In which we step from behind the curtain to spout opinions.
Be Offended By Laziness And Nothing Else
It seems like there’s almost an annual event in the media: a comic says something that offends someone, and then the world divides into those crying out free speech and those denouncing the content of the joke. Here I use the term offensive due to how others define it; personally, I can’t think of any topic that offends me based on content alone. I may be a rare case– I’ve been performing stand up comedy for several years, and inundated myself with it for over two decades. The content, while important, is always thoroughly discussed; intent and context are less so. While these three are important factors in the creation of a joke, there’s a fourth, more important, factor never discussed: effort. Comedy is called an art by those who write and perform, but a true craft takes effort and energy. If the audience can guess the punch in your setup, it’s a bad joke. Instead of taking the time to hone and craft a joke, there are many comics who just try to push an envelope that their predecessors tore to shreds decades ago.
The latest event that looks like it could be this year’s comedy controversy is Larry David’s piece in the New York Times regarding the tragic Boston marathon bombing. In the piece, David sets up a scenario imagining if his mother had to defend his name if implicated in the bombing. Her go-to defenses include traditional stereotypes connected to Jewish mothers, “He sees a spider in the house, he gently puts it in a tissue and takes it outside. That’s a bomber? That’s a pleasure!”. The article continues on this fashion. Many have come out against the article, calling “too soon”, including some employees of the Times itself. Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a response, quoting numerous readers calling for an apology by both David, and the Times. Readers denounced the piece due to its content, saying things like, “There are people in Boston with no legs and Mr. David seems to think it all very funny.” Sullivan takes a different stance. While she acknowledges that humor is subjective, she breaks down her issue with the piece not working, stating she was upset “not only because it was insensitive, but also because it was unfunny.” Beyond the content of the joke, Sullivan’s bigger gripe is that it just wasn’t funny enough. I actually agree with her. I wasn’t horrified by it – David’s words didn’t “make my skin crawl”, as one reader said – but for a topic like this you have to bring your A-game. For someone as quick-witted as Larry David, I give his page long essay that’s essentially just a joke about Jewish mothers. I smirked perhaps once, in the beginning, but the rest of the piece is just more of the same old rehashed material.
There are numerous reasons we can laugh, and there’s not one single way to write a joke. Two common joke styles are incongruity, and the absurd. A very lofty-sounding study called “Assessing The Appreciation Of The Content And Structure Of Humor: Construction Of A New Scale”, defines incongruity theory as “a two-stage process [that] can be observed, which consists of the perception of an incongruity and its resolution.” We non-scientists know this two-stage process as the set up and the punch line. Setups create a premise, and the punch twists an expectation, creating (in theory) a humorous situation. The absurd is a little more difficult to define: simplified, it points out how inane, or ridiculous an experience is. This is what David’s NY Times piece does– it sets up a hypothetical “what if”, but unfortunately we’ve been getting jokes about Jewish moms for decades. It’s still more exciting than the slough of “jokes” that flooded Twitter in the days following the bombing, including gems like “But Obama said we won the war on terrorism!!!! I’m so confused!!!!.” At least Larry David was sort of trying to say something, most people were trying to prove how “edgy” they were without putting the time in to craft a real joke. This is what offends me more than any dead baby, rape, or 9/11 joke ever could. It’s the laziness, the lack of effort people put into their “humor”, relying on shock or edge in an era where shock and edge have been dead for decades. We’re flooded daily with countless videos of sex, death and Family Guy. Shock me with something I’m not drowning in: wit. I’m all for free speech, now just prove you have something worthwhile to say.-MG