“But I Was Just Joking!” Humor as a Shield


This post was originally published Sept 10, 2009 here.

Comedy. Humor. Jokes.

These things make us laugh, giggle, chortle, and guffaw. Their implicit design is to make life easier to deal with, better and more enjoyable. Having a wide span of humor is a wonderful thing in life because it makes it possible to get some good out of even truly awful situations. It also allows people to bond together. Laughing together is good for people. Laughter itself is a very healthy thing psychologically. So its no wonder that there’s an entire realm dedicated to comedy. That people out there are known as the Funny Guy, or the Funny Girl (or the Funny Androgyne in spaces that are nonbinary inclusive XD) above all other traits.

Humor is a big deal.

The function of jokes and comedy is to appeal to an audience. To make them laugh. Every comedian, every funny person, every joker and clownish type, they all direct their jokes to a given person with the intent of creating laughter. Without anyone listening, jokes are useless and hollow. And of course, not everyone has the same humor. Some people find knock knock jokes and other simple punchline styles hilarious while others find them boring and cliche. Some folks love ironic humor and dark comedy, while others find that stuff a bit depressing. Everyone has different humor needs but one can generally group people based on the similarities. Knowing what your audience likes, knowing what will make them laugh is what we call “a sense of humor”.

It’s actually a trait of the comedy giver, that sense of humor thing. When someone doesn’t find your joke funny, they don’t have a poor sense of humor, because they are your audience. You’re trying to appeal to them. So their humor is the one you need a sense of.

After all comedy and humor are entertainment. The audience is right. You are wrong. Don’t like it? Find a new audience. XD That’s showbiz.

Humor can also be method of social commentary or a way to say harsh things that need to be said while still softening the blow. In the end though, your audience still matters. If they don’t laugh, who’s fault is it?


Because really, in the end, you are entertaining them. It shouldn’t be work to be entertained. One pays a little money, goes to a show, sits back and relaxes and someone else provides the service of comedy. Even the jokers who don’t get paid are still working to entertain others. Various reasons of course, but for many, it arises out of enjoying being liked, causing mirth, making people happy. If you didn’t do that, then you aren’t very good at being a joker now are you?

I’m a funny girl. I joke around a lot and sometimes my friends tell me I’m not serious enough. That’s fine, I don’t need to be serious as they want me to be. But sometimes my jokes aren’t funny to them. The timing is off, or the joke hits too close to home and they don’t laugh. It sucks when that happens and I usually feel embarrassed. But it isn’t their fault that they didn’t find the joke funny. Their tastes are not really controllable, nor should they have to change their tastes to cater to me. It is me, not having a good sense of what they like, that made my joke not funny. Or me not having the skill to meet those likes, be it timing, content, type of humor, etc.

I can understand an inclination to want to blame them, but really, it’s my fault. I didn’t appeal to my audience.

Now that we understand how humor works when its done right, lets see how it works when it is done wrong.

People were pretty pissed about this. And that’s because the humor was pretty bigoted. Humor, like anything, is influenced by privilege and bigotry. After all, jokes come from the mind and go through that filter first. Conan O’Brian’s audience has trans women in it, he is on national TV after all. So when people say it wasn’t funny, trans or not, that means he screwed up. They don’t need a “better sense of humor”, he has failed a portion of his audience with his comedy.

Because really, offense counts as not finding it funny. And like I said above, if your audience doesn’t find it funny you failed as an artist. They didn’t fail you, it isn’t their job to laugh.

Badly done humor isn’t just a neglectful exercise in privileged bullshit. It is often used as a shield too. Let’s face it, no one likes to be called a bigot. No one would be proud of bigotry, privilege and what have you. In this day and age of the liberal reputation game, a lot of people play tolerant and accepting to look better. They pay lip service and have a token number of y friends (y being people from marginalized group n1, n2, n3, n4,… nx). They also tend to fuck up, being that they are still privileged and refuse to actually address that privilege (in fact, many players of the liberal reputation game refuse to acknowledge the concept of privilege at all).

Usually these fuck ups are slips or jokes. Things that they figured would be safe because, hey, they found it funny right? Well, moving past the obvious (that they failed to make their audience laugh and ergo failed at humor), it becomes abruptly clear that they’re using the humor as a shield. There’s this idea that humor, comedy and what have you, gives immunity to say whatever stupid, bigoted or truly insulting thing you want.

This mostly arises from insult comics, but in reality, most them aren’t very funny or popular. The few that are actually tend to insult themselves more than anything, or celebrities (who us mundane folk love to hate). For instance, Sarah Silverman tends to work awfully hard to make herself look like an idiot as part of her act.

The fact is though, comedy doesn’t make you immune to anything. If anything, it makes you more vulnerable to the needs of your audience. All they have to do is not laugh at you and you’re the one who comes out looking like an idiot and a failure. So it strikes me as sort of stupid to say this, “But I was just joking! You shouldn’t be offended, it was supposed to be funny!”

In reality, if it wasn’t funny, then you failed. And if you failed to make it funny then there is absolutely no reason to assume that it wouldn’t offend someone. In fact, the assumption that a joke couldn’t possibly offend someone is a bit offensive and insulting in and of itself. Because it assumes that everyone has your tastes, your bigotry, your views. The assumption that everyone does, or should, have your tastes is dismissive and asinine.

But really, that’s not what goes through most of these people’s heads (and certainly not mine when I fuck up like this). What’s going through their heads (and mine when I’m fuckstupid about this) is, “I’m being awfully clever/ironic/funny”. Not, “what will these folks like? What can I do to make them laugh?”

That’s the sign of a piss poor comedian. Thinking about how awesome your joke is instead of whether it will appeal. And then, the bigoted piss poor comedian, when someone is offended and does not laugh, thinks, “what’s wrong with this person? I was funny! They just don’t get it!”

Really, you’re not funny. If you were funny, people would have laughed. It’s very simple lesson that every comedian, joker, hilarious person, funny guy/girl, ironic or dark comedy peddler and jester type learns. If your audience doesn’t laugh, do something different.

Which leads me to a conclusion. When a bigot couches their bigotry in a sheath of humor in order to hide it, the above thought process is not the one up there. The joke is an afterthought, because the person wants to raise a viewpoint but knows that viewpoint won’t go over well. They’re hoping that by putting it as a joke, it will slip by the radar or at very least, they can claim that the person just has a poor sense of humor instead of actually addressing the bigoted shit they said. It’s a diversionary tactic, and a very successful one. Because then the person addresses the humor angle, when they should just say, “If I ain’t laughing, then you ain’t funny.”

A person who actually knows how to joke, who actually learned the ropes from trial and error, they would know that the words, “oh you just can’t take a joke” are the most epic bullshit one can say regarding humor. It either means that you’re too much of a loser to actually do humor right and can’t take rejection well at all or that you’re a faker who thinks that humor will save you from those evil PC police. So in the end it comes down to this:

Either you’re a bigot hiding behind “humor” or you suck at jokes.

There’s also a fairly brilliant analysis of the cowardice of “edgy” comedians over at Shakesville here.

Go here to read the comments on the original post.

One Response to ““But I Was Just Joking!” Humor as a Shield”

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