Saturday, March 08, 2003

ANATOMY OF A DUMB JOKE: There seem to be five schools of thought here:

(1) The joke was cruelly insensitive to the plight of millions of innocent French citizens who might be killed by an Act of God.

(2) The joke was unbelievable; No matter how much we disagree with the policies of the French government, America would never turn its back on the French people and refuse to provide aid and resources in time of crisis.

(3) The joke was offensive because it could be interpreted as a racist slur against the French people, whose sole offense was to inhabit France. I may as well have just called the lot of 'em "frogs" and be done with it.

(4) The joke was out-of-date. Surely by now, The White House has TiVo and no longer depends on obsolete videotape for time-shifting.

(5) The joke was wasn't scientifically grounded; a meteor that could wipe out France would pretty much take out the rest of the human race as well.

No kidding. One reader cared enough to e-mail:

"Well, I don't really care about your politics, but as a joke the poll was not even mildly amusing (and not just because I don't find wiping out France funny). By the way, I'm not a scientist, but if there were actually a meteor that wiped out France, I very much doubt that W or anyone else would be around to watch the tape.

Dunno, folks. It's not that I was planning a second career as a stand-up comedian, but I am frankly flabbergasted by the extent to which this joke has rubbed so many people the wrong way. Between the comments left by my own readers and those of Ted Barlow, sentiment is running against me by about 4 to 1.

(Even my Merry Christmas, Saddam cartoon-- which, at this moment, you can still see by scrolling down a ways -- didn't generate nearly so much vitriol, though it could conceivably have been criticized for many of the same reasons. In fact, it received only one single such comment -- from a certain troll who was simply looking for an excuse to get himself banned from my comments board.)

Look, I know these are tense times, and certainly I know we're not all going find humor from the same jokes. But, people -- really -- get a grip here. When David Letterman or Jay Leno singles out an easy target for their wisecracks, they're not revealing anything to you about their personal politics or their philosophy of life. They're just trying to entertain. Some jokes work better than others. Some wind up laying there like a lox. But I've never seen any bloggers take such grave offense at one of Dave's forgettable flopperoos that they feel compelled to rag on it obsessively.

For that matter, when the Cartoon Network airs an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, they don't run it past a scientific advisory panel to make sure that they're on solid ground when they depict the antics of a talking, floating milkshake, either.

And does anyone really imagine that Woody Allen's semi-autobiographical Annie Hall would have been funnier if it had been filmed in the style of a cinema verite documentary on his own, real-life relationship with Diane Keaton? Was it less funny because he repeatedly -- unrealistically -- stepped out of character and addressed the audience, or turned into a animated drawing of himself for a few seconds?

Comedy is a dangerous business. You only have so much time to establish your setups, execute your payoffs, and get off the stage. You simply haven't the luxury of defining your entire universe up-front. You have to assume that we share a common culture, with common culutral reference points.

When a comedian makes obervations about airline food, the jokes don't work unless we can all start from a general agreement that airline food is usually bad, and that flying coach is often an uncomfortable experience.

Sure, there's always the possibility that an airline employee will be in the audience -- and she may well become resentful over a wisecrack about those good, hard-working men and women who are just doing their jobs to the best of their ability, trying to make your flight safe and comfortable.

But if you're going to dabble in comedy, you've got to take your lumps from time to time. Jokes about lousy airline food -- likewise, jokes about French stereotypes -- may not be the zenith of humor. But there simply isn't time to proceed all jokes with an explanation of the whole political-cultural zeitgeist, or boilerplate apologies to everyone who might take offense.

Once we go down that road -- once we agree not to risk offending anyone -- then we dare not tell any jokes at all.

(Which is -- in case you didn't get it, Professor Spencer -- the oblique, unstated punchline of the Puppies & Kittens poll.)


Post a Comment

<< Home