A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
Just before we get into it I’d like to give readers a trigger warning: this article contains content regarding child molestation, rape, racism, and sexism. It is an attempt to look at the way these behaviours have been confronted and represented in humour, and for what purpose. I would also like to state that I am trying very hard to remain objective throughout this article: I do not want to tell anybody what they should think. What I hope is that people will come away from this article with fuel for conversation, instead of thinking “well now I know what that guy’s opinion is.”
Racists Laugh and Whingers Complain: Controversial Humour
by Peter Ellis
“Child molesters are very tenacious people: they love molesting childs, it’s crazy! It’s like their favourite thing! I mean, when you, it’s so crazy, because when you consider the risk in being a child molester, speaking not of even the damage you’re doing, but the risk—there is no worse life available to a human than being a caught child molester… And yet they still do it! Which from, you could only really surmise, that it must be really good. *audience groans and gasps in shock* I mean from their—not ours—but from their point of view! It must be amazing—for them to risk so much!”
– Louis C.K., Saturday Night Live, May 16, 2015
Ever since my adolescence I’ve loved controversial humour. It all started with my first dead baby joke when I was fourteen. I was sitting with a group of kids a few years older than me, and suddenly one of the guys just said this horrible joke, and I just... I couldn’t BELIEVE how funny it was. A few other people laughed, but most went into what I now know as “dead baby mode”. Someone immediately told another one, this one viler than the first, but before I got a chance to properly digest it someone trumped it with another, worse again. What was this novel state of being that I had stumbled upon? This depraved swapping continued until finally somebody told one that nobody else had heard, which earned universal groans of appreciation that symbolised the peak of the activity. Ah, the sweet innocence of a circle of seventeen-year-olds telling dead baby jokes. For us, swapping dead baby jokes was like swapping puns: you just got swept up by the rhythm. Even the people who weren’t laughing weren’t offended—it was too inane for that—they were just bored and irritated.
Sometime after that, in another dead baby joke circle, I met someone who wasn’t just bored and irritated. Much to my surprise, they were actually offended by the dead baby jokes! They were sickened by them, and they didn’t care if “nobody means it”, or if everyone was on the same page—they thought the jokes were disgusting, and they didn’t think it was morally acceptable to laugh about the horrible death of an infant. I was irritated with her, because she’d taken our innocent dead baby jokes and made them something bad, and so we argued. Do you see what had happened?! These simplistic, fun, offensive jokes had mutated and evolved into something bigger and trickier: they had become controversial. The definition of controversy, per some schmuck at “Cambridge”, is “a lot of disagreement or argument about something, usually because it affects or is important to many people.” Controversial humour definitively requires disagreement: a mixture of argumentative responses that voice appreciation on one side and condemnation on the other. This argument echoes in many aspects of our culture, in a variety of different contexts. Sometimes you will side with the humour, and sometimes you will agree that it is too serious to laugh about.
Controversial humour is fascinating because it toes such a sensitive line. What people find offensive and what people find acceptable can start some very interesting conversations, because people love controversy. These can be important discussions that actively shape our culture. However, it can also impact people horribly. It’s dangerous, because there is nothing funny about a victim of abuse being triggered by offensive humour. It’s also dangerous for people who tell the jokes, because the second a large audience question the comedian’s moral character, their material becomes a self-indictment that can end their career. This article is not about whether the jokes I address are funny, it’s about the conversations that have risen through their controversy, and what impact these conversations have had upon our culture. So, what better place to start than with the quote at the top of the article, delivered by a master of controversial humour, Louis C.K.
As you can imagine, Louis’ joke caused a lot of controversy. His full monologue also includes a bit about the French ‘neighbourhood child molester’ (named Jean-Baptiste) that lived in his town when he was young, a character he paints as a nefarious, moustache-tweaking villain from a children’s movie, whose plan to molest children is always foiled. He also compares molesters’ addiction to little boys with his addiction to Mounds bars (a U.S. chocolate bar) but concludes that he would stop eating Mounds if they got him life in jail: “they obviously don't taste as good as little boys.” Now there’s no need to go through the specific tweets, articles and daytime television/radio talk shows to establish why there is controversy, because it’s easy to decipher: is Louis morally misbehaving, or is he acting within his rights as a comedian? The first thing to do is to reflect upon what Louis is trying to do with his humour. He once said:
Offending people is a necessary and healthy act. Every time you say something that's offensive to another person you just caused a discussion. You just forced them to have to think.
So, he clearly doesn’t want to just offend people: he wants to say something sincere. He’s not trying to shock us with a punchline that subverts morality; quite the opposite–he’s illuminating a moral aspect of our culture that we might have not considered. When controversial humour like Louis’ successfully makes us laugh, it sneaks in serious ideas while we’ve got our guard down. In this case, Louis’ is pointing out that there is humanity within paedophiles that we find difficult to acknowledge. Utilising comedy, Louis’ bit quickly and directly challenges our minds to think about things that, perhaps, he’s thinking about too. This is a form of expression that could only be made with something like comedy, and that is the purpose behind his piece of controversial humour.
The question remains, though—is it ever morally acceptable to make jokes about molesting children, despite any greater purpose? Video essayist Evan Puschak discusses Louis’ joke on his YouTube channel The Nerdwriter. He establishes the argument in terms of ‘effect’ and ‘intent’. The ‘effect’ argument regards the impact paedophilia and other similar human behaviours have on victims, and thus deems it too immoral an activity to make jokes about. The ‘intent’ argument sidesteps the impact on victims and doubles down on the joke, saying that the intention of the comedian is all that matters. Puschak suggests that “great comedians”, naming Louis C.K., have something in common with the “great detectives” of fiction. Great detectives, like Sherlock Holmes or the cast of Water Rats, operate on the fringes of legal system to wheedle out the most diabolical criminals. We allow them to bend or even break the rules established by society, because they serve a higher purpose. Their criminals are often sensed by the detective due to their gritty understanding of the criminal world, as opposed to the ‘hard evidence’ foolishly demanded by their superiors. We trust these detectives, and we want them to follow their uniquely powerful instincts and rise above the system that would only restrain them and make them less interesting. Accordingly, Puschak says that Louis is an example of the “great comedian”: he operates on the fringes of morality, providing morally confronting insights discovered through a unique understanding of our culture. We actively want Louis to address topics that we wouldn’t like to hear other comedians to address, because we trust Louis’ capacity to tell us something unique and insightful. There is a cost, but it’s one worth paying. Unless you disagree.
When someone tells a dead-baby joke it would be silly to presume that they hate babies, but if someone tells a dumb-blonde joke then it’d be fair to consider that they might be sexist. “I’m not being serious, I’m just telling a joke” is the usual defence. The thing is, when controversial humour hinges upon insincerity it courts questions of credibility. In Australia, there’s been a hot little bit of controversy over the last few years surrounding campervan-hire company Wicked Campers. For those of you who don’t know, the company brands its campervans with slogans such as:
I Can Already Imagine The Gaffa Tape On Your Mouth
Save A Whale... Harpoon A Jap
...In Every Princess There is A Little Slut Who Wants To Try It Just Once...
The argument in favour of the vans is that they’re not serious, and everyone needs to stop being so sensitive. The son of Wicked Campers owner John Webb said, “we don’t try to be controversial. It’s not our goal. We just do what we love and just have fun. [...] We poke fun at everything more broadly, it’s never specifically targeted at anyone in particular at all”. The point made by people who either like the slogans, or at least don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, is always based around this idea of fun—they’re not condoning sexual abuse and racism, and if you think they are then you’re too sensitive. Sticks and stones, mate, spend your time worrying about stuff that matters. Where Louis’ humour actively invites controversy for the conversations it starts, this argument is irritated by the controversy, suggesting it is the mark of an overly-sensitive culture. The most powerful implication of this argument is that there is a difference between what you say, and what you do.
This is the line of argument taken by Jim Jefferies, one of Australia’s most polarising comedians. In 2014, a very charismatic and well-argued bit by Jefferies on the lunacy of gun laws in the United States went viral. A lot of people, who had only seen that clip, assumed that he was a left-wing political comedian. However, what usually stands out most to people who watch a full Jim Jefferies routine is that he likes jokes about misogyny. Stuff like:
I hate women. Women hate me. We hate each other. The only reason I couldn’t be gay is ‘cos I could never fuck a man. ‘Cos I could never fuck something that I respect.
In his 2016 stand-up show ‘Freedumb’, Jefferies defended his brand of humour by making a controversial joke about Bill Cosby, which I won’t quote here. The material made light of Bill Cosby’s rape allegations, and if you haven’t seen it before then I would encourage you to watch the embedded YouTube link. The reason I won’t quote it is because his point is that to quote him in text misses a vital aesthetic element of the material—the tone of his performance. Tone is vital to communication—it has the power to morph a phrase with sarcasm, sincerity, naivety, irony and so on—and as anyone who has misinterpreted a text message can tell you, tone doesn’t always translate so well into text. Jefferies’ point is that you need to hear and see his delivery to understand his humour. To be clear though, Jefferies’ tone isn’t one of irony, or sarcasm, but one of insincerity— he’s just making rape jokes because they’re shocking and wrong, and he finds that funny. He also points out that there’s a difference between his jokes and his opinion, and that if he just came out and said his serious opinion, nobody would laugh. Jefferies argues that he is doing what we were doing when we made dead baby jokes: he’s making an offensive joke that is truly good-natured, but that you need to experience him to trust him. This time I will quote him, because I think that his point survives the translation to text:
See so people started protesting out the front of the show, people stopped showing up. [...] Because I was being deemed like I was a rapist or something, yep ok... You know who NEVER had someone protest their gigs because of their material? BILL COSBY! Cos, you gotta give it to Bill—what a dignified man! He never said the swear words, he never LOWERED himself to my level. What a class act he is! Cos that’s why people went to see Bill Cosby, cos they wanted to see good clean wholesome comedian—who rapes.
That’s a good point—finding graphically sexist humour funny doesn’t automatically make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a sexist or a rapist either. Maybe you are able to get into Jefferies humour in the same way as we got into dead baby jokes. Jim Jefferies is, so far as I’m aware, not a rapist—but he’s not a feminist, and his jokes are not innocent.
Hatred is not always Humourless
I think that it’s probably true that, when he’s being serious, Jefferies is morally upright and, when he’s joking, he’s being insincere—he just loves laughing at humour that is morally wrong. But that’s an ironic disconnect when you think about it: when he’s being serious, which is only in private, Jefferies believes the opposite of what he says when he’s being funny, which is when he’s being watched by millions of people. There are two things to think about here: firstly, it is alright to make sexist jokes if you’re not sexist? “It’s just a joke” implies that a prejudiced joke is less prejudiced than a serious statement, because a joke is not serious. Professor Michael Billig writes about this in his article ‘Humour and Hatred’, specifically talking here about anti-Semitic humour:
It is as if ‘serious’ anti-Semites would not bother with jokes or, perhaps, not even appreciate jokes because of the seriousness of their bigotry.
The point is that plenty of prejudiced people laugh at prejudiced jokes regardless of the intent of the person who made them—so why does it matter that Jim Jefferies isn’t being serious when he makes his jokes? This is the second point: just because you don’t mean it when you say it, doesn’t mean that your audience shares your view. A mind that is receptive towards the ideas hidden in humour are likely to laugh, regardless of sincerity, and therefore sexist people are very likely to be drawn to Jim Jefferies’ comedy. If I were Jefferies I would feel very concerned about who my audience is, or at least, who a large segment of my audience is. Surely some of them are sincere in their sexism—and what impact is his humour having on them?
In 2014, a collection of studies published in the International Journal of Humor Research asked hundreds of men and women to rate how funny they found a range of jokes. Before they read the jokes, the participants answered a questionnaire measuring their ‘hostile sexism’: they would be asked to rate their agreement with statements like “Many women are actually seeking special favours, such as hiring policies that favour them over men, under the guise of asking for equality.” The more that they agreed with these statements, the higher their level of hostile sexism. No surprises here, but more men demonstrated high levels of hostile sexism than women. After they answered these questions they were shown the jokes.
Some of the jokes were sexist, such as:
“If a woman is in the forest, talking to herself, with no man around, is she still complaining?”
Some of them were neutral:
“What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes... whack! ‘Damn!’ A skydiver goes, ‘Damn!’... whack”
And some of them were classic anti-lawyer gags:
“Why don’t sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy”
The results of the study found that when either men or women displayed high levels of hostile sexism, they found the sexist jokes funny and would defend them as light-hearted and fun. The point of this was to give credence to the hypothesis that “the less people identify with women as a social category (the further in psychological distance they perceive women to be from the self) the more benign and thus amusing they perceive sexist humour.” Basically, people are more willing to ignore the problems of those they don’t care about, or dislike, and are more likely to laugh at their misfortune.
In 2007 a different study was conducted, this time exclusively interviewing men. The study exposed men to sexist jokes, sexist statements and neutral jokes, and then asked them how much money they’d like to donate to a women’s organisation. The results found the following:
After being exposed to sexist jokes, men who displayed low levels of hostile sexism donated approximately twice as much to women’s organisations than they did after they were exposed to sexist statements or neutral jokes.
Men who displayed high levels of hostile sexism recorded an eighty-percent drop in the donations made to women’s organisations after being exposed to sexist jokes, when compared to what they would donate after they were exposed to sexist statements or neutral jokes.
Overall, the study concluded: “for sexist men, exposure to sexist humour can promote the behavioural release of prejudice against women.”
What this proves, to me at least, is that having sexist slogans on the side of campervans does more than just offend people—it helps propagate the prejudiced culture that the joke refers to. This is not to say that you are a bad person if you laugh at these jokes—there are plenty of genuinely loving and accepting people who love Jim Jefferies’ comedy. But the argument that being offended is the worst thing that humour can do is, in my mind, not sustainable. The worst thing a joke can do is validate and empower the prejudiced opinions of those who hold them by laughing at their victims.
Warnings and Consent
Well... That’s not entirely true. Another, equally bad, thing that controversial humour can do is trigger someone who has already been the victim of abuse. At the top of this article I placed a trigger warning, because I wanted to make everyone knew what they were getting themselves into. But something like Wicked Campers offers no consent, and no way of opting out. The effect it has upon people is unavoidable, and the language used in many of their slogans could trigger a victim. It could also be argued that the slogans act as advertising for prejudiced people—after all, the reason that cigarettes aren’t allowed to advertise or have branded packages anymore is because they are proven to make smoking more appealing.
Well, what about trigger warnings that are placed before controversial humour that people CAN decide to see or not? At least then people know what they’re getting themselves into. This is a practice that is already being implemented in streaming services like Netflix, and in the ratings guides that are shown on movies and television series.
Trigger warnings were a hot-button issue a couple of years ago, and it may interest you to know that writers were amongst the biggest critics of the practice. For example, Jay Caspian King of The New Yorker wrote about in 2014, partly in dialogue with an editor of the website ‘Feministing’, Alexandra Brodsky. King starts in frustration, recalling how an English professor gave a trigger warning to Lolita, a move which King felt was a “prescriptive reading” of the text as one that must include child abuse. When used like this, King worries that the trigger warning before a novel “strips it down to one idea”, and reduces the depth and complexity of its expression. Similarly, a trigger warning could lower the impact that Louis CK’s bit has on a lot of people, stripping the aspect of self-reflection that he’s suggesting, and instead promoting the controversy of whether or not it’s alright to make jokes about child molestation. King puts this argument to Brodsky regarding Lolita, and she aptly responds:
“What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you!”
“Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?”
King takes her point, but maintains that: “Any excess language—in the form of a trigger warning—amounts to a pre-emptive defacement.” These are, very basically, the two sides to the argument, but I would strongly encourage further reading for a more rounded understanding. The role that I want to emphasise here is that of social responsibility: both sides are vying for it, one to defend free expression and the other to protect victims.
Responsibility and Final Thoughts
A critical element of whether or not controversial humour is socially responsible or not is considering what the nub of the joke is. Thinking back on Louis CK, truthfully his child molester joke is not morally wrong at all—it does nothing to validate immoral behaviour, quite the opposite. The context for the joke was not one that was trying to apologise for paedophiles, or makes fun of their victims: Louis’ whole monologue portrays child molesters as a group of sick outsiders he can’t understand, while recognising that they are still human. The point is to recognise this baffling internal reality of paedophiles not as monsters, but as very sick humans. The targets of Wicked Campers’ slogans, however, are clearly the Jap, the Princess, and the person who you could overpower and gag with gaffa tape. Similarly, with Jefferies misogynistic humour the targets are always women. As Jennifer Pozner of The Daily Beast says:
...there is a difference between rape jokes that target victims and mock their pain, and rape culture jokes that dismantle the systems that protect rapists and blame women for sexual assault.
I laugh at morally wrong humour sometimes—most people do, because sometimes being morally wrong is funny—but that humour isn’t made morally permissible just because it’s not serious, or because what you say and what you do are two different things. If you’re at a public event with a big crowd, and you’re all laughing at a prejudiced joke, then the chances are high that you are actually contributing towards something far less innocent than is obvious. I’ll conclude with a quote from Lindy West’s article ‘How to Make a Rape Joke’:
Nobody is saying that you can't talk about rape. Just be a fucking decent person about it or relinquish the moral high ground and be okay with making the world worse.
Abrams, Jessica R.; Bippus, Amy M.; McGaughey, Karen J. “Gender disparaging jokes: An investigation of sexist-nonstereotypical jokes on funniness, typicality, and the moderating role of ingroup identification” in International Journal of Humour Research. Vol. 28(2), May 2015, Pp 311-326.
Saucier, Donald A.; O’Dea, Conor J.; Strain, Megan L. “The Bad, the Good, the Misunderstood: The Social Effects of Racial Humor” in Translational Issues in Psychological Science. Vol. 2(1), March 2016, Pp 75–85.
Argüello Gutiérrez, Catalina.; Carretero-Dios, Hugo; Willis, Guillermo B.; Moya, Miguel. “Joking about ourselves: Effects of disparaging humor on ingroup stereotyping” in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. First published November 30, 2016.
“People-power win after Sydney teacher Paula Orbea launches petition against ‘misogynistic and degrading slogans’ on Wicked Campers vans”, on News.com.au, 17 July, 2014.
Ford, Thomas E. et al. ‘More Than “Just a Joke”: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor’ in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol 34, Issue 2, December 2007. Pp. 159 - 170
Kochersberger, Annie O., et al. ‘The role of identification with women as a determinant of amusement with sexist humor’ in HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research. Vol. 27, Iss. 3. August 2014. Pp. 441-460.
Pozner, Jennifer L., ‘Louis C.K. on Daniel Tosh’s Rape Joke: Are Comedy and Feminism Enemies?’ in The Daily Beast. July 18, 2012.
Weems, Scott. ‘Why Offensive Jokes Affect You More Than You Realize’. Psychology Today. September 11, 2014.
West, Lindy. ‘How to Make a Rape Joke’ in Jezebel. 12 July, 2012.