Most people will tell you that they have fabulous senses of humor and that they are not prudes.
And they mean it.
Until they encounter something that kicks one of their tripwires. My own personal favorite complainant was the outraged woman who said she usually enjoyed my work but that some little throwaway line about shellfish allergies required, on my part, an apology “to the entire allergy community.” So noted.
I deal with this all the time, especially working in public radio, where a big part of the audience takes itself and its listening habits very very seriously. In recent months I’ve spent quite a lot of time placating one woman who was grossly offended by my offhand on-air remark, to some Lego company reps, that they could sell their product to young girls more easily if there were a build-a-Justin-Bieber set. “It was a joke,” was the last thing this woman (whose incredibly self-actualized daughter uses Legos and doesn’t care about Justin) wanted to hear. It was also true, but I didn’t want to get into that. I had a few upset listeners when I wrote a Wolfie opener about jazz in which Kenny G is killed with a bow and arrow. Two weeks after Newtown was too soon, they said. They were probably right. I even copped to having finally let loose two weeks of pent-up anarchic feelings in that one joke. Which is one of the things comedy does: offer catharsis.
The most authentic discussion I have heard of transgressive humor – its sources, its perils, its consequences — was on a fairly recent Nerdist podcast. It heats up around 25 minutes in, if you’re in a hurry. These are comedians, who live and die right on that edge.
The whole question is front and center right now because of (a) Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar gig and (b) the Onion’s first ever apology. If you have a little time, Slate’s multi-part discussion of MacFarlane is pretty illuminating and helped me see “the other side.” (I still think the whole meta “look what I almost did” construct was pretty weak and seemed offered up in lieu of actual strong material.)
So much of the transgressive humor debate has to do with where you set up your base of operations in the first place. I think the guys on that Nerdist episode do a good job of getting at that. “I tell these kinds of jokes. That’s what I do.” It’s not an ironclad defense, but it’s meaningful.
That’s why the Onion controversy is interesting. Their modus operandi is: anything is fair game. They published kind of a humor piece on Dec. 14. That’s the territory they have staked out. And that’s why, internally, there are a lot of questions about whether they should ever apologize for anything. Let’s say that C-word joke offended 82 percent of people. It’s not as if, having apologized for it, they won’t do a joke in the next few days that would offend 71 percent of people. So what are we really talking about here?
There are certain kinds of humor that I don’t really like. So I don’t seek them out. I’m not really troubled by the fact that they’re going on somewhere. (This is where MacFarlane ran into trouble. A lot of people who never would have sought him out were stuck watching him on the Oscars.)
Also, by way of warning, we’re opening today’s show with a fairly juvenile horse meat sketch. Blame me.