from a well-intentioned campaign to rid stand-up comedy of the old power structure, which operated through cliques of unaccountable and unprofessional (mostly white, mostly male) owners and bookers. But as the progressive, explicitly feminist, diversity-oriented safe-space crowd became influential in recent years, its leaders didn’t fix this problem. They just swapped out the beneficiaries.
If the Pros Have it So Bad, What's an Amateur Smartass To Do?
If the pros barely know how to navigate the rocky waters of being funny, what's an unpaid idiot like me supposed to do? I can barely quote a funny movie without hurting someone's feelings.
I kid around. I joke around. With friends and family, I tease and badger and goof and pester and play the dozens. And I try not to battle wits with an unarmed opponent. But there's always the occasion where I'll blurt out a cheap shot, or hit a nerve, or cross a line, or you know, hurt someone's feelings.
I remember watching an early Letterman show... a very young and beautiful Nastassja Kinski was his guest. She came out fresh from a model shoot with her long hair styled/sprayed/moussed straight up. She was all of 22 years old - naive, ditzy, self-absorbed... and Letterman gently teased her a bit about her hair. The audience loved it, but she acted shocked that it should draw so much attention. As the segment went on, she kept playing with her coif, and glancing at herself in the monitor. The comic tension built until finally, Letterman asked her, "Is that a barn owl on your head?" And the audience fell out. (On the YouTube clips of this segment, you don't hear the remark. It must have been edited out for the archive, because there are numerous references online that confirm the joke.)
Letterman would later admit that he was not a great interviewer, and though he sometimes would feel terrible if he hurt someone's feelings, he was always going to go for the laugh.
"When people say, 'You hurt his feelings, you hurt her feelings' -- that I really have to be careful about... I don't want to be perceived as an asshole who just says, 'Line 'em up, bring 'em in and let me make fun of them.'... They leave in tears, and I think, 'What the fuck was that all about?'... It all comes back to the same refrain; this is supposed to be a comedy show. "My big problem," Letterman says, "has been, and maybe always will be, that if someone says something that I feel I can get a laugh by adding a remark to, I'll do it ninety percent of the time. And I know that gets in the way of an actual interview. And I know that can be annoying, and I try to keep myself from doing it, but something in the back of my mind always says, 'If you don't do something that gets a laugh here, this is going to be dull.'" Letterman pauses. "What I forget," he finally says, "is that just because something has gotten a big laugh doesn't mean everyone enjoys the humor." -Rolling Stone Interview, 1985
I know the feeling: 'Whose feelings? We can get a laugh, here.' And speaking of feelings, it's a great feeling to make someone happy, get a smile. A belly laugh? It's a dopamine rush. Ask any performer what it feels like to have a room of people in sync with you, being entertained or moved by your work. No one wants to offend, but the offenses that can be offensive seem too numerous these days.
"Just because you're offended, doesn't mean you're right." -Ricky Gervais
It's not easy, navigating to the laugh through the rocks of political correctness. Consider the (apocryphal?) quote that supposedly came from actor Edmund Gwenn. Upon his deathbed, a close friend commiserated with him, "I know this must be difficult for you." To which a dying Gwenn replied, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
In an effort to be part of the solution and not a part of the problem, here are some handy tips if one or more people are cutting up in your presence and you dislike the gist of their remarks.
How to Handle an Uncomfortable Joke: Real Life Tips for Stuff That 'Just Isn't Funny'
- Don't laugh. If you want to break your "funny" friend's heart and discourage him/her from continuing their angle of attack* - just don't laugh.
- Don't make a scene.* If you pull a Will Smith or start a 15 minute rant over a tasteless fart joke, you risk becoming the problem.
- Find some comebacks. Just Google "responses to insults" or "funny comebacks" or whatever. Memorize a few lines that work in your voice. Next time you're out with the gang and that one insufferable gal starts picking on everyone, fire off a few zingers. Standing up to a bully almost always works.
- If someone in your social circle or among your trusted tribe at work really seems to cross the line with (ugly) topical humor or insult comedy... try to have an honest talk with the person. The huge majority of us class clowns really, really don't want to rip into someone in a hurtful way. Away from the group, pull the person aside, and in a heartfelt, non-threatening way say, "hey, maybe go a bit easier on Mary, she's going through a wretched divorce and teasing her about how tired she looks makes her life worse."
- Grow a thicker skin. Really. Not fair? You shouldn't have to put up with teasing or bathroom humor? You're right, except we're human, and some social groups are comfortable kidding and teasing and joking. Don't ask a whole group to change their dynamic because you think the movie "Arthur" is "insensitive to children of alcoholics.*
- The difference in pros like Jimmy Fallon, Amy Schumer, Larry-the-Cable-Guy, Dave Chapelle and the-self-appointed-office-funny-dude, is years and years of experience. Everyone that you've seen on TV has worked at this for decades. Workshopped every joke down to the last word, down to every breath between words. They've thrown out ten times the jokes that funny-dude ever tried to make. Their batting average is major league. Funny-dude is at the morning meeting just swinging at every pitch. Suffice to say, funny-dude is not always going to be funny. Strike-outs and single-base hits are going to be the rule, not the exception. So... cut him or her some slack once in a while. You've seen a pro drop a bad joke like a turd in the punch bowl. If funny-dude is known to be cheerful and a decent person 99% of the time, let him go if he foolishly launches into "the priest says to the choir-boy..."
- Bonus Life Pro Tip: if you have to wait 30 seconds for the laughter in a room to die down for you to tell someone just how unfunny they were, then they're not the problem.
- If you're in upper management in a workplace or have a supervisory role over people, I would think three or four times before I started getting too jokey-chummy with the folks on the shop floor. Remember, one of the reasons that they're laughing at your lame jokes is that you are responsible for their salary. It's dicey enough these days to be cutting up with equals, but if you're performing your best R-rated material in the break room, you're going to step in it sooner or later.
- If you're at a formal performance, (comedy show, open mic night, etc.) don't heckle. Even if the person is a lousy comic, they're going to be comfortable throwing it back at you. And it will only make you madder. If you must, quietly get up and leave. Your personal taste shouldn't be everyone else's problem. There are other people laughing and enjoying the show. Don't take away from their experience just because this isn't your style.
- If you must heckle, then it better land. Think of all the times that hecklers sounded like drunk idiots when you heard them. If you're in full control, the performer is really, really bad (or is good and has created a space for audiences to react,) and you have a perfect opening, let it rip. Again, let's hope you stick the landing. Remember, they may not be pros, but if they have ANY experience, they're coming back for you. Take it graciously, and let it go.
- Learn how to be self-deprecating. Insult yourself first. That takes away someone's power over you. "I'm proud to be a nerd... but disappointed that the 2AM knock on my door is not a booty call, but someone having trouble logging into the VPN!"
- And lastly, don't be a scold. That's what Republicans are for. You have a right to speak, to communicate, to be heard, but no one has the right never to be offended.
*Note: Obviously, there are lines that cannot be crossed in the workplace. Truly ugly insults, racial/ethnic jokes or mocking, body shaming, vulgarity, sexual advances... Is this subjective? Some of it is. But if it's egregious, you should act. There ARE times to go talk to the HR dept. If your manager is trusted, ask him/her how best to handle it, or ask them to make your case to HR. If you have a close and trusted friend in the workplace, get their reaction and advice.
Once in a while, throw down and try to make others laugh. (If you bomb, hopefully, you'll be surrounded by friends and acquaintances that don't walk up and slap the shit out of you.) When you laugh, your body chemistry will actually change. And if something is unfunny to you, don't laugh. That's OK, too. Stick around anyway.
Isn't this fun??? Isn't fun the best thing to have???
-Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore) from the movie "Arthur"
So anyway... A Muslim, A Christian and a Jew walk into a bar...