What are We Laughing At?
By Alyssa Appelman, University of Missouri
I donít think itís any secret that the joke section of this publication is the most widely read feature. The fact that you are even looking at this article is fairly admirable. But why is that the case? Why do we as a society have such a fascination with humor?
So Iím going to be honest: Iím not the best person to whom to tell a joke. I find most of them to simply be a reinforcement of stereotypes that contribute to, rather than help to eliminate, racial and ethnic tensions in our society. Standing in a group, laughing at the punch line of a race- or ethnic-based joke is not only insensitive, but also offensive.
So why do I find myself writing about humor at all? Because when it comes to Jewish jokes, I have a different mindset. In fact, Jerry Seinfeldís "anti-dentite" comments, Nanny Fineís obsession with rich Mr. Sheffield and Grace Adlerís neurosis are all quite entertaining. And I appreciate a good Mel Brooks movie as much as the next guy.
But why is that? Why am I offended at jokes about other people, but mildly amused when other people make fun of me?
Some might say that Iím just a hypocrite. That I selectively take offense to some stereotypes but laugh at others. But I think thereís something more objective and rational to my reactions and I think that many of you probably feel the same way that I do.
I have come to the conclusion that humor, like so many other aspects of our society, is a lot about context. Okay, kind of obvious. But as I think about that thin line between humorous and offensive, I try to see the logic, and not the randomness, behind what we find ourselves laughing at.
So here it is: Alyssaís 5 Ws and 1 H behind non-offensive humor.
What: Iím starting with the "what" to give myself the opportunity to explain how I define "Jewish humor." Iím not talking about jokes mocking religious practices, or distinguishing among the sects, or differentiating Judaism from other religions: That is for another time and another article. In discussing context, I want to focus on the self-deprecating humor employed by Jewish-American comedians. You know, the "Jews are cheap, neurotic, obsessed with marriage and have huge noses" kind of thing.
Who: I think we can all agree that a jokeís humor factor is largely based on who tells it. Knowing whether a Jew or a KKK member is making a "So a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar" comment largely determines the way we react to it. Thereís something about knowing that the creators of Friends are Jewish that helps me to appreciate the "Holiday Armadillo" episode that much more. But I think the "who" is also a matter of "to whom." I donít know about you, but I often feel uncomfortable when jokes are made about other groups of people, and I assume that non-Jews feel the same way about Jewish humor.
Where: I think the outlet for a joke is also quite vital. Printing and reprinting depictions of Muhammad in public newspapers is clearly different (and potentially more offensive) than making a comment among friends. Laughing at a joke when you are in the privacy of your home is obviously less harmful than doing so in a diverse crowd. Not to say that laughing at another groupís quirks are admirable in private, but just more socially acceptable.
How: The tone with which a person tells a particular joke is, at least to me, indicative of their motive and purpose in telling it. I guess I am a little less quick to yell "politically incorrect" if I can tell the joke is really just a joke, and does not have deeper roots. (Although I have a hard time believing that any joke or stereotype does not somehow originate from a more complex prejudice.)
When: I think the "when" is absolutely essential in determining whether I laugh or cringe at a joke. I think that most of us feel fairly comfortable being Jews in America right now, and few of us worry about how people are going to react to the depiction of a pushy Jewish mother on television. But if Adam Sandler were singing 60 years ago about the number of Jews in Hollywood, some of us might be more concerned about peopleís reactions. And the fact that a cartoon depicting Muhammad as a terrorist has arisen in an era of widespread anti-Muslim sentiments makes the outbreaks we see today more understandable. As important as the audience is, I really believe that the timing is everything.
So in the end, itís all about context. Understanding humor, like understanding anything else, is based on the historical and social context in which it is discussed.
But even if we are cautious, and sensitive, and really just trying to entertain, is it worth it? Is it worth potentially offending and alienating people? And if it isnít, than why do we do it?
Why: Maybe the harm in joke-telling is less in the words that we use, but in why we even choose to use them. Thereís no question that Jews are a minority in America. So are we using humor to make ourselves feel better and less threatened? Or are we so insecure that we have resorted to self-deprecation as our only outlet to vent?
Even if you think Iím uptight and that "a joke is just a joke" and I should get over it, when you really start to think about the "why," about why we do what we do and laugh when we laugh, doesnít it seem a little ridiculous? When we make fun of ourselves, doesnít that open the doors for other people to join in? How can we take offense to anti-Semitism, when we are, in fact, making anti-Semitic comments ourselves?
So go ahead. Tell your jokes. I will listen. But in the end, is it really all that funny?