4 Jokes No One Should Tell (For Good Reason)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
You Can't Mock a (Sympathetic) Fictional Person
OK, but what about fictional characters? If the person we're mocking or humiliating doesn't even exist, we're safe, right?
"Because I want to make this bastard cry."
Nope, not even then. As hinted at above, people can still feel sympathetic toward fictional characters, treating them as stand-ins for some person or persons they know in real life. If you tell jokes about abusing children, for example, unless you take certain precautions, you're going to get some splashback.
What precautions? Well, as the joke writer, you "own" that fictional person, and there are several things about them you can tweak to make it permissible to mock them again.
"Like if I gave them a funny hat, or ...?"
Look for my column next week on children riding animals and throwing smaller children and animals at larger animals, in kind of a child/animal recreation of the Battle of Hoth.
So how did I get away with it? In those cases, I made the victims less sympathetic by sparing a lot of the details. The children and animals were described generally, with no names or specifics given. I didn't go into detail about the wounds they suffered or the bitterness of their tears. What few likable qualities children and animals possess weren't mentioned at all, and their various downsides were discussed heavily. All of this was done very deliberately, with the intent of forming a cartoonish image of a child or animal in the reader's mind, a caricature whom they wouldn't mind seeing get beaten up a little bit.
"Oh, so beating children is the answer?"
You Can't Joke About a (Sympathetic) Implied Person
OK, but what if we tell a joke without a victim at all? That's super safe, right?
"Really though, what's the point if I can't humiliate someone?"
Nope, not even then. Because if you tell a joke or mention a topic that even implies the existence of a victim that your audience might feel sympathetic toward, you're going to be in trouble.
For example, did you ever consider how those girls from Nantucket actually feel about their poor upbringings?
Topics that vividly imply the existence of a victim are commonly called "triggers" after the way they trigger strong, unavoidable reactions in some people. Sexual assault is probably the most well-known trigger, well-known enough that no one should ever be tripping over it, except oh no, they do, all the time. Even mentioning rape is enough to make people who have suffered a sexual assault immediately relive the experience, and can make others visualize a rape victim whom they'll want to ferociously defend. And regardless of the intent of your joke or whatever not-totally-pro-rape statement you thought you were making, they will be furious at you for daring to find any humor in the subject at all.
"BUT I WAS BEING IRONIC!"
Other well-known triggers include suicide, and military post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental disabilities. You might think you used "retard" in an ironically retro fashion, just like you hilariously used to do in seventh grade, but a lot of people listening will have a friend or relative who's struggled with mental challenges, and they won't appreciate you using their condition as an insult. Life's rough enough on these people as is, without having to suffer the slings and arrows of morons.
"COMING UP WITH NEW INSULTS IS SUPER HARD, ALL RIGHT?"
And then there's the trickier question of whether these topics should be joked about at all, even among people who aren't triggered by them. If you and your three friends don't have any particularly close connections to the Holocaust, for example, and privately tell some jokes about it that don't offend anyone, does that do any harm? Not even pro-Holocaust jokes; some totally sympathetic gallows humor style joke. Or does speaking of the Holocaust (or rape, etc.) with anything other than sober reflection somehow diminish it in our minds and ruin our ability to properly consider (and speak about) its horrors? I don't know. Maybe?
"Wow ... wow. I don't know if it was that funny, Helen. Jesus."
Or are there healing, cathartic effects in telling such jokes? Supposed "cathartic effects" are often held up as a shield by terrible comedians defending their terrible jokes, but there is I suspect some merit to the principle in general. Still, I don't know. Maybe?
"IF IT STOPS YOU FROM THROWING ROCKS, I WAS TRYING TO BE CATHARTIC!"
However those tougher questions get settled, I think I gave you at least a few reasons not to make Holocaust and rape jokes up there (if you needed them). And given the endless variety of things that can be safely joked about, this shouldn't limit you too much. If you're stuck, maybe start ragging on people from Nantucket again? They've had it too easy for too long.
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