Why Offensive Jokes Are Crucial to Our Salvation as a Species
The Truth about Jokes...
The truth about jokes is they are all offensive.
In order to create to laugh response we must offend a sensibility (ob"in front of against" + -fendere"to strike"). It is this antagonism of our assumptions that causes a sort of short, or contradiction, in our reasoning that results in laughter. Misdirection, shock, twisted reasoning, or the absurd all serve to offend our normal sensibilities and create laughter. Even old classics seemly benign of any offensiveness such as “why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” is funny because it offends our idea of why we do something specific. We cross roads for reasons, and that reason usually has to do with going somewhere or going away from somewhere for a reason based on needs and wants. But a chicken is simple, it crosses the road for no other reason than to cross it, in fact its probably not even aware that the road itself is different than either side. We are offended by the motives of the chicken and then offended again by realizing we may fancy ourselves smarter than a chicken and yet we could not guess the chickens motivation correctly, in that way we are dumber or as dumb as the chicken, which offends our superiority. Good jokes often offend on several levels at once. But the target of this joke is not the chicken. It is about a chicken, but the target is our penchant for assuming things based on a human outlook as well as our sense of superiority (and there's surely other reasons for offense in there as well). Knowing the difference between the subject and target of a joke is key to understanding the underlying point a joke actually makes, as we will see...
Because a level of offensiveness is a prerequisite to laughter, pain—which is the most relevant and powerful of human offensiveness-es—is the most reliable subject to drive humor. In most instances, the more pain that is alluded to, the more offensive it is, and therefore the funnier. As many writers about humor have pointed out, the somewhat great comic Mel Brooks once said (paraphrased): Tragedy is when I get a paper-cut: it stings, it hurts, it's annoying, it terrible; but Comedy: comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Not only does pain offend and create humor because it is painful, but it also offends and creates humor because we are denying our better (kind, sympathetic, empathetic) selves for a heartless point-of-view which is one that most of us would feel ashamed (and rightly so) to act out in day-to-day life. This is why comedy that takes the voice of a jerk or other cruel, unsympathetic character, its such an effective one in comedy (out of the 3 comedy routines that exist: the Jerk, the Freak, and the Poet—the Jerk is the most common today). The anxiety we feel between being a good, considerate person and being a selfish, cruel person is relieved by humor. The tension we feel when regarding others who act in ways we see as immoral and inappropriate is also alleviated by the over-the-top, extreme, and obliviousness found in this humor: Yes, the idea suggested is indeed terrible, and so it is offensive, and so it is funny... After having released the paralysis of pressure created by the fears, possibilities, and contradictions of life, we can now deal with unethical behavior in everyday life more effectively with a cooler, less explosive mindfulness. This release of powerful emotions in a non-destructive way is the most valuable thing concerning laughter as well as the main reason for its existence.
But the Mel Brooks statement isn't just a proverb about humor, it is also a joke as well. It targets the self-absorbed, vain self in which whatever happens to us is of utmost importance (no matter how actually small it is) and how insignificant the lives (and deaths) of others are in comparison. The wisdom behind this is that if point-of-view alone decides value, then there is no true value, and comprehending that allows us to laugh at ourselves with the same vigor with which we laugh at what is not ourselves. So again, wisdom and comprehension leads to laughter.
There are different levels of offensiveness because there are different levels of a jokes complexity, sophistication, and maturity. In order to laugh at a joke about quantum physics, one must understand something about quantum physics (though some of the best jokes intrinsically teach us about the subject they are making fun of). So the more that one learns, experiences and can conceive of, the more things that person will be able to find humorous. Ignorance limits our humor. And often, when we don't “get” something and feel left out, we end up towards anger.
Likewise, there are reasons to laugh at a joke in a way that agrees with the target and reasons to laugh at that same joke that disagrees with the target. For instance: A joke about a murder may be funny to an actual murderer because it reinforces the offensive motivations that guides him which he knows is not shared by the community at large. The same joke may be even funnier to a non-murderer because the act in itself is so offensive and wrong, but the very idea that it could be treated lightly is also offensive, so the person who is anti-murder laughs hardest at the joke about murder. Because this is true, a joke that may seem to be supporting cruelty to one point-of-view is actually revealing kindness in another point-of-view. So that the intention is at the heart of the matter--but right there with it (intention) is the choice of perception about the intent. If one mistakes the subject for the target, one may not laugh and consequentially not only is the stress of the subject not relieved, it is intensified. Since jokes are rarely straightforward and are usually multi-faceted, the decision then to take something as upsetting instead of funny is often the choice of the listener. In order for something to offend us without bringing some mirth we must take offense in that way. It is the listener that allows the joke to be effective or ineffective. Maturity allows that when a joke misses its mark it is not dwelled upon, it is left behind, in order that further jokes are not tainted...
So, 2 points about jokes are important here: What is the joke about and what is the target of the joke?? Often, when these two points are confused or misconstrued one may be offended in a way that makes one angry or hurt, but this response is often only a failure on the listener to comprehend the joke in a humorous way--which is another reason to laugh, because we don't always get the joke, we don't always share certain humors, we are different and we do have shortcomings and these are things that are funny about us. Since jokes never reveal a point directly, its inference is up to the listener, which is why what we laugh at reveals more about the audience than the comedian. If a joke can be taken in a morally-positive reinforcement, then it will be taken that way by those who are morally upstanding. Ironically, it is those who are most at odds with a joke that reveal their own immorality, because choosing to translate something that can have multiple (and positive) translations as negative is the action of a negative-thinking listener. It more often shows that the listener wants to be outraged rather than entertained (as proved by their choice to take offense without mirth), and this listener has no business in a situation designed for humorous entertainment (show, film, gathering). Sometimes that's based on mood: we are not always in the mood to laugh; sometimes that is based on conditioning: I have been taught that this should not be laughed at!; sometimes its based on taste: I just don't like puns enough to laugh out loud at most of them; and so on. This point is made in order to limit the incorrect conclusion that if you don't find something funny, you are an idiot or a prude. There are many good reasons to not laugh, mostly based on 2 things...
This brings to light one of the most crucial issues regarding the controversy of humor, which is “setting” and “audience”. In what setting a joke is told is paramount to its appropriateness. While humor should very rarely be cut out entirely, the subjects told at a comedy show can be all-encompassing, with nothing that should be exempt from joking, because that is the essential purpose of that setting; while during a funeral or in a courtroom, the acceptability of jokes become much more narrow. This points to comprehension of the purposes of a gathering and the understanding that while a joke may be great, it still does not make it welcome in all venues at all times. Consideration must be utilized by all parties.
This is why knowing your audience (whoever can hear or will hear you) is also important. In any given gathering there will be those with more developed and less developed senses of humor, as well as differences in tastes, and differences in sophistication. Levels of humor are important for all parties to understand. Whether or not a joke is at the expense of a more powerful thing than the speaker (punching up) or at the expense of a less powerful thing than the speaker (punching down) also matters since it is brave and noble to fight against the tyranny of the strong while it is cowardice and pathetic to harm those weaker or at your mercy (but even these purposes can be reversed if done ironically, which appears as if you are punching down when the opposite is true)
In order to save to cut the word count (and save some for the book, lol!), here are some statement that are true, but I'm not going to prove them much here, I'm just going to put them down so you can know: Jokes that just seek to belittle or humiliate only are of the lowest quality; jokes that self-efface or self-reveal are the highest quality--but paradoxically (and therefore, humorously)-- a joke that belittles or humiliates CAN actually make fun of the character speaking more so than the subject. This is the type of joke that is most often misinterpreted as being bad because on its surface, it is bad, but when one peels back the surface, one sees that the joke is on the character speaking. Also, even though jokes that humiliate are of the lowest quality in the greater scheme of humanity, they can still be funny.
Because it is so hard to prove intention its best to restrain from certain jokes based on setting and audience. Discerning this comes with maturity, education and experience, so strong reactions and punishments to what might be a bad joke are just as inappropriate as the joke and often condemn the person reacting as much as the joker....In order for us to grow, a certain degree of nurturing is necessary, one does not scream at a seed to make it grow (ha-ha).
Laughter reduces stress. Laughter also reduces blood pressure, increases blood flow, oxygenates the blood which assists healing, clears the respiratory tract by dislodging mucous plugs. Laughter also increases the concentration of salivary immunoglobulin A, which defends against infectious organisms entering through the respiratory tract. It also works out most muscles in the body which makes it count as exercise. Laughter is cathartic. It allows the stress of negativity to be relieved and we become mentally and emotionally healthier because of it. Since your well-being is increased by laughter, it is in your best interest to laugh more and one way to do that is to find more things humorous.
But in order to find more things funny, one must increase intelligence, compassion and morale comprehension because it is by these tools that we understand relationships; relationships which are bound necessarily by stressful forces; stressful forces that are relieved (somewhat) by humor.
Even laughter that is faked or forced can have positive effects, so if you are one of us that does not laugh out loud even when finding something quite funny, you should practice faking it. A beneficial exercise is to take a little while out of your week to laugh heartily at things that aren't funny to you at all: things that are so serious, frightening, traumatizing and maddening that you would never laugh at, take 10 minutes on a Sunday morning and just laugh insanely. It might be hard at first, especially if done alone, but you will be better for it...
That is not to say that everything should be a joke all the time. In order for humor to be effective, it must offend our normal sensibilities and if it becomes commonplace to offend these sensibilities all the time, they will no longer be funny. So it is important to have a larger part of existence be non-humorous to keep the novelty of laughter effective...
“Humor” and “Human” both have the same root of “hum” (liquid or wetness). This is not by accident, it is by design. One of the most important and peculiar things that makes us human is our ability to see the world through a humorous lens, to laugh. The more dire and dangerous the world becomes, the more valuable humor and laughter becomes because it is our only reliable protection against powerful destructive forces like apathy and hate. Great power that oppresses us can be overcome just by the act of laughter.
You have probably noticed that humor can be some of the most complicated and confusing subjects to analyze, and that's to be expected since human beings are some of the most complicated and confusing people we know. If you take anything thing away from all this exploring, second-guessing, thought gymnastics, and offensive offensiveness it's this:
when in doubt, laugh.