That’s Not Funny
By David Ottlinger
One good thing to come in the wake of these frequently misguided and often intolerant student protests has been a real and surprisingly hopeful national conversation about public discourse. I can’t remember a time when so much energy (and printer’s ink) has gone into debating free speech and censorship.
I want to focus on one small area of our public discourse and its troubled relationship to censorship and that’s comedy. Certainly I am not the only one, as over the years, there has been a regular stream of controversies and shouting matches over what kinds of jokes ought to be deemed permissible. Only recently, Patton Oswald got in a protracted and often amusing debate with Salon over criticism leveled against a joke that was deemed “racist.”  Jerry Seinfeld, always a remarkably clean comic, has complained about increasingly sensitive audiences.  Chris Rock has gone as far as to say that he has given up on college audiences, and so too, to hear him tell it, did the late, great George Carlin.  In rapid succession, Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnick made national news for telling jokes involving rape.  Loveable degenerate Jim Norton has even made censorship something of a cause celebre, often spitting bile at “coddled, hair-patted little babies” (Norton’s view of American college students).  Outrage over comedy has become something of a regular feature of American political life, and it is worth talking about, partly because it brings together so many of the most interesting parts of our discourse. It is, at once, political discourse, discourse about art, and discourse about the intellectual life on our college campuses. Looking into it can yield insights for our larger conversations about public discourse. All these beleaguered comedians have met with the same statement, “That’s. not. funny.” Finding out what this phrase means to those who use it and how it became so important may tell us a great deal.
As is repeated wearingly often, comedy is subjective. What one person finds funny, another may not. But are some things categorically unfunny? As one writer in Salon put it, perhaps a touch naively, “Humor is subjective but is it that subjective?”  The contention is that some subjects are so awful and disturbing that no treatment could ever make them appear funny. The piece continues, “ I don’t have it in me to find rape jokes funny or to tolerate them in any way. It’s too close a topic. Rape is many things — humiliating, degrading, physically and emotionally painful, exhausting, irritating. It is never funny for most women.” I am highly suspicious of these kinds of claims. The reasons for my suspicion are well captured in Graham Greene’s classic short story “A Shocking Accident”.  In the story a young boy who idolizes his father has to endure the tragedy of his father’s untimely death, when he is killed by a falling pig. This porcine emissary of death falls five stories, when the balcony of a poor Neapolitan family gives way, just as the unfortunate traveler was walking directly below. Now our narrator has to endure for the rest of his life the fact that his father’s death is both a deeply felt tragedy and something funny to pretty much everyone. No one would deny that the loss of a parent, especially at a young age, is a great source of grief, but that does not stop the case being funny. It’s funny, essentially, because it is such an absurd and undignified end and because it was such an astronomically unlikely thing to happen. In fact it is funnier because it is tragic. The fact that it is so embarrassing and undignified, as well as the fact that if he were one step farther he might have lived a long and profitable life, make the situation funnier, not less funny. The mismatch between the great importance of a man’s entire life and the insignificance of livestock falling from a balcony has a dark irony. It strikes me that many things in life are like this. As Mel Brooks supposedly said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” 
There is another problem with this kind of thinking as well, concerning the difference between realities and representations. Many things are categorically bad in reality, but that does not imply that representations of those things are always bad or without value. I never, ever want to see an old man have his eyes pushed out by boot-heels or a pregnant woman be strangled, but I want very much to see these things in the theatre, and when I see that the Royal Shakespeare Company is representing these events in producing King Lear and The Duchess of Malfi, I wish, desperately, that I could go. There are many other examples. Black comedy has often been high art. There is a wonderful comedy scene in Measure for Measure, in which a prisoner is to be taken away for execution, but the hung-over prisoner can’t be bothered and would really rather just get to it tomorrow.  And of course there is Lear’s pointless and sadistic taunting of the recently blinded Gloucester in the famous Dover beach scene: “O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light.”  No one doubts that these are horrible things, but joking about them is undeniably great literature.
But really, while critics of “offensive” jokes most often say “That’s not funny” I am not always convinced that that is really what they mean. Very frequently complaints about jokes make references to “rape culture” and “systems of privilege” and other things of this kind. The Salon piece quoted above is typical in this respect. The author contends that joking about rape means “participating in a culture that encourages lax attitudes toward sexual violence and the concerns of women” and that “Silence gives consent.” These are essentially moral and political complaints. No doubt these critics are sincere when they say that they do not find these jokes funny, but this is more or less tangential to their main complaint. They believe these jokes are immoral and politically irresponsible and those considerations should trump whatever aesthetic value they may have. Occasional arguments that censorship and “call-outs” make comedy better are disingenuous and palpably false.  The real argument contends that whether or not the jokes are funny, they cause harm by contributing to a culture and society which is unjust. According to this argument, the critics are not really contending that something is not funny, but that there are some things that should not be laughed at.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. There is something missing from the picture that Salon and other organs of opinion paint of a society of individuals passively inputting discourse and outputting behavior. Something vital. And that something is autonomy. This has also been a great part of what makes the recent Yale and University of Missouri protests so maddening and makes me want to drive to Connecticut and throw copies of On Liberty and the Areopagitica into windows. (Of course that would be a real invasion of space, unlike the fake invasion of space of taking people’s picture while in a public place.) Classical liberal theory, on which our Western societies are based, paints an entirely different picture. There, the picture is of autonomous individuals debating, reasoning, making judgements and forming contracts and agreements with other individuals, which become laws and form the basis for society. This is a picture of individuals actively engaged and determining their own values. A person may hear an argument, entertain it and then reject it. But it just doesn’t seem to enter the mind of many critics that a person could hear a joke about rape, laugh, and still maintain a strong moral stance that rape is heinously wrong and even be politically engaged in trying to prevent rape and other forms of violence. No, for writers like those whom we have been discussing, our behavior is just a function of our surroundings. A joke about rape goes out into society and causally shapes those who hear it. It makes them laugh about rape and then causes them to fail to take rape seriously. They in turn say flippant things which causally shapes other people. Perhaps some of these people actually commit rapes. For thinkers like John Stuart Mill, it was vital to an open democratic society to foster individual reasoning and freedom of thought. For such thinkers, the way to intervene is to encourage the individuals hearing these jokes to think independently and form their own morals. Then they need fear no jokes. For many today, such an intervention just does not seem possible. People will just do what they are culturally determined to do, so it is better to keep them from hearing bad things, so they don’t turn around and do bad things.
There is a real danger in promulgating this kind of picture. If you tell people that they are just culturally determined sheep, they might start to believe it and so become culturally determined sheep. Autonomy is like a muscle that must be used. Exercise of reason and critical thinking must be cultivated. This kind of discourse leads to lassitude that is very serious for a democracy. People are not building the skills necessary to debate and form opinions, and this means that they will not have the skills necessary to form coalitions and put things into law. No doubt, the authors who want to censor jokes do so because they want to make society a better place. But I fear the way they are going about it may undermine our ability to do so. Ironically, the attempts to improve society by censoring speech may leave us without the skills we need to really improve society, the skills needed for an active and engaged public.
But for all that I have said, I do have a certain nagging sympathy for these critics of comedy. It is not so much that I think some jokes should be censored and people making these jokes should be “called-out,” but that I sometimes share the sense that something in our comedy has gone seriously wrong. A number of times I have been watching some piece of comedy, laughing, and getting the uneasy feeling that I am being made worse, not better. For several years now, the best and most popular comedy has been the comedy of brutality. It is the kind of comedy that stares into the blackest realities and finds laughs there. The greatest purveyor of this kind of comedy is undoubtedly Louis CK. His stand-up and his shows deal deliberately with some of the heaviest subjects. No doubt this kind of comedy is a reflection of the times. We hear and see so many tragedies from around the world that it is hard not to become numb. President Obama himself commented that even for him, commenting on school shootings had become, in a sense, routine.  How much more so then, for the average citizen who can do so much less than the leader of the free world? Even now I am writing with reporting in the background, on mute, of the slayings in Paris. Our comedy seems to have become the comedy of detachment, of numbness. This is dangerous. The response to the problems of the world should be action. No one can single-handedly change the world, but many people doing their part can have a great impact. This is less likely to be the case, if everyone is using this kind of comedy as sort of narcotic to ease the pain, without treating the source of the pain, namely, the many political problems facing the world.
So I have some sympathy with those who argue there are some things we should not laugh at or at least not laugh at, in the way we do. Likewise these critics are right to see political importance of jokes and other aspects of popular culture. No show that we watch or article we read is that important, but the sum total of these is culture. Culture shapes us, informs us, determines what questions we ask and, just as important, which ones we don’t ask. The critics are right that influencing culture is important. But though they are right in their ends, they are wrong in their means. Censorship, shame and “call-outs” will not be the way to achieve the change we need. We need to recognize people’s basic ability to argue and self-determine. We need not just to bully people but to convince them. For the culture to really change, we need people who don’t want to say sexist things, not silent sexists. People are made and shaped by culture and people are autonomous self-determining agents. Going forward I may be listening to less bleak, detached comedy, but I will be making that decision for myself.
Trigger Warning! Some of these links contains salty language. You have been warned.
 One of Oswalt’s attacks: http://www.pattonoswalt.com/index.cfm?page=spew&id=168
It later ended with a “peace summit” here: http://www.salon.com/2015/03/11/salons_patton_oswalt_peace_summit/
 My only sources are wiki and quote websites so the attribution is uncertain: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mel_Brooks
 Two examples, one cited above: http://www.salon.com/2013/07/31/jerry_seinfeld_provides_an_antidote_to_jeselniks_junior_high_humor/