By: Campbell Petschke
Currently Listening to: Discovery by Daft Punk
Can I Say That?
A sense of humor is one of the most subjective aspects of being human. There’s so many different types of humor out there like deadpan, dark, slapstick, dirty… the list goes on. Some of us might fall into multiple categories or maybe you’re someone that laughs at everything. Personally, I think I fall under the type of humor that’s part deadpan, sarcastic, or smart-dumb. Smart-dumb in the sense that it’s dumb humor that isn’t a cheap laugh. The jokes you’d find in Anchorman or Dumb and Dumber. One of my all-time favorite jokes in a comedic film is in Step Brothers when John C. Reilly approaches Will Ferrell on the couch and asks him why he’s so sweaty. To this he responds “Oh, uh… I was watching Cops.” Stupid, but smart.
On TikTok there’s been this growing trend of listing ‘what comedic moment in a tv show or film wouldn’t fly today’ and it got me thinking and questioning a few things. For one thing, we definitely don’t live in the same world of comedy that we did in the 2000s and that’s no secret. I remember watching Mean Girls for the first time in middle school and being shocked when Regina George says “I know that, I’m not retarded”, which is one of those unwritten rule words where you just don’t say it anymore. Sure, I heard that world all the time growing up in elementary school, but it quickly got phased out in the early 2010’s.
As a whole, society’s sense of humor is always evolving and going through phases. I remember growing up every kids movie trailer that I would see on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network would highlight all the moments in the film where a character would get hurt or smack into something. More often than not too this would be paired with some older orchestral piece like Tchaikovsky or other high energy classical music. Kids movies are a whole other discussion though. What really made me want to write this entry was because of a little show called The Office. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s every middle schooler-college kid’s favorite TV program… apparently.
There’s no doubting The Office’s place in TV history or even the sense of humor it has, but some jokes are VERY dated in the show. Or at least some would consider it dated in terms of political correctness. If some of the jokes in the early seasons of that show came out today, it would most certainly offend a handful of people. This is why it’s intriguing to see that fine line of what’s too far and what’s acceptable enough for viewer eyes and ears.
These upcoming sections are totally my opinion, you might not agree with it but this is just based on my experience. Especially from these past five years.
The Popular Man Child
In the 2010’s there’s this rise of controversial humor all over social media. It seems that a lot of laughs generated or highlighted in TV and film has to do with shock value or making an ‘out of the box’ statement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched some random recommended clip from Family Guy where there’ll be a cutaway gag, sort of their signature brand of humor, and the joke or reference in question will more often than not be something kind of racist or extremely violent. Don’t get me wrong I love Family Guy, despite it having horrible story writing 99% of the time, the jokes are more often than not have me on my ass laughing. It’s the ones that are racist that make me confused.
For example, there’s an episode where Lois and Peter have one of Lois’s exes, Jerome, over who for context is black. When Stewie wakes up and sees the sight of Jerome he asks “are we being robbed?” I laugh at the joke just because of how appalling it is that someone would still think this and so would many others for the same reason. Maybe it’s satire or even just part of Stewie’s character since he’s no stranger to saying controversial things, but more often than not there’ll be a joke like this and people will defend it saying something like “oh that’s just Family Guy” or “that’s such a Family Guy joke” and everything is okay. Really?
Just last year there was a revolution in the animated TV realm where people who voiced characters that were of a different ethnicity stepped down from their roles for it coming off as insensitive. Characters like Apu and Carl in The Simpsons, who are Indian American and black respectively, were played by Hank Azaria who is white. Azaria stepped down from both roles last year out of respect. Family Guy did the same thing with Mike Henry, a white guy who voiced Cleveland Brown who was black. The somewhat racist jokes still live on and persist on the show however and it doesn’t seem to publicly bother anyone.
I’m not here to really call out Family Guy because there are some really great jokes in the show. Peter Griffin is one of the funniest characters ever made and has a place in pop culture history no doubt. What gets me though is this legacy factor that some shows have.
Take The Office for example. In the second episode of the series, Diversity Day, Michael Scott does a cartoonishly offensive impression of Chris Rock. Even when I first saw that I was like WOAH man. Even if Michael is supposed to be an ignorant slimeball in the first season if anyone said this joke nowadays it would most likely be cancelled, context of not. What’s funny about this situation is that there’s an episode of Community where they play Dungeons and Dragons together and one character paints himself black to fit the role of a character in the game that is supposed to be an elf. They even address it in the episode that it comes off as offensive and he defends himself saying “I’m an elf idiot!” This episode was banned from syndication and not on any streaming services. Maybe it’s just my view, but the Chris Rock impression seems a lot more offensive than trying to dress as an elf in a clip that’s self aware of what it’s doing.
Despite all these factors, we (‘we’ as in most) give them a pass. Why? Because they’re old. However, if anyone were to repeat these jokes in real life nowadays they would most definitely be cancelled for it. There seems to be some sort of bias defending Hollywood where a show’s message or joke, offensive or not, seems to get let off the hook a lot. Not saying that I want things cancelled or anything, but there just seems to be selectivity. I mean think about it, these jokes, serious in nature and delivery or not were written by someone who thought this up. They go off of stereotypes more often than not, but aren’t we trying to stray away from that in society?
The Fine Line
I would be a hypocrite if I said that I haven’t told jokes that could be considered questionable. Not in a way that attacks race or gender in any way, but maybe on the more darker side. Dark humor is something that invades the internet in different capacities every day. I’m going to check Twitter right now and I bet anything that I’ll find something dark. Be right back! *checks Twitter* Alright ladies and gents I’m back and it is with great honor I report… a joke about gender pronouns was one of the first things that pop up. Did it make me laugh? Yes BUT it was over the top and meant to make light of the whole ‘there’s at least ten genders’ narrative. Which if you believe in that I’m not going to knock you for it, you do you man. There seems to be a fine line that we ride on a daily basis of what is cool to joke about and what is untouchable.
Comedians are the prime example of riding this fine line. Take Bill Burr for example. I personally think he is the best working comedian today next to Dave Chappelle. He’s not afraid to dance on this line of controversy. One of his most infamous stand-ups he has this one segment where he talks about how his wife was watching some talk show that resembled The View and how they had a discussion on domestic abuse. One of the quotes from this show said that there is no reason to hit a woman. Burr replies to this and says “really I can give you thirty off the top of my head, but you just don’t do it” implying that you shouldn’t do such a thing, but to say there’s no reason to do so is by his mindset incorrect.
I laughed at this segment. Not for the fact that he says there’s a reason to hit women, I don’t believe in that whatsoever. It’s the absurdity of his delivery and the over-exaggerated gestures he brings up. It’s dark humor, but it’s definitely not for everyone. He narrowly avoids cancel culture by saying first and foremost that he does not believe in it. Comedians in general seem to get away with this stuff a lot. Why is it when they say their thoughts they get laughs, but when someone else says it it’s wrong? Could it be that people automatically think they’re joking because they associate them with humor? Or maybe it’s the fact that some people don’t know how to deliver a joke? This is just devil’s advocate of course, I don’t believe that a certain party DESERVES to joke about domestic abuse or that it’s unfair. Just posing a question.
Did They Really Just…?
Going off of making controversial jokes, a majority of popular TV shows rely on shock humor or even gross out humor to an extent. The way I see it, controversial humor has two entities where one is more making light of a bad situation or teasing the idea of something morbid or dark happening. Controversial humor is like the bad boy at a party. He’ll make fun of the host or make a comment on the way someone dresses to impress a girl. The girl attracted to him naturally either feels uncomfortable so she laughs or genuinely thinks it’s funny. More often than not we feel like we need to laugh at a controversial joke because someone on TV made it. Or maybe we just feel uncomfortable, who knows?
The best examples of this would probably be really any adult animated show. Something like South Park is more of a satire than anything and pokes fun at how comical life is around us. Poking fun more at the people involved than trying to turn heads (of course with some exceptions). Then there’s a show like Mr. Pickles. Man, what an awful show. It’s literally a show about a murderous dog that kills people in very horrific ways. It’s mostly torture porn in the form of crudely drawn animation. This cartoon has had its’ backlash yet it has a 7.4/10 rating on IMDB…
Do people actually enjoy this shit like Mr. Pickles or do people just wanna like it because other people get offended by it and want to be edgy? In the age of cancel culture and audiences calling out shows and writing for their mistakes many may gravitate to shows like this that can get away with doing controversial jokes and gags. The same can be said about Happy Tree Friends, but that’s a whole other article for another day.
Personally, I don’t get offended by much content I see on TV or in standup. I’m very much a ‘find humor in anything kind of guy’, basically if you’re creative about your delivery and isn’t just flat out tasteless, you’ll probably win me over (again, with exceptions). I do know that the media is no stranger to making people upset though and that not all jokes are gonna land well with audiences.
Where Does It End?
A question that I ask myself a lot whenever I come across a questionable joke is what makes this okay to joke about now? Rick and Morty recently had an episode where a 9/11 joke was teased, but not executed and instead went for a joke about Pearl Harbor. It made me wonder what made this tragedy more open for jokes than the other. Often we’ll say that a joke is ‘too soon’ to make, but does that make the offense taken any less? I see a TON of 9/11 jokes on TikTok. It gets to the point where I really just have to turn off the app sometimes because I get disgusted by it. Most of these kids on the app didn’t have to live through that event or don’t remember it at all. Does this make it okay?
Think of it this way. If a man, we’ll call him Ted, lived a great life and had many friends and family members that adored him. Nothing short of a decent human being. Say out of nowhere one day he just dies. Friends and family alike are heartbroken, groups are broken up because of the loss of him. Flash forward five years after Ted’s death and one of the Ted’s friends tells a joke about the way that he passed away to another one of his friends. Are they gonna take that well? We joke about things and laugh at these things since they haven’t happened to us.
It doesn’t stop at jokes, this happens with oppression too. Someone who lost a loved one in 9/11 isn’t going to be the first in the room to make a quick joke about it. The same can be said about someone who has been exposed to racially charged police brutality. I can’t believe I have to write that, but it’s true. I’ve seen jokes online about the horrific murder of George Floyd. Nobody in that community is gonna be seen making a joke any time soon.
So when we make jokes about these tragedies that we come across is it to just to be insensitive for the sake of being crude or is it because others have no other way to cope with the discomfort? What is the duration of time where a joke isn’t ‘too soon’ anymore? There’s a lot of good discussion and can honestly be dissected till the end of days. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna stop any time soon. I guess the only thing I have to say is read the room before you make a jab at something controversial. Your tone and intent are clearly visible and more impactful than you think.