On Offensive Humor

By S. Ross

WARNING: This essay contains something to offend nearly everybody. Read at your own risk.

Once upon a time during World War II, a pilot in the Polish Air Force accidentally pulled the trigger at the right moment and shot down a German plane. This being unprecedented, the Pollack hadn't been prepared to deal with the guilt, and he decided to visit the hospital where the badly-injured German pilot was being treated.

"I'm sorry I had to shoot you down," said the Pollack. "I know you're probably a decent fellow. Is there anything I can do for you?"

The German raised his head weakly and wheezed, "There is. The doctors are going to have to amputate my leg. I don't want it to be thrown into a dump in Poland. Could you fly over Germany and drop it there, so at least part of me will be home in the Motherland?"

The Pollack agreed. Once the leg was removed, he put it in his plane, flew over the border, and dropped it over a forest. He then returned to the hospital. "You'll be glad to know that I've carried out your request," he said.

The German whispered, "Thank you. Now, however, they're going to amputate my arm. Could you do it again?"

He did.

Upon his return, the German pilot thanked him, but added "Now they're going to have to amputate my other leg..."

The Pollack looked at the German for a long moment. His eyes narrowed. "Hey," he said slowly. "Are you trying to escape?"

I knew dozens of Polish jokes when I was young, passed on by classmates and cousins in an oral tradition. I could tell you how many Pollacks it took to change a lightbulb, how to get a one-armed Pollack out of a tree, how a Pollack scratches his back, why there are no ice cubes in Poland, and so on, and so forth. The one found above was my all-time favorite.

There were times when I was warned not to tell them, like when I visited my father's workplace. It was also pointed out now and then that my grandmother was from Poland. I couldn't see the relevance. The jokes weren't about real people; they weren't meant to offer any sort of social commentary or insight. (So I might have said, if I'd used words like "social commentary" and "insight" when I was ten.) They were just, you know, funny. "Pollacks" was a placeholder, culturally understood to mean "exceptionally dumb people" in the context of a joke, but they could just as easily have been from Chelm, or Harlem, or Ireland. Sometimes they were.

But now I'm older and wiser... or at least older. I've learned that Polish people can indeed feel offended by Polish jokes, and that it's not a good idea to tell ethnic jokes in unfamiliar company. Besides, being able to tell jokes isn't as much of an asset at 32 as it is at 10, unless you happen to do stand-up or write for television. But that having been said, I still think the jokes are funny.

There are ways around the issue. A friend wrote a column for the Daytona Beach News-Journal Online, declaring himself a "Smablurkian," and offering to allow his nationality to be used in jokes without fear of reprisals in exchange for a small royalty fee. While I've taken him up on this once or twice, it doesn't quite feel the same. One might wonder why.

JERRY SEINFELD: I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he's converted to Judaism just for the jokes.

FATHER CURTIS: And this offends you as a Jewish person.

JERRY: No, it offends me as a comedian.

Seinfeld, episode 153: "The Yada Yada"

On December 4, 1999, Saturday Night Live included a sketch promoting an upcoming holiday special, And So This is Chanukah. Various "recording artists with Jewish management" were featured. Britney Spears (guest host Christina Ricci) earnestly explained that "Chanukah is a special holiday when we, as Christians, take time out to think about forgiving our Jewish friends for killing our Lord."

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League went ballistic, as he is wont to do. He sent NBC a blistering letter demanding that the sketch be pulled from reruns, saying that "We have worked with the Vatican and others for the last 50 years to educate against this poisonous doctrine and for SNL, in a lame attempt at humor, to revive this notion is unacceptable."

While I'm Jewish, I didn't think it was a lame attempt at humor. I loved it. It was easily the best sketch in an otherwise subpar show, and I was glad that I happened to be taping it. The jokes were aimed mostly at celebrities and Jewish stereotypes, with a helping of innuendo (D'Angelo singing "I want your Hanukkah bush"), and a satirical undercurrent (the very idea of a star-studded major-network Chanukah special is absurd, while Jewish performers are invariably roped into performing on Christmas specials). I didn't find anything inherently offensive about citing, for comedic purposes, the belief that all Jews are complicit in the Crucifixion. I certainly didn't share Foxman's fears that it furthered a "poisonous doctrine." If anything, that doctrine was being mocked.

Indeed, SNL producer Lorne Michaels had a different take. "We are not pro-drugs, but we make jokes about drugs. We're not pro-ignorance, but we make jokes about ignorance, and the only way you can do it is by showing ignorance. The idea that any discussion of these ideas is out of bounds is idiotic to me."

Granted, there are times when a given joke appears to play into bigotry, rather than satirizing it. What would be the appropriate reaction then? For instance, on the "Weekend Update" segment of the February 24, 1996, episode of Saturday Night Live, anchor Norm MacDonald had this to say about the sentencing of one of the killers of Brandon Teena (a crime later dramatized in Boys Don't Cry): "In Nebraska, a man was sentenced for killing a female crossdresser—who had accused him of rape—and two of her friends. Excuse me if this sounds harsh, but in my mind, they all deserved to die." Comedically speaking, this is barely passable. The end comes as a surprise, condemning even the friends of a "crossdresser" to death for a bit of shock value, but it'd be hard to impute any redeeming satirical importance. Small wonder it was protested by transsexual activists. To quote Riki Wilchins of the Transexual Menace:

Another transperson is brutally murdered in [a] fairly unambiguous hate crime every 4-5 months. This will not change with better laws or more legislation. It will change when we are no longer considered disposable people. It will change when we are no longer considered freaks. It will change when people no longer find the violence of our lives a fit and amusing response for our having crossed gender lines. We will continue to die violent deaths, Mr. MacDonald, until people's attitudes change.

I agree with every word of that, and I am deeply concerned by it, especially as I've felt threatened when tiptoeing around gender lines myself. Still, I think holding Norm MacDonald accountable overstates the power of any joke to set a social agenda. The joke may have reflected, even relied upon, bigotry against transgendered people, but it didn't create that bigotry. Blaming the comedian in this case is rather like blaming a messenger for giving you bad news.

More to the point, contrasting shock-based humor and satire is a lot like contrasting porn and erotica. Nobody is likely to draw the line between either pair in the same place. Consider another "Weekend Update" joke from the following year, commenting on a custody case involving a transsexual: "Hmmm... I wonder who's going to win this one: the mother of the two children, or the guy who had his penis twisted into a fake vagina?" Is it a satiric commentary on the conservative and capricious way the judicial system is seen to handle custody cases, or just a cheap shot? I'm not sure myself.

For that matter, empty calories (or porn, or gleefully violating the bounds of good taste) are sometimes just what the doctor ordered. I'd rather have comics play with those boundaries and occasionally bomb than feel afraid to touch controversial material entirely.

Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words! That's what this war is all about!

—Sheila Broflovski, in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

There's a major motion picture that's all about going way over the lines of good taste for comedic purposes: The Aristocrats. It has no nudity and no violence, but the language used ensured that it would have to be released unrated. It centers around one joke, which goes something like this: a guy walks into a talent agent's office to pitch a family act. The act, ad-libbed in loving detail, includes all manner of sexual perversions and bodily functions, breaking every taboo the comedian can think of before getting to the inevitable ending: the agent asks "What do you call an act like that?" The guy replies "The Aristocrats!"

Put like that, it's not a terribly effective joke. The humor lies in the delivery. The film includes dozens of comedians, no two of whom tell it the same way. In the film, this is compared to hearing jazz performers riff on a theme, and in many cases, this seems apt. George Carlin's stripped-down but utterly gross version is a master class in vivid detail and personable delivery; Drew Carey's has a happy, snappy ending. There's a mime version, a juggling version, an animated version. Penn narrates a bombastic version while Teller provides illustrative magic tricks. The staff of The Onion breaks the joke down and brainstorms new elements to include. (My own modest attempt, using a variant punch line, can be found in the appendix to this essay. It's relatively tame. I didn't even include the dog.)

"The Aristocrats," the film explains, has traditionally been a joke told by comedians to other comedians, rather than one used in performance. Comedians can cut loose around their peers, they say, they have the freedom to see how just far they can go over the line without fear of losing the audience. The joke isn't really about the material, anyway; it's a chance to show off one's range, ingenuity, and style. The film shows camaraderie among a community, collectively collaborating over the comic art.

Of course, if they can work in some good descriptions of caca, that's always a bonus.

Like rape: "You can't joke about rape, rape's not funny." I say, Fuck you! I think it's hilarious, how d'ya like that? I can prove to you that rape is funny: picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See? Hey, why do you think they call him "Porky," huh?... I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke.

—George Carlin, Parental Advisory—Explicit Lyrics

My favorite commerce site on the Internet, aside from the almighty Amazon.Com, sells T-shirts. The site is a shining example of usability. For any given design, one can select from multiple styles (including muscle shirts, babydolls, sweatshirts, and hoodies) and a rainbow of colors, and instantly be shown what the resulting shirt will look like. The steps toward ordering are clear-cut, the site runs smoothly, and the merchandise is top-quality. I have bought several shirts now, and anticipate buying more in the future.

I just won't wear them in public very often.

The site is T-ShirtHell.Com, and it takes pride in offering the finest in offensive shirts. "I may have Alzheimer's, but at least I don't have Alzheimer's." "I fucked the Olsen Twins before they were famous." "I support stem-cell research, but only as a byproduct of my support for killing babies." "Some of my best friends are white people." "Homosexuals are gay!" That sort of thing. And those are from the relatively benign main section of their site. The really controversial ones—my favorites—are relegated to the "Worse Than Hell" section. That's where you'll find "But what about the good things Hitler did?" "Arrest black babies before they become criminals," and "Rape is no laughing matter... unless you're raping a clown."

I tend to stop by the site shortly after major disasters to see their response. Past shirts have included "I went to Washington D.C. and got shot by the sniper," "Every time I masturbate God kills the Pope (oops, sorry!)" and "To hell with Terri Schiavo— stop feeding Kirstie Alley!" They've had 9/11 shirts, tsunami shirts, and now Hurricane Katrina shirts ("Flash me for food and water"). I find it comforting, even affirming: no matter how bad things get, whether through natural disasters, political failures, or media-induced hysteria, we can still make fun of it. That's worth a lot to me.

But not to others. Earlier this year [in 2005], T-Shirt Hell president Aaron Schwarz was poisoned, presumably by one of the many activists who'd threatened to kill him. He took the "Worse Than Hell" section of the site down for about a month, to weigh his options and confer with his family, friends, and employees. One employee decided to leave, rather than take any risks; the rest decided to stay on, and the section was restored. "A big fuck you to the people who tried to shut us up," wrote Schwarz in the company's e-mail newsletter. "If I have to die in the name of free speech and over funny t-shirts, well... prepare my grave now."

Complaint letters are a mainstay of the newsletter, and most fall into one of two categories: the clueless and the hypocritical. The clueless include people who'd never heard of the company before, but are now part of an e-mail campaign to remove one particular shirt that offends them. These very often include some form of "you racist/sexist/insensitive clod, how dare you make fun of Group X? You'd never do the same thing if it were Group Y!" Group Y is invariably the subject of another shirt on the site. The hypocritical include letters from people who loved the company when it was making fun of Groups A through W, "but now you've gone over the line. How dare you mock Group X like that? It's not funny!"

Of course it's funny. The phrase "it's not funny" is almost always contrary to fact. It really means "I don't think you should find that funny." In some cases, it's the wording of a particular joke that's deemed offensive; perhaps more often, entire subjects are deemed off limits. You can't joke about rape, about soldiers, about bestiality, about Jews, about autistic polka-playing housewives from the Midwest. Although the last of those rarely comes up, for some reason. In fact, the things that one isn't supposed to joke about tend to be things society doesn't want to consider, the things society doesn't want to think about. This is a pity, as these are often things society ought to be thinking about. They're the hot-button issues. Race. Inequality. Inhumanity. Bad hairstyles. If we can't even joke about them, how can we hope to address them?

Godwin's Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

—Mike Godwin

There's a widely accepted principle in online discussion groups that as soon as somebody compares the opposition's position to Hitler, Stalin, or Nazis, the discussion is no longer productive, and the argument is over. Furthermore, in a bid to discourage the nuclear option, the person who makes the comparison is generally held to have automatically lost the argument.

Because I am occasionally a realist, I support this policy, even though—in an ideal world—any and all comparisons ought to be fair game. The problem is that there are subjects people aren't willing or able to approach with logical detachment. It is unquestionably true that Nazism had its good points; the most civilized nation in the world didn't lose its collective mind overnight just because a demagogue came along. To be effective, all evil starts with a core of good. To quote one of C.S. Lewis's Martians in one of his science fiction novels, speaking of one human's drive to preserve the human race at all costs:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws all [created beings] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of them is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly.

Love of one's culture and race is not inherently a bad thing. On the other hand, protecting it by wiping out those of other races who might pose a threat is clearly going too far. The question is where one draws a line. That question, regrettably, will never be considered as long as people continue to see Nazism as nothing but the embodiment of Evil.

Meanwhile, when any relevant comparisons are made online, they amount to a bait-and-switch. Yes, one's position on affirmative action or artistic integrity or the ecology of Pokémon or the shelf life of Little Debbie snack cakes may have some points of comparison with Nazism. One might even conceivably use them to productively understand both issues better. But what happens instead is that all discussion grinds to a halt, because making the comparison instead means that the viewpoint at issue is Evil. Once at that point, there can be no further discussion.

Unlike the ADL, I don't approve of this. I think refusing to critically think about the mistakes and crimes of the past is the surest way to ensure that they happen again. And I think this buttresses my similar feelings about taboo subjects for jokes. Let's get 'em out in the open and deconstruct 'em.

My puppy died late last fall

He's still rotting in the hall

Dead puppies aren't much fun...

Mom says puppy's days are through

She's going to throw him in the stew

Dead puppies aren't much fun.

—Ogden Edsel, "Dead Puppies Aren't Much Fun"

There are special cases. Telling a dead fetus joke around a woman who's recently miscarried is probably insensitive at best, suicidal at worst. One might go easy on the AIDS jokes when talking to somebody who's just buried his lover. These, however, are not special boundaries for humor; they're special boundaries for entire subjects. There's nothing wrong about promenading about with your lover and your adorable children, but you might not want to do it around either of the above hypothetical people. No need to rub it in. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down; that doesn't mean you ought to give it to a diabetic.

I've had a pet-loving friend who was fine with ethnic jokes of all kinds, but couldn't abide humor about dead animals. I disagreed with his trying to impose that on others, but I'd have no objection to it being something he wasn't able to stomach. For my part, I love Harry Chapin's song "Sniper"—a totally serious song about somebody gunning down a bunch of people from a clock tower before being killed himself—but had to fast-forward past it for months after September 11th. It was still a brilliant song; I just wasn't up to listening to it.

So, sure, exercise discretion. But don't throw away perfectly good material just because not everybody's up for hearing it.

BETH [Jerry Seinfeld's girlfriend-of-the week]: What was that all about?

JERRY: Oh, I said something about dentists and it got blown all out of proportion.

BETH: Hey, what do you call a doctor who fails out of med school?

JERRY: What?

BETH: A dentist. [they laugh]

JERRY: That's a good one. Dentists.

BETH: Yeah, who needs 'em? [pause] Not to mention the blacks and the Jews.

Seinfeld, episode 153: "The Yada Yada"

Getting back to ethnic jokes, one might say that they foster a sense of community in two ways. Perhaps the more obvious one—or at least the one most often criticized—is in excluding others. One cannot have a strong group identity, goes the claim, without defining oneself against other groups. One might ask: what would Red Sox fans be without the Yankees? One might answer: just another bunch of people whose team wins the World Series once every 86 years or so. Why else is "Yankees suck" heard at Patriots rallies? Not being New Yorkers is what being a New England sports fan is all about, one might say.

(I would never say that, of course. I'm a Yankees fan in Boston, and I like having the full use of all my vital organs. But one might.)

But these jokes also involve a more positive form of community building, and for this insight I'm indebted to an article by Ted Cohen. Ethnic jokes involve a wealth of shared knowledge; one needs to know that, say, Poles are stereotypically stupid, that the Irish are stereotypically drunkards, that Jews are greedy, that Scots are stingy, and so on, and so forth. If you don't recognize the stereotypes being played on, the joke doesn't work; that the teller and the hearer share the knowledge necessary to make sense of the joke reinforces a sense of community. I could tell you several lightbulb jokes involving particular Jewish groups (Lubvitchers, Satmars, Breslovers, Reform Jews, etc.), but most of you reading this essay wouldn't understand them. "Part of the kick in joke telling," Cohen argues, "is [the teller and listener's] implicit awareness that they are joined to one another."

What complicates matters, he explains, is that sometimes one doesn't want to be in the same community as the teller. While it's true that recognizing stereotypes and appreciating humor based on them doesn't require accepting them, when told a joke by somebody who does accept those stereotypes as fact, one can become uncomfortable. One feels complicit.

I don't deny this, but here too I would argue that this is hardly unique to joke-telling. Indeed, there are those who feel uncomfortable having anything to do with bigots, on the same logic. On an individual level, I won't quibble with that; on a societal level, this seems counterproductive. Letting bigots associate only with other bigots is hardly going to make the world a better place. One might even argue that finding common ground through humor might be a way of bringing them into the fold long enough to make them appreciate other perspectives.

Then again, this might be the point where I'm blinded by my starry-eyed liberal idealism. But I'll take it over the brand of liberal idealism that wants to force the rest of the world to conform to its own image.

APPENDIX: A longer take on "The Aristocrats/Sophisticates/Royals"

So this guy walks into a talent agent's office. "Have I got an act for you," he says.

"Mister," says the agent, "I'm busy. Anyway, I hear a hundred acts a week."

"Not like this," says the guy. "Trust me. It's a family act like you've never seen before."

"That's what they all say," says the agent, with a long-suffering sigh. "But fine, you've got two minutes. Sell me."

"Well," says the guy, "I and my wife come out on stage as the last notes of the national anthem play. I'm in a tuxedo, she's in a little black dress, and we're carrying a large American flag. We carefully lay the flag down on the stage. Then we take our clothes off, fold them neatly, and make love on the flag. It's romantic and patriotic, missionary position. Then my 14-year-old son Tommy comes out, an all-American boy, followed by Dolly, his 10-year-old sister; she's as pretty as a picture. They take each other's clothes off, do a series of cartwheels across the stage, and go into a 69. Then we switch positions. My daughter starts jerking me off while my son fingers my wife. Then my son gives me a blowjob while my wife uses a strap-on to ream my daughter up the ass. We keep changing positions until everybody's come at least once. Three or four times, in my wife's case, and she ejaculates buckets, so it's a great show; the crowd really gets into it. Then we all take a dump on the stage, and do a hoedown in it, kinda like Ashlee Simpson, but with better music. Then my grandfather comes out. He used to have a bigger role, but he's gotten shy on account of an accident with a milking machine a couple years ago that tore his penis up good, and now he keeps his shorts on. We're trying to get him over that; he's a natural performer, and he does a lot of the act's choreography. Anyway, he comes out with a copy of the Koran; we rip out pages by the handful and use them to wipe up the shit. Then we want to clear the air from the smell, so we set fire to a Torah scroll, letting it burn for a minute or so before peeing on it to douse the flames. Then me, my wife, my son, and my daughter each pick up one corner of the flag and fold them together, neatly wrapping up the shit and the scriptures, and present it to my grandfather. He feeds the whole package into a wood chipper and fires the mixture high above the crowd, where it rains down like confetti. The audience goes wild, and we all take a bow."

The agent sits in stunned silence for a long moment. "That's... certainly different," he finally allows. "What do you call an act like that?"

The guy beams. "The Sophisticates!"

Copyright 2008, 2005 S. Ross. All rights reserved.