Funny…The One True God

August 11, 2020

What do you think about people getting all worked up about what are supposed to be humorous posts on FB and other social media? Is PC out of hand?

JJ Orlando, FL

One of the first things you learn when you do standup comedy – any comedy, really – is that not everyone laughs at the same things. I made my living at standup for about 5 years in the late 80s and early 90s. I did hundreds of shows in 15 or 16 states, met Don Rickles, and opened for Bill Hicks, Richard Jeni, and Milton Berle (sort of), among many others. I’ve been following comedy for 50 years and still count comedians among some of my best friends. None of that makes me smart, or even funny – only experienced.

Getting people to laugh is always moving target. I remember nights doing three shows (on the same stage, in the same town, to pretty much the same audience demographic) of exactly the same material and getting three completely different sets of reactions. That still blows my mind. But it shouldn’t.

Everyone brings their own histories, perspectives and neuroses to their seat in the audience, and there’s nothing a comic can do about that. Most standups try to find humor that appeals to a majority of the crowd, but some (notably Bill Hicks, Gilbert Gottfried, Harland Williams, even George Carlin in his later years) are unafraid to step on audience toes and ignore groans or silence because they have something to say. Or they just don’t care.

Most of us lower level comedians were in awe of those who seemed not to stress over what the room thought of them. What confidence to be able to say “Screw the crowd. I think this is funny”! Being funny is the one true god. If it’s funny, all else is forgiven.

I still believe that, mostly. A well-crafted joke can take any form, be about any subject. Some people, however, think certain topics are off-limits. My favorite risqué joke is: A pedophile and a little boy are walking through the woods at night. The boy says, “Mister, I’m scared.” The pedophile says, “You’re scared? I’m the one who has to walk home alone.” I groaned the first time I heard that, but still thought it was funny.

Some people hear particular words – the “C” word & the “N” word first come to mind – and completely shut down. I get that, but at the same time I can produce lots of exceptions that in some contexts are quite funny. Here’s George Carlin on the context of words.

There is a way to decide whether to laugh or not. To me it’s about whether the underlying message is malicious or not, which is a judgement call each time, and seems to be dependent on the teller of the joke. If you believed the joke above to be told by an actual pedophile, you wouldn’t (shouldn’t) find it funny because there is real malice there.

I laugh at Richard Pryor (doing a black character who uses the word nigger) challenging Dracula, but wouldn’t laugh at David Duke doing the same material. The underlying message of a racist doing material about black people is malicious, maybe even hateful, and I wouldn’t laugh. It would make me uncomfortable.

The same goes for LGBT comedian Scott Thompson, who’s done Kids in the Hall (and other) shows at our old Steve Allen Theater. Scott can play his flamboyantly gay Buddy Cole character (and use the word faggot) and be very funny. Would I laugh at a homophobe doing the same bit? No. It would make me uncomfortable.

All this thinking about when to laugh in these PC times came recently to mind when a former colleague and current friend, Ed Buckner, posted this joke on Facebook:

I thought this was kind of funny, mostly since it’s so implausible (and topical.)

Because I know Ed Buckner to be one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met, there was no worry that the underlying message was untoward or malicious. Ed is an enlightened, progressive, well-educated man. Nevertheless, Ed found himself somewhat on the defensive for having posted that. I’ll go out on a limb and say Ed Buckner not pro-slavery! Jesus…

I guess what I am asking, in this justifiably sensitive world, is that people consider the source when deciding whether it’s ok to laugh at something. It really does matter who’s making the joke. Yes, there’s a lot of shit that needs correcting in this country, and we shouldn’t let up for a moment in working toward a better world. But not everyone who tries to make a joke is a bad person, and no one is funny every time. That’s just a fact.

We need to laugh now and then, and shouldn’t turn into a mob at the gate every time someone tries their hand at humor that falls flat for somebody. So many folks reflexively attribute malice to someone’s heart without really knowing what he or she was trying to say. This especially applies to things in writing, because tone is often lost in the reading.

So don’t get all bent out of shape if you don’t find something humorous. Let’s just acknowledge that people don’t all agree on what is funny. Comics have always known this. It’s ok with them. It should be ok with you.