Just Joking? Taking Comedy Seriously

By Rachel McFadden

It is a Saturday night at a comedy show. An overweight, beer drinking, crude male takes a dig at his wife. His presence on the stage is domineering and aggressive. The audience is in hysterics; compelled by the group, I manage a laboured self-conscious giggle.

I am channel surfing and an ad for channel 7’s Pictures of You comes on. Melbourne comedian, Anh Do, recounts how his father managed to trick the guards at a concentration camp by presenting an identification card of another man, the punch line? “It goes to prove even Asians think all Asians look the same.”

Again, I am straight-faced. Alarmed, I wonder, where is my sense of humour? Maybe I need to lighten up; after all it’s just a joke.

What is this notion of just a joke and what is the role of comedy and its relationship to society?

The lure of comedy is its presentation as an anarchical escape from the afflictions and restrictions of politically correct, polite and accepted social interactions. It enables the free play and reign of uncultivated, primordial urges and fantasies. Comic relief plays a fundamental and necessary role for the human condition. Comedy is undeniably about pleasure, but does it serve more what linguist Janet Bing describes as a “harmless fiction that simply amuses?”

Comedy is essentially political in that it is centred on the notion of power and the subject’s interactions with it. It plays with the established social hierarchy in two fundamental ways: to reinforce power relations between social groups, or to balance the relations between the powerful and the less powerful by ridiculing the powerful or pointing out the absurdity behind established stereotypes and power relations.

The true value of comedy is its ability to reach and to engage a large audience. The non-elitist and non-confrontational form of comedy, as opposed to a purely intellectual pursuit, is important to democracy. Humour allows us to explore controversial issues in a safe and comfortable space. Comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen used comedic form to critique their contemporary societies and raise political awareness and engagement with societal issues.

The importance of comedy has been recognised by democratic societies as far back as the first democracy in ancient Greece.  In the comic masterpiece, The Frogs (405 B.C), Aristophanes insists on the vital function of the poet (qua comedian) in society via the chorus: “we chorus folk two privileges prize: to amuse you, citizens, and to advise”, “What do you want a poet for? To save the City, of course”. The importance of freedom of expression to the health of a democracy is largely undisputed. But what about when comedy causes offence, is racist or sexist in nature, or works towards upholding unjust and discriminatory power relations between social groups?

The importance of freedom of expression to the health of a democracy is largely undisputed. But what about when comedy causes offence, is racist or sexist in nature, or works towards upholding unjust and discriminatory power relations between social groups?

There are two faces to the joke, one that amuses the intended audience and one that offends the target of the joke. In the later part of this article we will navigate through the various intentions, practices, benefits and pitfalls of comedy centred on the minority (i.e. the less powerful). Specifically, we will focus on the evolution and various functions of race comedy and ask: what are we really laughing at?

Today’s comedy shows and festivals usually consist of an over-representation of minority humour (ethnic minorities, Jewish, feminist and homosexual comedy). Much controversy has arisen in response to minority comedy regarding its submission to the status quo via self-depreciation, the meaning of minority comedy and whether the benefits of exposure in raising awareness outweigh the negatives of maintaining stereotypes. Self-depreciation in the comedic form turns the joke inwards, essentially so that the subject is laughing at themselves as opposed to others. Several commentators agree that there is a distinct difference behind the cause of amusement in the in-group that is the butt of the jokes and the out-group that sits outside the joke. Is it okay that the dominant culture laughs at (or with) minority humour?

Is it okay that the dominant culture laughs at (or with) minority humour?

Traditionally, race jokes have been used by the powerful to distinguish the difference between two or more social groups and to reinforce and justify the established social hierarchy and superiority of the powerful. This type of humour establishes social distance between social groups and works to create an in-group and an out-group. Interestingly, and at the centre of much controversy, comedians from ethnic minorities have used the same format through self-depreciation. The joke is essentially the same, however as the intended audience changes, so too does the point.

Freud theorised that self-depreciation through comedy can simultaneously express acceptance and resistance to the established status-quo. Through interrogation of the very stereotypes that once oppressed, comedians can expose and ridicule the absurdity behind such observations. In effect they can strip and empty out the meaning behind such stereotypes.

Through interrogation of the very stereotypes that once oppressed, comedians can expose and ridicule the absurdity behind such observations. In effect they can strip and empty out the meaning behind such stereotypes.

The evolution of black and Jewish comedy in America is a good case in point. Abrahams , quoted in Joanne Gilbert’s Performing Marginality ,theorises the motivation behind traditional forms of Jewish humour via self-depreciation:

One can almost see how a witty Jewish man carefully and cautiously takes a sharp knife out of his enemy’s hands, sharpens it so that it can spilt a hair in the air, polishes it so that it shines brightly, stabs himself with it, then returns it gallantly to the anti-Semite with the silent reproach: Now see whether you can do half as well. It’s as if the Jew tells his enemies: You don’t not need to attack us. We can do that ourselves – and even better. But we can take it and we will come out all right.

This observation, if correct, points to a harrowing conclusion: humour may camouflage feelings of pain, hopelessness and oppression. It may also be a vehicle through which the powerless cope with their oppression. It is interesting to note that different audiences may interpret the meaning or point of the same joke in different ways.

In the 2007 film Talk to Me, a black comedian visits a commercial television station; when he sees the audience, which is predominately white, he says: “I look out at you, and I see a room full of white faces, waitin’ for some nigger jokes … I ain’t got nothing to say to you”.

I want to return to the notion of just joking, and the various functions it plays in the role of humour. Just joking protects the space of humour, making it a free and safe place to explore the human condition; it allows the joker to disown what has been said. On the other hand it downplays the role of comedy as a social critique. It undercuts the essential aspect of good comedy; by prefixing the just to joking it asserts that the point stops after the laughter dies down. It presents comedy as just a pleasurable escape from the real world and misses the point. Good comedy is a way to critique society and address injustice and discrimination. Comedy as a social critique is meant to make you laugh: it then asks you to consider what you are laughing at.

Rachel McFadden is a human rights activist with a strong commitment to engaging people in ‘the political’: the rich, complex and nuanced ways in which we attempt to achieve justice and freedom. Rachel has travelled extensively through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa; recently completing a study tour of post-conflict societies in South Africa and Rwanda. Rachel currently works at local government in community development whilst completing her studies in politics and human rights.

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