Whenever a comedian gets in trouble for their material, the reaction is polarized. On the one side are the comedian’s critics, who claim the jokes were promoting a bad ideology or were promulgating negative stereotypes. In stark contrast stand the comedian’s defenders, who themselves are outraged at the outrage. The defenders can be found with fists pumping in Youtube comment sections, Rotten Tomatoes user reviews, and on the mics of hangout podcasts. They often express their concerns with phrases like “it’s just comedy” or “they’re just jokes.”
Take Dave Chappelle’s newest special “Sticks and Stones” as an example of this. The great comedian’s return was universally lauded by fans and comedians, and universally derided by critics. Its critics score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35%. Its audience score? 99% positive. Critics were outraged at what they perceived as Chappelle’s offensive and insensitive jokes. For example, he makes a joke about a Chinese person trapped inside a black person’s body, conveyed through a stereotypical Chinese accent – multiple outlets accused him of racism. The audience, however, thought everyone should just lighten up.
Weeding through what is a joke and what is a message (and what is both) in comedy can be hard, but it is not a fruitless task. Comedians do mean some of the things they say, and to deny this is to denigrate the validity of comedy as a truth-seeking art form.
Critics are, in fact, too easily offended. The “Chinese person” joke, for example, was completely misinterpreted – critics at websites like Salon and Vice thought the comedy was derived from how funny Chinese stereotypes are. Rather, the joke is exploring what we call racist; if a Chinese person speaks with a Chinese accent, that’s normal, but if a black person speaks with the exact same accent, it is seen as an exaggerated racist stereotype. The joke was doing what comedy does best: making a point about the contradictions and confusions of everyday language and ethics.
Notice that my defense of the joke was a defense of its central idea, not an exoneration by its very nature as humor. If Chappelle was making fun of Chinese people with the joke, I would agree with the critics that he shouldn’t have made the joke.
The greatest comedy is truthful. It doesn’t always state a simple opinion, but it always gets at something we can connect to, often something that had previously only existed in the murky waters of our subconscious. Louis CK’s “Of course, but maybe” bit from his special “Oh My God” is one of my favorite examples of comedy that dredges intuition and uncertainty from the subconscious.
In the bit, CK points out that murder and slavery have been crucial in the technological and cultural development of mankind. In other words, bad things need to happen for good things to happen. The joke dwells on the discomfort of this problem (more technically stated, the deontological/utilitarian clash in philosophy). It is memorable and funny because it’s painfully true.
Some comedy, though, argues for bad ideas. Although Chappelle’s first special “Killin’ em Softly” is hilarious, it often argues for wrongheaded ideas. He jokes about how white people are private about their political opinions, while black people are very vocal about them (“I’ll whoop George Bush’s ass!”). Many sketches from Chappelle’s Show play on similar stereotypes – in one, he plays drums, eliciting a jubilant reaction from blacks, and then plays electric piano, eliciting a jubilant reaction from Latinos. These jokes play on racial stereotype, and nothing more. I am skeptical of their validity as statistical claims – in fact, it’s likely they only seem true to us because of stereotype. I have never actually seen a black person say they will assault a politician, but I laughed at the joke because I know American racial stereotypes fairly well.
These jokes promote bad ideas, and we should take that seriously. If we excuse all jokes of this kind because they are jokes, then we must also throw away any appreciation for the truth-seeking of good humor. It’s an insult to the worth of comedy to say anything is “just jokes”: nothing is just a joke.
There are more nebulous cases. Here is CK joke about rape: “Obviously you should never rape anyone, unless you have a reason, like you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you, in which case what other option do you have?” Perhaps the joke comes from some kind of sympathy for rapists. Another way to look at it is that he is highlighting the absurdity of rape, i.e. showing that it has no real justifications. Clearly rape has no justifications, so it’s unclear whether the joke is arguing for something bad or not.
A lot of humor falls into this halfway category. The comedian is neither completely sincere in their ridiculous statement, nor are they completely joking. But we don’t have to reject the idea of humor as a method of delving for truth to admit that we can’t know the answer for every case.
I think comedy is important, as philosophy and as psychology. Great comedians use laughter as a tool to reach deep into our psyches and pull out uncomfortable, sometimes terrifying things. It’s giving this vital part of our culture short change to say that unfounded and misleading comedy is “just jokes,” and that we shouldn’t take it so seriously. Strangely enough, comedy is no laughing matter.