Horrible Jokes

So my best friend and I were having a conversation sparked by that most recent post of mine. We were discussing whether it was acceptable, even as a cathartic joke, to talk about burning (fictional and/or non-specific) people and scattering their ashes on the wind. We concluded that it could be acceptable in some contexts. But that brought up another joke, that was subtly different:

Q: How many men does it take to wallpaper a bedroom?

A: Only one if you slice him thin enough.

Now, my best friend is actually the same person who first told me this joke 20 years ago, so I was a bit surprised to hear her say that this joke was never acceptable. She went so far as to say she should never have told it. On the other hand, I think it’s completely unacceptable to tell such a joke for laughs in any public context you could find in Canada today – and likewise in any public context you could find in the US today – but that when she first heard it in the 1980s the context was sufficiently different that it could be (and was) acceptable in at least some contexts. Where she first heard it was during an ongoing anti-war protest. It was a women-only camp that was set up to protest and to monitor activity related to the Pershing II missiles (nuclear tipped missiles with a range that shifted during development and production, but was ultimately ~1000 miles or 1500-1800 km) designed to be deployed in Europe. Everyone at the camp being seriously committed to non-violence contributed, I believe, to the context that made the joke acceptable in the time and place originally told. It also matters (to me, anyway) that “humor” about violence against women was still not merely acceptable, but financially rewarded. this is, after all, long after “To the moon, Alice,” and still before Andrew Dice Clay would sell out venues to thousands of people eager to hear “jokes” like:

I give [women] what they want. Pull their hair, rap ’em in the head a few times, say all the little things they want to hear, like ‘Fuck, pig, howl, skank.

Emphasis added.

For me, although the discussion at the peace camp wasn’t this context, the joke would also have been acceptable when told in a way that was designed to provoke a reaction (“hey, that ain’t fair to men!”) and then to use that reaction to make society better (“But you accept that unfairness from men comedians … if you interrupt and question this joke, are you going to interrupt and question misogynist jokes?”).

Although there is certainly a wealth of sexist/misogynist humor out there, I think there’s enough of a new social context for us to leverage other arguments or employ other tactics to fight what still exists. There’s simply less need for a “slice ’em thin enough” joke to make the point. While the possibility of telling such jokes for catharsis still exists, I don’t believe that telling them publicly (including in almost any manner using the internet) is necessary for such catharsis. I think it’s good if people don’t tell such jokes for cathartic laughs in private with their best friends, but if people conduct themselves well publicly, I won’t condemn them for using humor privately for reasons such as catharsis that would not be acceptable publicly.*1

I make a distinction between this joke and the “people who make me angry” joke in the previous post because the previous post’s joke targeted “the people that inspire my rage” where “my” is a pronoun standing in for a particular, but fictional, person. Thus the targets are specific, but undefined. The targets of the wallpaper joke are non-specific, but well defined (all men). There’s much more reason and justification, then, for some individuals hearing the wallpaper joke to believe that they devalued, that they are socially or psychologically injured by the joke. Nor do I think it saves the wallpaper joke that men benefit from sexism. It’s arguable, but I think in the 1980s men’s privilege and the context of misogynist humor might very well have saved the joke. Today? No.

What do you think? If told in the comedy club nearest you (as a joke, not dissected for its social meaning and effects and morality), would the wallpaper joke be acceptable? Could it ever possibly be? Would it matter if it was a special event night (e.g. “feminist humor night” where the violence and sexual prejudice of the joke are more likely to be interpreted ironically)? What about the burning/scattering the ashes joke? Would it be acceptable at your local comedy club? Could it ever be?

Although I find the latter much more acceptable than the former, I’d love to hear any disagreement.

*1: The reason I don’t think it’s a good idea even privately is that I think it reinforces certain types of thinking, which then makes harmful actions more likely later when one reenters public space. In theory it’s possible to tell jokes that target people based on gender or race or dis/ability in private while behaving generously and without prejudice in public. In practice, I don’t think it’s possible. But since without telepathy it would be impossible to know about the private jokes and (more importantly) impossible to know exactly what role private jokes played in shaping public behavior, I’d rather focus my criticism on the unacceptable public behavior.


  1. ridana says

    I think it’s possible that both jokes could be told in public by the same comic and be acceptable/get laughs, depending on the comic. Both jokes depend in part on misunderstanding or variant interpretations of language and meaning. But the comic adds another layer of meaning, depending on the type of humor that comic is known for. These jokes delivered with the strutting misogyny of Andrew Dice Clay (if “men” were exchanged for “bimbos” in the wallpaper joke) would mean something very different than they would if Roseanne Barr (the 80s version) or Rita Rudner told them, and none of them could probably get away leaving no one’s feathers ruffled today. But if told by a comic who trades in bizarre points of view and/or an unconventional understanding of how the world works and I think the reception would be neutral or favorable. I can imagine someone like Stephen Wright or Emo Phillips pulling both of these off without complaints, but perhaps still with guilty winces.

    Also, the wallpaper joke can only be considered anti-male if you have a feminist understanding that “men” does not equal “generic human being.” From the accepted pov of when that joke was told (at least 20 years ago), “men” could simply mean “people,” or in the context of the joke’s mechanics, “anyone able to put up wallpaper,” and so is not essentially anti-male. To me, its humor lies in the twisting of expectations, since the only thing I can see that might be objectionable is its, taken literally, pro “sectioning of human beings for interior design materials,” and there aren’t enough such advocates around (at the moment) to override the linguistic humor. Should that become a thing, I’d find the joke less humorous.

  2. says

    I remember my then-girlfriend in 1978 (she was a communist, separatist) wearing a Tshirt that asked “If they can send one man to the moon why can’t they send them all?”

    I’m wondering if there’s some kind of test that can be derived here. If you ask “how many people does it take to wallpaper a wall?” it comes out just as funny if you don’t specify a group. Perhaps if you have a joke which is equally funny regardless of the target, you have a joke that is not racist or whatever? “How many rich people does it take to wallpaper a wall?” “How many rich people does it take to make potato soup?”

  3. Curt Sampson says

    @ridana: As someone who was a teenager in the early 80s, I reckon I qualify for understanding at least one accepted POV from “when that joke was told.” (I make no claim that there aren’t other widely accepted ones.)

    It never occured to me that it was talking about men as anything but a group not inclusive of women. “How many men does it…” has always been to me the standard opening for what at the time we would call a “feminist” joke, and wallpapering a room was certainly considered to be traditional men’s work amongst the groups that joke was punching at.

    I laughed aloud at the joke when I started reading this blog post, and now that I think about it a good part of my reaction was probably familiarity with that type of joke from a now fairly distant part of my past, and finding some comfort in that familiarity.

    My first reaction on hearing that the joke could be considered offensive was, “No, way. Really?” But now that I think about it, sure, that’s worth consideration, and I especially like the idea that we should consider the context in which the joke is told and that it’s acceptability will changed based on that.

    I don’t have a particular opinion on this joke itself. I find it funny, but would not feel much loss to the world if it were never told again. I suppose I’m collateral damage of the joke in that it degrades (is that the right word?) me (a member of “men”) though I’m not the target (men who think that wallpapering a room is a “man’s job”), but it sure doesn’t make me feel any noticeable loss of (my very extensive) privilege. I hadn’t really thought about others that could be hurt by it, so it’s certainly good to bring up that point.

  4. Owlmirror says

    Would it be “better” if instead of “men”, there was something that implied moral desert? Like, “How many sexist pigs” &c. Although, that kind of telegraphs the punchline.

  5. says

    The wallpaper joke is fine — men are not and never will be subject to the sexist oppression that they’ve heaped on women for millennia, and therefore do not get to claim it’s “sexist”.

  6. Curt Sampson says

    @WMDKitty: While my personal opinion (before much thought) on that joke is very much aligned with yours, I’m happy to listen to arguments in another direction. And, then, there we go, @robertbaden pipes up.and says (or at least strongly implies) he’s uncomfortable with it.

    As a liberal but otherwise bog-standard cis-white-oldish-male I’m used to considering (at least when asked) how things might look from a woman’s viewpoint. But maybe this “intersectionality” stuff does have a point: just because the joke’s not sexist doesn’t mean that, while on some levels punching up, it’s not also punching down here and there.

  7. ridana says

    Curt Sampson @4:

    It never occured to me that it was talking about men as anything but a group not inclusive of women.

    I see what you’re saying, but what I was trying to get at is that for me, at least at the opening of the joke, “men” is a group exclusive of women only because in the (I wish I could say outdated, but it’s still subconsciously the norm) worldview of “men are the default human beings,” women have been erased from existence. It’s not the group “men” as opposed to the group “women” or “men and women,” but just “men” as in humans and not machines or animals (i.e., not “how many robots or monkeys does it take…” I’m really not clarifying things here, am I. :/

    One thing that’s interesting to me about the mechanics of that joke is that usually “How many X does it take” jokes are structured to comment on some stereotypical characteristic of X (e.g., stupidity, inefficiency, political behavior, etc.), generally with an eye toward making fun of that characteristic. This joke turns that around to examine the one who gives that macabre answer (the questioner? or is “Ans” a third party?).

    So I guess if a woman told that joke, it most likely would come off as man-hating-ish, while if a man told it, it could sound like the musings of a serial killer like Hannibal Lector (which I think it how I first took it). So again, it depends on who’s telling it. 🙂

  8. says

    Marcus Ranum @ 3:

    I remember my then-girlfriend in 1978 (she was a communist, separatist) wearing a Tshirt that asked “If they can send one man to the moon why can’t they send them all?”

    Heh, the version of that I heard was a Ukrainian peasant running excitedly into his neighbour’s house in 1961 after hearing about the launch of Vostok 1 on the radio to tell him that “the Russians had gone into space!” “What, all of them?” “Well, no, just the one…” “Just the one?! What good is that?!” 😉

    And the version of the “wallpaper” joke I heard, probably some time in the 80s, was, “how many [ethnic] does it take to tile a roof?” Punching up versus punching down.

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