4 Offensive Jokes That Could Have Easily Been Fixed
What is funny? Farts. No, wait, that was a rhetorical question. As strange as it sounds, there's never been a concise and accepted definition of what's funny or why we laugh. Is it relief at the passing of danger? Can't always be. Is it about strengthening human connections? Well, what about laughing alone? And how do we even decide what to laugh at? Some people out there don't even think I'm funny. I know, right? Holy shit. But it takes all kinds, even people who are wrong, to make the world work.
If it's hard to determine what is funny, does that make it easier or harder to figure out what is not funny? I think it may be a little easier, but I'm no gynecologist. I do know about some jokes that people sure as shit didn't react well to, though. Let's focus on those.
Tosh's Rape Joke
This was pretty much a misfire heard 'round the world as far as comedy goes. Last summer, comedian Daniel Tosh was at the Laugh Factory in LA and he dropped a joke about rape, to which an audience member yelled out "Rape jokes are never funny." Oh man, have I got a prime setup for comedy here!
So far this scenario is mundane. It wasn't Tosh's first rape joke, whatever it may have been, that upset everyone. It just upset that one audience member. Tosh replied with "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys right now?" That joke right there was the problem. You can probably see why, and if not, maybe you have a soundproof room in your cellar.
Everyone from Jim Norton to Louis CK to Lindy West and every blog and website in between has covered this already, and I have neither the interest nor the capacity to defend and debate comedy and rape culture. I'll just say that I think rape is bad, comedy should be funny, and jokes about bodily functions always makes me laugh.
Ahh, bouquet of colon.
The thing that is significant to our topic here is that Tosh's joke wasn't really trying hard to be funny. It was a spur-of-the-moment reaction based on a funny premise (not rape, but taking something someone has expressed a dislike of and then forcing it on them) that missed the mark. For instance, if someone tells you they hate olives and you make them an olive pizza as a joke, that's kind of funny. Also terrible, because that pizza would be so gross, but it fits in with the theme of general prankery that you can develop once you know someone's likes and dislikes. Except rape is a really, really shitty foundation for that kind of prank. And then it became public.
Tosh could have turned this around for himself simply by taking another approach. For instance, Tosh cracks a rape joke, audience member says "Rape is never funny," Tosh responds with "Tell that to the circus clown who made me play the slide whistle while he finished on my back."
Is that joke awful? Yes it is, but it isn't as globally offensive as his actual response. In fact, that would have gotten laughs. Uncomfortable ones, and that audience member would still have been pissed at him, but the whole show would have had less of a sex offender vibe than it did.
Gilbert Gottfried's Tsunami Joke
One-time Aflac duck Gilbert Gottfried is famous for his melodious singing voice and only slightly less famous for his legendary sense of tact and timing. Gottfried is the man for whom "too soon" was invented and, in a lot of people's eyes, he's kind of a comedy hero for it. In my own opinion, I think his tactless jokes are great, and I like that he's willing to jump on a sensitive nerve. A tragedy needs comedy, and I don't feel like Gottfried is ever mean-spirited in his delivery. Maybe callous, but not wallowing in schadenfreude like some kind of sinister piggy. That said, it's not surprising that not everyone agrees.
Shortly after the massive and destructive tsunami that devastated Japan, Gottfried went on Twitter to share this gem -- "I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said 'is there a school in this area.' She said 'not now, but just wait.'"
This was followed by another tsunami joke that resulted in Aflac firing Gottfried from his spokesperson job, as they apparently had not really researched the man before hiring him in the first place and just went with the first duck-sounding comedian they could find.
You ever notice mallards swim like this and Aylesbury ducks swim like this?
BuzzFeed took the bold stance of simply calling Gottfried an asshole, then listed all of his tweets to suckle off of the controversy for sweet, sweet traffic, in that way BuzzFeed does. They also posted about a half dozen other articles about how funny Gottfried is since then, but never mind that, we're just focused on the joke that got famous for being offensive.
Gottfried, you may know, is infamous for making the Aristocrats joke a public thing at the roast of Hugh Hefner. It's the joke that comedians told other comedians not really as an exercise in humor, but one meant to show how insanely depraved the teller could make the story. His whole career is a testament to intentional poor taste and hilariously awful things. Just listen to his voice.
Still, if you're in a position to lose work over a crass joke, you need to have a quick solution up your sleeve to get out of trouble. What should Gottfried have done? In real life, he deleted the tweets and apologized, which is nice. He still got fired, and a vocal percentage of people, probably less than half, however, seemed genuinely offended by his jokes. A decent spin doctor may have looked at this situation and said that Gilbert Gottfried has a substance abuse problem. Fortunately he's seeking help, which you can watch every Sunday on Spike TV starting this fall -- it's Gottfried Got Help!
Serial Killer Joke
Say, are you a cable repair guy? And do you murder people? This one will be right up your alley (the alley where you dump the dismembered and partially eaten remains of your victims!). Super creep Michael Romanenko was a Internet technician for Comcast and was working on some Internetting at a customer's house. The customer overheard Romanenko speaking to her dog in Russian and an instant bond was formed! She spoke Russian, too! Yay! They shared a little chat about their background, how people used to make fun of him for being Russian as a kid, and how that made him into a serial killer.
We can assume that this is the exact point the budding friendship between cable guy and customer got weird. Romanenko decided to elaborate on his penchant for killing by explaining that his job made it really easy to get into people's houses and even easier to sneak into their bedrooms and just stab the living daylights out of them.
Oddly appropriate stock photo image, huh?
The homeowner let Romanenko know that this wasn't funny to her, and at this point he took his leave, but not before letting her know he'd see her again real soon. Ha ha, murder joke!
The homeowner headed to the police and picked Romanenko out of a photo lineup. For his part, the hilarious would-be killer said he was just discussing TV shows with the lady and nothing particularly ominous went down, and he certainly never admitted to being a serial killer or attempted at any point to make lamps out of anybody, that would be crazy.
Now, plenty of good jokes can be made about serial killing, it's a bit of a touch-and-go subject, but Dexter had its light moments, right? Hell, people were upset when he stopped serial killing and became a lumberjack.
Romanenko made the fatal flaw of taking a joke too far. This is why a lot of people didn't like Andy Kaufman -- he was often way too committed to the bit. Once people can't tell if it's a joke or serious, then they have to ponder whether they're actually about to get murdered, and I can assure you, if you've never feared for your own life before, it's barely chuckleworthy. The only cures for this are to cut the joke off sooner or carry it on to the absurd. Since early was no longer an option, Romanenko really needed to push things into high gear in order to avoid legal trouble. I want to say I'd love a joke enough to get arrested for it, but that's probably bullshit. If this was me, I'd bust out every preposterous excuse I could think of to avoid jail time, because I heard in prison dudes look at your wiener in the shower and you need to poo next to a guy who maybe makes you kiss him in exchange for toilet paper, so fuck that.
If you ever find yourself in this situation, first thing is don't deny it, because it closes your doorway out and makes you look creepy and obviously guilty. No one will believe you because of course the cable guy would say that. Every cable guy has probably told a customer they're a serial killer; most of them probably are. You need to run with it and start describing dumb shit you never really did, like when you put Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box -- not because you hated Brad Pitt, but because you hated Sliding Doors. And you made that lady-skin suit not because you have sexual identity issues, but because you can't afford to shop at the Gap. Plus you never ate Ray Liotta's brain because you're on a gluten-free diet.
Along with rape, natural disasters, and murdering people for fun, jokes about children who have been abducted and murdered tend to hit the ear wrong. Across the pond, a 19-year-old fella by the name of Matthew Woods plagiarized some bad-taste jokes from a website of bad-taste jokes and tweaked them to apply to the case of a 5-year-old girl who had been abducted. Most news stories don't relate everything he said; they let us know that he made sexually explicit comments about the dead 5-year-old and other jokes like "Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?"
The jokes went over worse than you can imagine sexual jokes about a kidnapped and murdered 5-year-old would go. A public mob was actually organizing to go to Woods' house, and he was arrested and charged with a crime I don't think even exists in the U.S. -- "sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive." He got three months in prison for that, and his defense had something to do with being drunk, because of course it did. It's hard as shit to try to explain jokes about sex crimes and dead kids, but it's not impossible.
Stop me if you've heard this one -- Little Timmy is walking through the dark woods at night with a pedophile. There's a strange sound in the distance, and Timmy says, "Oh man, these woods sure are creepy." And the pedophile nods and says, "How do you think I feel, I have to walk back out of here alone."
"I don't care for that at all."
That's a really bad joke, and I laughed at it the first time I heard it. Because it's absurd. I don't want to get into the fundamentals of deriving comedy from tragedy, but it can be done. You need it sometimes, to help break the tension of something so morbid and awful that it'd make you cry otherwise. Part of the fun of those kinds of jokes is actually laughing at yourself for laughing at it. You know you shouldn't, but you do, and you get that wave of shame from it that inexplicably makes you laugh even more.
That said, you can't really market a sexually explicit joke about an actual missing girl and have it generate a lot of laughs. Because probably it's not funny at all. Like in any way. I don't know exactly what this Woods guy said, but it was bad enough that a literal mob formed and was coming to I guess beat the shit out of him or lynch him or something. I've never told a joke that bad. I don't even think Jeff Dunham has told a joke that bad.
"Hey, guess what? Something racist and not particularly funny. Har!"
Woods' joke got him jail time and almost murdered, or at least circle booted. That's one harsh audience reaction. A simple mea culpa would have done nothing here, nor would dragging the joke to a new realm of awful. This situation, unlike the others, had one solution, and one only. It's drastic and can really only be used once in your life. We call it the Shaggy defense. It wasn't me. Deny involvement from the top down. Abandon joke and disavow all knowledge.
Unlike the previous spin doctoring, the severity of the awfulness of this joke required that the joke just not exist. Blame it on Grandpa who has dementia, or this asshole in your science class who hacked your Facebook. Blame it on the Taliban and Alec Baldwin, but for God's sake, never admit it was you. Express shock and horror that your name is attached to it. Grieve with the other people who are upset by it and stick with that story until the day you die. That's how you fix a joke that's so bad, it sends you to prison. Deny it, because it was online and technically no one can really 100 percent prove it was you, and then never, ever do it again.