As you probably read in the news, all the legal challenges that resulted from my old column "7 Reasons Your Favorite Religion Promotes Animal Molestation" (don't try finding the links, they're long gone) have been cleared up, an occasion I marked with a quiet moment to reflect on the things that one can and cannot joke about.
Which I probably should have done beforehand.
And, after considering each lawsuit, piece of hate mail, and bolt of lightning sent my way over the years, I think I've come up with a few rough guidelines on what can and cannot be joked about. I present these to you below with no illusions that it will make any difference at all, you hacks and monsters.
#4. Don't Punch Down
My first starting point was the concept of "don't punch down." This phrase has been used by a number of comedians to describe the principle that you shouldn't tell jokes about people weaker than you or otherwise incapable of fighting back. Although I think there are some flaws with this rule, it's generally a good one to live by; if you find yourself taking a swing at anyone smaller than you, you've probably taken a wrong turn in life somewhere.
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Unless they really deserve it.
This little chestnut is commonly applied in two ways; first, that we shouldn't mock people substantially less famous or powerful than us. If you're a famous comedian, you don't use your platform to pick fights with some poor guy just starting out. The second way this advice is phrased is that we shouldn't joke about or use derogatory terms for groups who have traditionally been victimized, like people with mental difficulties, or gay or transgender people.
Or the Irish.
Which is all good and fine, and excellent advice to live by. But I don't know if the concept of "don't punch down" is adequately covering the problem.
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It's sort of creating a muffin top of the problem.
My thinking is that "don't punch down" fails to account for the number of very funny, very successful jokes that have been told about people weaker than whoever was telling the joke. Stand-up comics have mocked their ex-lovers for decades, a group of people who generally aren't capable of fighting back. Minimum wage employees are also frequently the target of jokes should they happen to provide anything less than exceptional service to some comedian trying to pad out his set.
"HOW DARE YOU MISSPELL MY NAME. THE PEOPLE OF THE CHUCKLE DEPOSITORY WILL HEAR OF THIS."
So if that doesn't quite cover the problem, if indeed we can punch down on occasion, what are the real rules?
#3. You Can't Mock a (Sympathetic) Real Person
I think the first guideline is that you have to have some understanding about who your audience will feel sympathy toward before you start mocking them. That's part of the reason comedians feel safe telling jokes about ex-lovers; assuming we don't know them personally, we mentally assign to them all the ill will we feel for our own exes.
And picture them with the same attributes.
From this we can deduce that telling a joke about an unlikable celebrity is usually pretty safe, particularly if they've suffered a minor misfortune. If Donald Trump were to get his tie caught in a paper shredder on national television, that's a hilarious vein of humor, and you'd be irresponsible not to joke about it.
Or hypothetically extending the premise.
But if that unlikable celebrity has suffered a big misfortune that makes him suddenly more sympathetic, you should tread more carefully. For most of his adult life, Michael Jackson was the butt of approximately 12 trillion jokes each day for a variety of fairly good reasons. But all that came to an abrupt stop when he suffered the big misfortune of death, at which point everyone agreed to only talk about his more memorable achievements.
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Like his successful snake farm.
The same obviously would apply if, thanks to some absurd failing of your brain chemicals, you decided to start mocking the victims of a crime or disaster. Those are real people, suffering real pain, and a huge percentage of your audience is going to feel sorry for them.
And feel somewhat less charitably toward you.