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Feb 17 2012

Movie Friday: Can I have yo’ number?

So as I get more immersed in the literature of anti-racism, feminism, class structure and sociology, it becomes harder and harder for me to enjoy jokes. For example, I used to find this video hilarious:

And it is funny – it’s a comedically exaggerated version of an interaction that happens between men and women all the time. Here’s the thing though: knowing what I know about sexual harassment and the pressures put on women to be “nice” to men who are overstepping their boundaries, it’s hard to laugh. Knowing that women are often “nice” because there’s a risk of violence if they aren’t, it’s hard to laugh. Knowing that some clueless dolts interpret anything that isn’t a clear and brutal “no” as an invitation to try harder, and that those same dolts will react to a brutal “no” as though it’s the woman’s fault for being a “stuck up bitch”, it’s hard to laugh.

Knowing that Darrel’s social awkwardness is exacerbated by his race, and that the same approach (modified for dialect) from a white guy would likely seem less obtrusive, it’s hard to laugh. Knowing that even if Darrel were successful in getting Yvonne’s number, the two of them have clearly different social backgrounds and would struggle to find acceptance in their respective communities, it’s hard to laugh. Knowing that Darrel could possibly face violence for walking down the street with Yvonne in the wrong neighbourhood or town, it’s hard to laugh.

Basically what I am saying is that thinking about things ruins jokes. So… I’m sorry I guess?

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23 comments

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  1. 1
    Cluisanna

    It’s sometimes hard to understand that something can be racist although a poc is taking part in it.

  2. 2
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Basically what I am saying is that thinking about things ruins jokes. So… I’m sorry I guess?

    I know, I know.
    I have become very carefull about jokes, so, yes, you people ruined quite lot of them with your feminism, anti-racism, pro-LGBTQ stuff

    BTW, I’m wondering, why don’t the guys just get a card printed and hand it to the women?
    The one time a guy showed such interest for me and asked me out he just wrote down his number and said: Call me if you’re interested.

    Oh, right, I never called me and since he had handed the power of continuing contact to me, he couldn’t bully me.

    I wished I still had the number so I could thank him…

  3. 3
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Him, Him, Him.
    I call me everytime I missplace the damn phone

  4. 4
    P Smith

    Your reaction to such jokes is like being in an awkward social situation.

    If you say something, risk offending people no matter how well intentioned or how carefully you believe you’ve worded it. If you say nothing, you risk being perceived as indifferent, rude, ignorant, inconsiderate, etc. No matter what you do, you can’t win yet you have no way out of the situation.

    .

  5. 5
    Desert Son, OM

    My senior year of college I took an anthropology course entitled “Laughter and Humor in Society.” I was really excited for the course, thinking it would basically be a class with non-stop stand-up routines and we’d spend three hours a week laughing to tears.

    Not so. Long-term, in-depth analysis of a joke can definitely diminish the funny.

    Not to say it was a bad class. It was a great class, one I enjoyed very much in retrospect for the good scholarship and learning, and I got to share the space with some really terrific people. We also did a healthy amount of looking at humor in societies outside white male middle-class United States (Trobriand Islanders, Navajo, and Jicarilla Apache to name just some, as well as some survey of historical humor), which was very cool.

    I’ve been listening to a lot of comedy radio on long drives recently, and I’ve noticed a similar experience as you describe. There’s a lot of jokes predicated on stereotypes, on But-What-About-The-Men-As-Cover-For-Misogyny, on targeting sexualities other than heterosexuality, and other outgroup disenfranchisement.

    I do still get good laughs from many of the comedians I hear, but increasing one’s metacognition about things like privilege and history and so forth can definitely readjust one’s taste for humor. My political leanings have done a similar thing: back in the late 80s and early 90s, I though Dennis Miller had some funny things to say, but now I find his particular brand of conservative apologetics unfunny (I also think his own politics changed, not sure he was always as conservative politically as his persona suggests today, but I’m not sure).

    I’ve also started noticing when comedians make jokes and get the science wrong. It’s one thing when the joke is made to deliberately demonstrate an ignorance of the science, it’s another when the joke is made to try and invoke scientific discovery as validation of a point they are trying to make and they get the science wrong (and often, by extension, the point). Just the other day I heard a comedian mention that it’s the male seahorse that bears the seahorse young. His joke was along the lines of “They just mixed up the names! They ended up calling the female seahorse the male, and the biologist who did it was too proud to admit the mistake!”

    The audience laughed. Meanwhile, in the car, I’m not laughing as I’m thinking, “No, I’m pretty sure the biology demonstrates that the male carries the eggs deposited from the female, and the seahorses hatch and leave the male. It sounds like anthro-normative assumption to figure that reproductive roles play out exactly the same across species from the standpoint of the observer . . . ah, nevermind . . .”

    Humor is complicated, and it has an important role to play in speaking truth to power, as a socially cohesive tool, as a psychological uplift, and as a means by which people who have been disenfranchised can reclaim some power from oppressors. But skepticism, learning a great deal from Freethought Blogs and its audience, atheism, and metacognition have really changed my sense of humor in some ways.

    I used to laugh quite a bit at Bill Cosby’s stand-up routines from the 70s and 80s. I didn’t watch The Cosby Show much, but I had grown up with Fat Albert and Friends (one of the all-time great put-downs comes from that animated cartoon series: “Rudy, you’re like school on Saturday: No class!”), and I’d enjoyed his stand-up for a long time. Much of it is still funny, but nowadays when it comes on the radio I also hear his routines joke alot about knocking his kids around when they misbehave, or how his dad used to smack him and his brother around.

    Here’s a joke I read the other day that I loved. It was a tweet from Aparna Nancherla: “I put on my pants just like you, reluctantly, when the doorbell rings.” They showed the text on a television screen in a convenience store I was in at the time, and I guffawed.

    But the radio broadcasts remain replete with comedians that are echo-chambering lots of misogyny, racism, homonegativity, and so on.

    And, as ever, it behooves me to remain metacognitive and remember that I’m also probably finding echo-chamber comedy that I think “Yeah, that’s totally hilarious and also right on!” without thinking about it too critically.

    I don’t think critical thinking ruins humor, but I do think it helps one readjust one’s sense of humor to see that much of what has been held under the traditional umbrella of “Funny” may be predicated on some pretty morally reprehensible perspectives.

    There’s still great laughter to be found. It is a feature of skepticism to search, and so the search for funny goes on.

    Still learning,

    Robert

  6. 6
    Natalie Reed

    Yeah, but do the people writing jokes based on this kind of thing really deserve your laughter?

    And thinking makes life a hell of a lot better in other ways.

    Plus you start being able to get other jokes.

  7. 7
    carlie

    That’s why they say feminists are humorless: because the majority of what passes for humor in entertainment is just predicated on stomping all over marginalized groups.

  8. 8
    'Tis Himself

    Recently someone at work told me a ridiculous joke about the German invasion of Poland in 1939. I asked him why he thought the joke was funny. “Well, you see, the Poles are supposed to be, like, um, stupid….” So I asked if he really thought Poles were stupid. No, he didn’t. Did he think Jews were dishonest merchants and Scots were stingy and Blacks were lazy and homosexuals were immoral? Um, no. Then why did he tell me a joke predicated on Poles being stupid if he didn’t accept various stereotypes.

    My coworker doesn’t speak to me any more.

  9. 9
    Ace of Sevens

    If it’s any help, your commentary made me lol. A lot of the issue is that meaning in humor is frequently obfuscated and the difference between, for instance,, making a racist joke and making a joke about racism is in the eye of the beholder. This is why we don’t have Chappelle’s Show anymore.

  10. 10
    leni

    Ed from Dispatches posted this hilarious Dara O’Briain bit on religious jokes that *sort of* explains this.

    Or maybe it’s something entirely different, I don’t really know. But when I was watching the MadTV video I kept thinking the joke was old and stale and not really funny because I know most men don’t *really* act like that. It just seemed like a hastily thrown together bit using washed-up stereotypes. It just didn’t jibe with my reality, which might be a really bad way to put it and an entirely self-centered interpretation, but I think I might have had about the same reaction to jokes about the Koran that I wouldn’t get.

  11. 11
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    But when I was watching the MadTV video I kept thinking the joke was old and stale and not really funny because I know most men don’t *really* act like that.

    Careful — that’s one of the ways by which we dismiss racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/etc jokes in this light. “No one I know really acts like that.” It’s an easy thought trap to fall into.

    That being said, we need one of Dara O’Briain’s sacks for sexists, and one for racists, and one for homophobics, and…well, maybe we should just get one big sack.

  12. 12
    Ace of Sevens

    I actually know some people like that. Being around them is both funny and scary. If you forget not to laugh, it can get scarier.

    One big sack would solve the problem of who to put in what sack.

  13. 13
    Leni

    Careful — that’s one of the ways by which we dismiss racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/etc jokes in this light.

    I’m not really sure what your point is.

    I don’t have a problem dismissing “racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/etc” jokes that require me to suspend reality so that I can enjoy feeling superior to someone based on a rude stereotype.

    “Every ____ person I know acts like that” is also an easy trap to fall into, no?

    Sometimes those jokes are funny because you are actually laughing at the absurdity of the fact that the joke even exists rather than in it’s intrinsic funniness (if that makes sense). But that only lasts so long. Eventually the jokes just become unfunny not because we are over-thinking them, but because they just aren’t all that funny. They have a shelf-life limited by, I don’t know. Personal experience?

    You know how knock-knock jokes just stop being funny after you’re like, 7 years old? It’s like that.

    I dunno. Maybe the Dara O’Briain thing wasn’t quite right, but it still seems like for a joke to be funny there has to be some truth to it. Our truths change over time and that isn’t our fault for over-thinking, it just means some jokes have shelf-lives. And bad ones have just have particularly short shelf-lives.

  14. 14
    maia160

    You may not act like that but there are those that do. You need to understand that you aren’t going to see this behavior as this type of behavior isn’t generally directed at men.

    Of course, the skit was exaggerated for effect but I’ve had a combination of all those those behaviors and more happen to me at one point or another. I’ve had unsolicited comments made about my appearance by strangers thinking they were flirting. When I didn’t respond positively I’d often hear a mumbled ‘bitch’. I’ve had men invade my personal space and, in some instances, I felt threatened. I’ve had men not take no for an answer and obnoxiously persist with obtaining whatever goal they had in mind. I’ve been told to smile by strangers while I’m just doing whatever it is that I’m doing. I’ve had men that I don’t know very well ask me to adjust their clothing and attempt to hug me.

    And, I’m left thinking, ‘wtf?’ Who the hell do they think they are? When I was younger I would usually start out being polite while trying to get them to back off. Usually this wasn’t enough to get these weirdos to back off and had I to be more firm. The funny thing is, I always felt bad about being firm as that wasn’t ‘nice’. Now that I’m in my 30′s and respect my own boundaries I have no problem with being firm from the beginning. Why should I try to play nice when this behavior is disrespectful to me as a person?

    You are privileged in that you aren’t the typical recipient of this behavior. But, please, don’t discount the female experience; this type of nonsense does happen.

  15. 15
    Dianne

    Knowing that Darrel’s social awkwardness is exacerbated by his race, and that the same approach (modified for dialect) from a white guy would likely seem less obtrusive

    When I try to replay the scene in my mind with a white guy, it comes off as far more menacing. Possibly because if Yvonne felt threatened and made a fuss, she’d likely get a response from people if it were Darrel (anything from ejecting him from the theater to arresting him), but if it were a white version of Darrel, she’d get blown off as a hysterical woman who can’t take a simple complement.

  16. 16
    Shane

    While I agree with you in both respects that (a) I used to find the joke funny, and (b) no longer do when I think about it at any length, I disagree with your generalization about jokes or comedy as a whole. I think this is especially apparent in British humor, especially Python-esque or Douglas Adams-style humor, which rely on wit, wordplay, irony, satire, absurdism, cheek, and character play, and generally do a good job avoiding comedy generated through the exploitation of negative cultural archetypes. Now, I won’t pretend they’re perfect. Such famous scenes as nudge nudge, wink wink; impersonations of Hitler; and I’m sure some others which elude me now do show that they aren’t immune from touching on topics which exist because of some culturally regressive aspect of our society or which might cause offense to viewers. However, only this wonderfully dry, almost overly self-aware wit and charm would allow the humor of someone like Eddie Izzard, not to mention even the mere fact that he is understood and accepted (by his audiences at least) for who he is as a transvestite.

    In short: Comedy can work for good. :)

  17. 17
    Cluisanna

    Yes, I agree with that. Although I don’t think Crommunist was serious about ruining jokes by thinking about them – after all, one doesn’t *want* to laugh at horrible jokes once one realizes they are horrible.
    I have realized by watching German TV that I often like “comedy” less than “Kabarett”, which would be political comedy. That’s the good thing about humour – it can not only serve to reinforce the status quo, but it can also criticize it by pointing out how absurd it is.

  18. 18
    Clifford Banes

    I’d never seen that MadTV sketch before, and it was seriously disturbing to me on several levels. Maybe my awareness of gender and racial issues do “ruin the joke,” but not every joke deserves laughter. Quite honestly, I couldn’t figure out why you or anyone would’ve found it funny in the first place. It wasn’t clever, and the laughter seemed to come at basically random moments. It was way too close to real-world situations I’ve actually seen to even register as comedy. (I feel like I should mention I’m a thirtysomething white male, just for context.) I kept waiting for some element of absurdity to appear that would elevate it beyond the realm of “vaguely threatening discomfort.”

    But something had been tickling the back of my brain while I was watching it, so I did a bit of Googling… and I discovered that Darrell is played by Nicole Randall Johnson. I wasn’t familiar with her, and her makeup, costuming, and performance were very convincing as a man. Suddenly my whole perception shifted. In a flash, I got the joke. It wasn’t just a guy being an ass to a woman for laughs; it was a black woman mocking the treatment she actually gets through clownish imitation. Her gender and race made her the perfect purveyor of the message, since allowed her to come at it as both an outsider-victim and insider-commentator in exactly the right way. (Just as a male actor in blackface would’ve been exactly wrong in every way.)

    It still doesn’t really make me laugh, but it is MadTV, so that’s unsurprising. At the very least, though, I actually feel like my awareness of social issues makes me appreciate it a little more. And even if I agreed with you that social awareness made this skit less funny, I think it would just make some other potential jokes out there more funny. I’m a firm believer that there’s always comedy to be found, and in fact some of the most enjoyable comedy relies on the audience being able to process a complex perspective.

    Like… pratfalls are funny. That is a truth I hold to be self-evident. But I’ve seen Michael Richards* do a performance on roller skates where not hitting the ground was what made it amazing. Likewise, maybe the Darrell character is something of a philosophical pratfall. But someone who can do a deft and clever job exploring uncomfortable social areas – George Carlin, for instance – becomes more entertaining the more you realize how he avoids being stupidly crass and ignorant, which comes with an awareness of the issues at hand.

    *Sorry to use such a racially-loaded choice, but his skating bit is honestly the best example I can come up with.

  19. 19
    Ace of Sevens

    A friend of mine was telling me about an incident at karaoke where a guy kept hitting on her and couldn’t take a hint until she sang “U + Ur Hand” and he finally got it. She was trying to write a paper about it. I sent her to this post and she thought the sketch was hilarious in the “funny ‘cuz it’s true” way.

  20. 20
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    I’ve actually done that same thing. Same song. I added pointing at the dude.

    Now I’m really, really glad that song exists.

  21. 21
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Comedy is not just meant to be simply amusing. It’s funny (ha-ha funny or not, they are really the same thing) because it exposes painful contradictions, irregularities, and stupidity. Not that it always does this well, and not that the comedy writer or performer is fully conscious as to why it is funny.

    Comedy and tragedy are really much the same thing looked at from different angles. Light comedy is just comedy about inconsequential and/or contrived stuff.

    Don’t know about this particular bit as I have no sound, but I get the general picture from your writing and the image.

  22. 22
    Cynthia

    So the writer’s block seems to be clearing? And thanks for it, because as good as your backlog is, I love to see the new stuff you come up with.

    I have to tell you, the skit just doesn’t make me laugh because it hits way too close to home. In the same way that you wrote about trying to be seen as unthreatening to women on the street, I spent lots of time trying to be invisible. I’m now at the point where I just don’t care (and will explain IN GREAT DETAIL to the guy why he’s being a jerk), but getting here has been painful.

    And you making the point helps so much, because men will listen to you about it. And, combined with what they’ve heard from the women in their lives, they’ll start to get it. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all start to learn something. It could happen.

    I’m trying to be an optimist here, which doesn’t come easy!

  23. 23
    leni

    You are privileged in that you aren’t the typical recipient of this behavior. But, please, don’t discount the female experience; this type of nonsense does happen.

    Or maybe I’m just too ugly? ;)

    I’m not! (No one is, really…) But I am female and in my 30′s and have had to learn that lesson too. I know it exists. I’ve experienced every variant of it. When I bartended I resorted to wearing a fake wedding band to at least keep some of the creepers away. I even have a name for men who don’t respect personal boundaries: space invaders.

    But it still bothered me. Maybe just because the man was black. It added this extra layer of weirdness to it that just disturbed me. There is a “it’s true” element too it, I agree. That’s maybe what makes it mildly amusing.

    I don’t know. It’s difficult for me to explain, but the whole thing just seemed…wrong. Maybe it’s just because I’m white and I’ve never had a black man be a creep to me. It’s more often than not white men who are ~20 years older than me who feel entitled to younger women, for some reason. Or a pack of younger men trying to impress each other, which is even more obnoxious.

    Maybe it’s because I dated a black guy and the fact that we couldn’t evn walk down the street in the University District in Seattle without getting rude comments from total strangers. He’d get threats, ffs! Knowing what he faced just being seen in public with me makes it hard for me to imagine a lone black guy going that all-out on a white women in a theater full of potential race-defenders. In this country, even now, it seems like he’d be more likely to get beat up (or worse) than laid.

    I’m not really sure, but I just had a kind of visceral “wrong” reaction to it. It felt like I was being led along by a chain of class, race and gender stereotypes and it just didn’t sit well with me because ultimately none of them were that funny and only just barely true.

    Or maybe I’m overthinking it too XD

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