Do we need humor police?

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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.



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43 thoughts on “Do we need humor police?

  1. BobD

    A great topic. Do we take ourselves too seriously? It seems to me that we do. Everything, and I mean everything, is so freekin serious these days it makes it hard to distinguish those (very few) things that really should be taken seriously. I am not suggesting we should go through life as mindless giggling morons, but c’mon. So many people can’t take a joke, are incapable of laughing at themselves and moralize everything. My theory is it all starts from a judgemental perspective. Having said that, let me make a few points about the current atte of humor these days. First, a “comic” sexual reference of any kind directed to a 9 year old girl is never funny. That young girl deserves to grow up as slowly as possible and not be subjected to sexual references of any kind. Second, my problem with McFarlane was his comic material wasn’t very funny. It is a cheap shorthand version of real comedy to constantly rely on celebrity cliches and boob jokes as the main source of your material. I think the whole “Big Open” to the Oscars has jumped the shark and hasn’t really worked since the Billy Crystal days. Speaking of the Oscars. enough already about the dresses. They all look great. All the stars are beautiful. I can’t tell a bad dress from a good one. Third, a lot of things that get taken so seriously these days aren’t that serious in my opinion. Choosing paper bags over plastic bags at the grocery store doesn’t really make you a better person, for instance. On the other side of the spectrum, no one is coming to take away your silly army rifles. So lighten up, folks. Life is short. Relax, have a good laugh, sometimes at your own expense, and stop worrying so much.

  2. Allen Marko

    I think that if the Onion had just stayed one letter earlier in the alphabet and called her a “b-word” they would have gotten much less blowback. The “B-word” is much more accepted and thrown around fairly loosely on prime time television. I actually think that would have been a funnier line. The other problem is that the “C-word’ has clear sexual overtones that are inappropriate for describing a 9 year old child.

  3. maurinsky

    I certainly am surprised at anyone who expressed surprise at Seth McFarland’s humor, because I think his sense of humor has been abundantly clear for some time. I’m not a person who is easily offended, and I wouldn’t say my response to either McFarland or the Onion Tweet was offense, but I didn’t find either of them funny, either. I think McFarland was aiming for making humor out of offensive material, which some comedians do brilliantly (Louis CK, for example), but he’s either not skilled enough or doesn’t work hard enough to find the balance so he’s not punching down.

    When you consider the song about Boobs, how many of the movies referenced had actresses who were playing characters who were being assaulted? Jodie Foster, Halle Berry, Hilary Swank…there were at least a couple more. That’s something we’re supposed to be titillated by? It’s just not funny, really.

  4. Todd Zaino

    Your Kenny G joke was funny, his music all sounds the same and makes my ears bleed. MacFarlane’s sense of humor plays much better of Comedy Central roasts. MacFarlane’s Rihanna/Chris Brown joke was LOL funny. The biggest joke of the Oscars was having Moochelle Obama announce the movie of year…please.

  5. Urquhart

    I kept thinking the big winner that night was Ricky Gervais, that too-crude-for-primetime standup who doesn’t seem quite so offensive anymore. Still, I wasn’t offended by McFarlane—I thought his hits and misses pretty well balanced out and he seemed to be an equal-opportunity skewer. As for being offended at all, I used to say my TV has an off button; now it’s on my cable remote, but it works the same way.

  6. Richard

    I applauded when I read Iceland was going to censor porn. I’ve compeletely regressed. I think double entrendre’s make for better song writing, sexual allusion and enticement make for better films, and great humor doesn’t require vulgarity.

    The death of the Great American Novel? Of the popular song? Of comedy? Passing off the Lowest Common Denominator as art is a catastrophe. I’d also like to note I’d be first to the trough to complain about censorship. Probably because I like to complain.

    As far as listening to the cranks who play the victim because of something innocuous said on the air? Can we gather them up and have a bonfire? Garrison Keilor would turn these complaints into little vignettes full of odd and quirky people and their victimization fetish. I prefer the bonfire.

      1. Cynical Susan

        No, the right has decided it’s okay to call her that (did Rush first use the term? Then it’s gospel) because they claim she is a moocher.

        Of course no reference to Laura Bush or Ronald Reagan appearing on the Oscars, no no no.

        1. Richard

          I think Michelle Malkin gets the award in this one. Note that they share the same first name.

          I first heard it in 2008 when people were referring to Michelle’s make work Hospital Job. At the time the criticism brought up by the Chicago Trib and others is that one of Michelle’s job duties was emptying the emergency wards by dumping the Southside residents into local Doctors Offices where they got inferior treatment under her Urban Health Initiative which was a flimsy’ pass the buck’ program.

          A fairly contentious program to say the least.Let’s just say the local minority leaders weren’t convinced it was anything other than the hospital dumping patients out of financial self-interest to record margins above the national average and to record charitable emergency costs 40% below the national average in a poor section of a poor city.

  7. Todd Zaino

    Funny, the topic is about humor and Otto, and Colin, apparently seem to take themselves way too seriously. If you both must know, it has nothing to do with with a cow (but if she keeps packing away those three thousand calorie lunches-you never know) Moochele is little play on the word “moocher.” Lavish over-the-top vacations on the tax-payers’ dime seems wrong…but nobody would dare ever call the prettiest, smartest, and best first lady on anything…right?

    1. Richard

      Not a new topic when it comes to minors:

      From 1992:

      “If the Gore girls were a president, they’d be Babe-raham Lincoln … Chelsea—well While it’s true that adolescence has been thus far unkind, we think she’s gonna be a future fox. Chelsea Clinton–not a babe, she’s a babe in development.”

  8. Jim Akin

    I’m glad The Onion apologized. Its mistake, in my opinion, wasn’t with the gist of the joke, or even using the word it used; it was involving a kid who’s too young to be expected to understand the joke.

    Unfortunately, the joke depended on slinging snark — vile, unconscionable snark — at a target the audience would universally consider undeserving of it. In a “haters gonna hate” world, there aren’t many targets you can pick that someone wouldn’t consider worthy of heaped viciousness, no matter how crass, unfair or unsubstantiated. Only slamming a beautiful, innocent child could’ve ratcheted the Oscar Night gossip meter up to that level of outrageous offensiveness. Which is why they should have abandoned the joke.

    I believe tweeter was trying to cast The Onion itself as the most nasty and moronic in the endless parade of idiot bloggers/tweeters/commentators opining on the awards. That approach is valid, and the target of the barb a worthy one, but the execution was unconscionable.

    Even if she wasn’t the intended target of the humor, there’s no excuse for involving any person incapable of being in on the joke. Now if a sweet, innocent nonhuman like Lassie, Benji, or Beethoven had been at the ceremony, they might have served as a suitable fulcrum for the joke. It wouldn’t have had the same impact, but it could have worked. Oh well, another way CGI is ruining everything.

  9. Todd Zaino

    The c-word, bitch, whore, or slut
    In polite circles considered smut
    Obama’s created an economic mess
    Moochelle looked horrible in her dress
    Dieting tips from her and her linebacker’s butt

  10. peter brush

    Is she like a cow…
    In the early eighties I shared a place with a British woman. Of course, she often referred to women as “silly cows.” Men held in low regard were “wankers.” But, the striking thing about her vocabulary was her frequent use of “cunt” in reference to dopes of either gender. Here, the word is apparently the last one we absolutely cannot say, although the reason we can’t say it may have changed. I didn’t see the AcadAward Show nor the Onion thing, but surely there’s no need to refer to a 9 year old girl, even jokingly, in such terms.
    While I am one of the more vulgar chaps you’re going to meet in Nuevo England, I am glad there are still some taboos. The question for me is not humor police, but whether we can freely strive for more polite and civilized discourse, generally. Should we not question, perhaps, the value of “transgression” as the object of art? It is by definition violative of societal norms, but at this point there just aren’t that many norms left standing.
    I know we’re supposed to think that both sides are equally responsible for every bad thing we accomplish, but I sincerely believe the current attack on humor, the Earnest Prude Movement, is of the left. What has replaced the old religious/societal rules is the eternal equality quest, wherein victim groups take umbrage at anything conceivably casting them in an unfortunate light, particularly at anything that suggests the validity of the old hierarchies. I don’t get the offense, but the Lego/Bieber/person must surely have been a womyn activist offended that her daughter might be considered a silly cow dedicated to chasing boys rather than becoming an engineer.

  11. peter brush

    at this point there just aren’t that many norms left standing
    It brings me a bit of a chuckle to imagine one of these humorless tight-asses out to reform male/female relations in the direction of perceived equality paying big bucks to send her daughter to a place like Yale (and, now, the University of Chicago); transgression rules, so to speak, and laughs are as few and far between as sunny days in February. Saint Valentine’s Day has to do not so much with romantic love, but more with “sexual health” and “therapy.” (Kingsley Amis: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop. After Youth, that is.”)

    In 2002, Eric Rubens approached Jacqueline Farber, head of Student Health Education division of Yale Health Services, which conducted the sexual health orientations for freshmen and which had previously given sexual health talks around Valentine’s Day, with the idea of hosting a campus-wide event including guest speakers and other sexual health events. With the Student Health Education’s support, other groups, such as the Women’s Center and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Co-op, agreed to co-sponsor the project, and Sex Week at Yale was born.[1] The event was composed of talks by a number of Yale professors, a series of talks by Yale’s peer health educators, a film festival and a celebrity panel entitled “Sex and Entertainment”.
    Sex Week at Yale in its current form takes a multi-disciplinary approach, enlisting a diversity of speakers from company executives, to sex therapists, to professors, clergy, adult film stars, and everyone in between.

  12. Don Pesci

    Aristophanes, as you probably know, took careful – and painful – aim at the politicians of his day: Creon was a favorite. Most political jokes have a shelf life of about a half a week, so the laughs are bleached out of the plays for us. Anyhow, one day he was approached on the street by an enraged pol threatening a suit and asked, “Don’t you take ANYTHING seriously, to which he responded, “I do. I take comedy seriously.”
    That, it seems to me, strikes exactly the right note – which is, if you don’t like the laughs, stay out of the comedic kitchen.

  13. peter brush

    if you don’t like the laughs
    I think what we have is the ascendancy of a neo-puritanical movement. Whereas Yale was founded as a religious outfit with little emphasis on humor, it is now reconstituted on another equally humorless quasi-religious basis. Speaking as an adherent of neither religion, I can tell you which I prefer, and which I believe to be the more destructive of civilization, the more out of touch with human nature, the more absurd.
    On St. Valentine’s Day I like to get my wife some flowers from Stop and Shop and recite by heart a little Shakespeare.
    Sonnet 130

    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
    I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
    And in some perfumes is there more delight
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
    I grant I never saw a goddess go;
    My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

  14. peter brush

    Better than “My Funny Valentine,”
    … but not necessarily more effective in the short run, as Ben Bernanke would say.

    1. ThresherK

      Yeah, that’s a “sun rises in the east” headline. Big whoop.

      If I’m Michelle Obama and I do something explicitly to curry the favor of Foxholers, aren’t I just doing something which will have no good end?

    2. Bill

      I’m loving’ it – them – them two. And in 2016, Hillary is really going to drive you crazy, Todd. And when she is re elected in 2020, you will be under a doctor’s care.

  15. Bill

    On humor here; I seek cheap laughs here by engaging with the conservatives. Todd is one of the more docile members. Nothing personal. Just the business of poking sometimes vicious fun. I don’t need to attend a comedy playhouse when I have the Hartford Courant threads to work.

  16. Todd Zaino

    By 2016, Hillary will be too old-she lost her chance when media, and low-information crowd fell in love with a young unknown with a dubious past…now we have to pay the fiddler.

    Bill, all kidding and BS aside, you honestly can’t be happy with the lack of direction our country is headed…are you? Do you ever in a mature moment wonder what American is going to look like in 10 or 15 years from now? Have you actually gotten around to looking at the true costs of ObamaCare?

    1. Bill

      Todd; much of my rants are fictitious. I am a middle reader. But I’ not here to be an apologist for the kunservtive koots on this site. so to answer your question, I am not blinded by partisanship. No, not happy. But I ain’t tilting toward the right for solutions. No way, Jose.

      1. Bill

        Todd, let me clarify my comment. My rants are not fictitious. They are, however, appropriate responses to that which is expressed here.

    1. Richard

      I missed the joke. I saw the picture of Heidi Klum and my jaw dropped. I’m still staring at it. Six hours later.

  17. Todd Zaino

    Heidi Klum is quite the knockout…tread light Richard, a feminazi here might call you out on having the nerve to call Ms. Klum stunning…how dare you Richard…have you no shame!?

    1. Richard

      Today the Feminazis are boycotting makeup and pretending its some form of new age protest. I’d remind them biblical women used to do the sackcloth and ashes in protest and Lysistra is simply classic :). Women refusing to sleep with their men or to appear presentable unless men swore off of warcraft.

  18. peter brush

    I missed the joke.
    What was up with that? German uniforms were hot?
    For a Jew, Joan’s not that smart, but I’m with Todd; God bless her. Some of us are quite tired of the anti-anti-Semites; the originators, arguably, of pc. Abe Foxman can kiss my ass-berg.
    First of all, the president: get into the White House and do your goddamn duty.

    1. Todd Zaino

      Peter- shouldn’t Joan catch a break, she’s half Jewish, and she’s 79, I thought all of the liberals here gave older Americans a pass on the funny things they say and do…right?

      I am beginning to think some of the liberals who comment here, are cafeteria liberals. 🙂

      1. Richard

        Joan’s been pretty good to the locals over the years while she lived here The crazy old bat is a National Treasure.

        from 2010

        LITCHFIELD—Those who love comedian Joan Rivers are in a for a treat July 2, when Ms. Rivers will be appearing at the Bantam Cinema to promote her documentary “Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work.” She will be available to her fans after each showing of the film for a conversation.

        “I am beyond excited for July second. The Bantam Cinema represents everything that is wonderful and rural about this area,” said Ms. Rivers in an e-mail. “It’s my favorite place to take jaded houseguests—from the Bantam’s homemade cookies to their intimate screening rooms and amazing selection of unique films, it reminds us why we love Connecticut.”

  19. peter brush

    Joan OK with me. I gather that the humor police got their knickers in a bunch over the MacFarlane performance at the AcadAward show. I’d be happy if the ADL were to disappeear, but at a minimum Abe Foxman needs to relax. Joan’s face could relax a bit, too.
    Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued the following statement:

    While we have come to expect inappropriate “Jews control Hollywood” jokes from Seth MacFarlane, what he did at the Oscars was offensive and not remotely funny. It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism. It is sad and disheartening that the Oscars awards show sought to use anti-Jewish stereotypes for laughs.

  20. Todd Zaino


    If you can catch the episode of Louie (on FX) where Rivers played herself, I think you’d love it! She totally stole the show on that Trump You’re fired show a few years back. It’s nice to see that she has not lost her fastball.

  21. Kimi

    Humor is like gossip. Both quickly spread information about what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. Jokes that only offend sensibilities are very different from jokes that do real harm by forming restrictive social rules around specific groups of people.

    ??Gilbert Gottfried’s tsunami jokes were harmless for most Euro-American audiences. Gallows humor can help us stop staring at horrors when we need to keep moving and can help caregivers fend off secondary trauma. It also can be hurtful to people experiencing direct loss and can make some people uncomfortable. Gottfried’s offense was failing to adjust to the mixed audience that the internet brings. His humor may have created bad feelings for some but it wasn’t aimed at the reputation of the Japanese people or weakening their power.
    The Onion’s jab at Quevenzhané Wallis was very different from Gottfried’s tsunami jokes because it conveyed a restrictive social rule. The problem wasn’t that some people just “can’t take” hearing a street name for a female body part. It was that the tweet slapped down a 9-year-old black girl for cheering for herself, for being proud of making history, for being excited about her very remarkable accomplishments. It was meant to tell the world that she was out of line and should be limited to her non-threatening, useful, small role of being the bearer of female genitalia.

    ??There are many jokes about body parts and sex that are actually funny, but that was not the function of The Onion’s tweet. Not at all.

    ??If the idea of small talk as social instruction does not make sense, Elaine Lui’s TedX talk might shed some light:??

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