If you're the type of person who finds themselves asking "Why is it OK for those guys to tell this joke but if I tell it then I'm a jerk?" or "How come she gets to joke on this topic/he gets to use that word and I can't?" Then you've come to the right place!
Alright, you may be skeptical about how much I can help. After all I'm no comedian. It's true! I'm not! But if you read carefully you would have noted that this is an intro to comedy for people who are NOT comedians. You know, every day folk. People who do comedy for a living are in their own league, I would no more attempt to explain comedy to them than I would attempt to tell a surgeon how to operate. No, this is written for people who just like to tell the odd joke around the water cooler or dinner table. Now if you checked out my "satire" tag you may also have some doubts as to my qualifications there. I admit, I'm more "funny" than funny. More MAS* than LOL. Still, I think I figured something out and I'm happy to share it with you. Besides, you're the one who asked why you don't get to tell some kinds of jokes! You asked, I'm answering. For FREE! So what will it hurt to just hear me out?
As with just about every skill, if you want to be good at something, you need to understand the fundamentals. Get your fundamentals right and the sky's the limit. (Or your level of talent, whichever kicks in first)
The first and most important fundamental you have to grasp is that humour flows UP while cruelty flows DOWN. When someone at the bottom makes fun of the guy at the top, that's funny. When the guy at the top makes fun of the guy at the bottom, it's mean. It's very simple and you would think everyone would grasp this but it seems like a lot of people don't! Think about it for a second will you. Guy kicks a tiger in the butt, that's slapstick**. Guy kicks a kitten that's horror. One makes you Charlie Chaplin, the other one just makes you a cat killer. Make sense? OK, think about this. Everyone gets together and roasts the boss. This is funny and even if the jokes get a little risque and personal, everyone has a good laugh. Now switch out the boss and replace him with the elderly janitor. Now the whole company banding together to make jokes at his expense is no longer funny, it's cruel.
Please tell me you can see that.
Like I recently tried to explain, laughter, satire and outright mocking can be really healing and empowering. As The Slacktivist pointed out (by linking to my blog!!***) there is a catch though. This only applies to the powerless using it against the powerful. When you don't have any power, when you are disrespected and treated like dirt then humour is really all you have. Humour can restore your humanity, it can make you feel whole again. To someone else it may sound like you're just being terribly disrespectful and obscene (which may be true) but it also loosens the hold other people have over you and it armors you against their assaults on your dignity.
For example, years ago in a popular South African family gossip mag there was this article on a guy fighting against "dumb blonde" jokes. He was up in arms that people dared to make jokes disparaging blondes because in reality blondes are smart and awesome so how very dare we? I remember the one argument he made was that people wouldn't dare make those same jokes about black women while it was acceptable to make them about blonde women. And he was completely right. He also didn't understand this first principle of humour. See we can all laugh at blonde jokes but that's because they are only jokes. If you go to the doctor and she's blonde you're not going to doubt her prognosis. You're never going to fire someone if you meet them and find out they're blonde. He was right, blonde's are awesome, at least in our culture they are. They can play ditzes or nuclear physicists in our movies and no one will bat an eye. We shower them with praise and consider them the pinnacle of physical beauty. Blondes, in other words, are at the top of the pyramid here. Black women, not so much. Especially here in South Africa where until recently they were considered dumb and primitive and just barely not animals. So changing "dumb blonde" to "dumb black" wouldn't be funny, it would be incredibly hurtful. I get that his pyramid is subjective and may be different in different cultures but the fact remains that humour goes up, cruelty goes down. Without exception.
That brings me to the second important fundamental of jokes - in particular jokes made at someone else's expense. Put-downs shouldn't actually put anyone down. OK I bet that didn't make much sense now did it. Consider this. On this blog I sometimes make fun of certain powerful but rather loony religious figures. You could even say that I put them down. But what exactly is down about them after I "put them down"? Do they have less money? Less power? Less followers? Less influence? Not at all. All I get out of it is that I feel a little bit better and I cope a little better with the insanity of living in a world were people like Pat Robertson get to be massively influential. Or, for a more secular example, consider reality TV stars (for an awesome discussion on this very principle, do yourself a favour and check out this discussion of the ill fated show H8R). Let's say I let loose with a really vitriolic rant about how Snooki or Honey Boo Boo child or Kim Kardashian is just the worst thing to happen to civilization since the sack of Rome. What have I really done to them? They will still be making obscene amounts of money for being generally obscene and people will continue hanging on their every vapid word as though it was worth something. There, now that I've vented I feel better and they are no worse off. But let's say I didn't spit all that bile at a famous person. Let's say you and me are in High School and I'm bigger and stronger and more popular than you and I enjoy telling you what a terrible waste of space you are (amongst other, far worse things). Now those put downs are actually putting you down. In this scenario, I'm not just shaking my fist at the "stars" above, I'm making your life a living hell. I'm a bully and I'm making you feel like shit. The Kardashians couldn't care less what I think but you would if I was your bully.
Again, please tell me this makes sense to you. Because if you can't see that you have a very real problem. See the problem is maybe not that the word is too oversensitive to appreciate your radical humour. There is a chance that the problem is not that the world has gotten to damn politically correct. The problem may very well be that you are aiming your humour in the wrong direction. You may be more of a bully than a comedian. So, if people are complaining about your jokes and are just not finding them funny at all, here are two "why" questions you should seriously consider asking yourself.
1 - Why are people so offended by what I've said? No, don't make it about people being oversensitive and PC, think about it. Please. Ask this question seriously. Do these people have a reason? What is it? Is it maybe a good reason? Don't get mad, get curious. Ask that question and really look for the answer. If you'd like an example, check out this clip (that I sadly cannot embed) from Louie. Be warned, it features some very off colour jokes but about 5 minutes in, it makes a sudden U-turn and becomes thought provoking and serious. I'm not asking you to change. I'm asking you to think. I'm asking you to just take a few moments to consider how your hilarious comment may have sounded to that guy who didn't think it was funny at all. I'm not saying the problem is definitely with you, I'm just asking you to ask "why?".
2 - Why do I need to make this joke? No, seriously. That really out there joke you made that got people mad at you, did you have to go there? Why? I remember in college we used to love making Holocaust jokes. No specific reason, we just thought they funny I guess. None of us were German or Jewish so no one was getting hurt by it and no one asked us to stop. It's just that one day, seemingly out of the blue this question started to bug me. No idea why. But I couldn't shake it. Why did I need to make Holocaust jokes? Of all the nearly infinite amount of things in the universe I could make jokes about, why did it have to be that? So I started asking my friends and they didn't know either. Eventually we stopped. Looking back, those jokes weren't really all that funny anyway...
Now I know that last example is going to rub some of you the wrong way. People get very excitable when you suggest that some topics should be off limit. That's not what I'm saying though. I value free speech extremely highly. I would NEVER tell you that you are not allowed to make a certain type of joke. I'm not telling you what you can and cannot say. I'm just asking why you need to say it. Have you ever bothered asking that question? Do you have any answer at all for that question? We can get into a very heated debate about whether rape jokes are funny or whether it should be OK to tell jokes about child/spousal abuse but I'm not trying to tell you what you're supposed to find funny or acceptable. I'm just asking you why you feel you need those. Also, I'm asking you to just ask why people are offended by it. Really ask. Ask as a real question that you actually want a real answer to. That is all.
Lastly, you just need to remember rule one for non-comedian comedy: DBaA - Don't Be an Asshole. See, professional comedians can do that, they are highly trained professionals. You're not. In the real world, people don't laugh at assholes, they despise them. I'm not suggesting you only make the kind of jokes they tell at church camp prayer meetings. You can get as crazy, off coloured or obscene with it as your audience**** allows, just remember what I said in the beginning about knowing up from down and you should do fine. You can be mean, mocking or outrageous without being an asshole. Make a joke about how much the president sucks at everything he does and it's funny. Make that joke about your wife and you're an asshole. Simple as that!
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------*Mildly Amused Smirk.
**Provided this was a free roaming tiger that can now chase the hapless kicker up a tree or something. If the tiger is in a cage it's the other thing...
***Fred Clark, thank you so much for repeatedly linking to articles on my blog. You have no idea how much that means to me. You are probably my favourite blogger of all time so being quoted on your blog is like being blessed by the pope! Except, you know, meaningful!
****This should go without saying so I didn't even bother to include it but READ THE ROOM!