Insult humor

The death of comedian Joan Rivers has resulted in a wave of eulogies for her pioneering role as a woman in stand up comedy and as a talk show host. I have never actually seen any of her shows, but was aware that she was known for her scathing criticisms of people and fashions which she did turn on herself too.

I am not a big fan of the genre of insult humor practiced by her and Don Rickles, among others. People’s views and ideas are fair game for biting jokes but such humor when it is aimed at the looks of people or what they wear seems trivial and mean. Public figures, especially political ones, have to be prepared for such attacks and it is admittedly hard to draw a clear line between what is reasonable and what has crossed the line.

The appeal of such insult humor becomes even more incomprehensible to me when the target is supposedly being honored. The peculiarly American idea of ‘roasts’ where people gather to pay tribute to an honored guest but where the speakers are expected to make jokes at the guests’ expense is something that I find particularly distasteful.


  1. Rik van says

    I’m curious to hear how you feel about the eulogy spoken by John Cleese at the funeral of fellow-Monty Python member Graham Chapman.

  2. Mano Singham says


    The bits I have seen were not insults but fond remembrances of his foibles, such as his chronic lateness.

  3. dean says

    I was not a huge fan of hers either, although she did have some amusing lines.
    Regarding the type of humor -- note that she, and Don Rickles, relied primarily on one-liners. I don’t remember any multi-sentence jokes told by either (or really any “jokes” as they are generally understood). I think that approach to humor leads quite readily to personal comments, as not much else is readily fit into those small bites (Think of Henny Youngman and
    Rodney Dangerfield as well).
    Stephen Wright is the closest to an exception I can think of, although I would think of things like “I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.” is very nearly a traditional joke.
    I do think she was important in the world of comedy for being a strong woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and wasn’t willing to take shit from the establishment.

    And really, when you read about what she said she wanted for her funeral

    “When I die (and yes, Melissa, that day will come; and yes, Melissa, everything’s in your name), I want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action … I want Craft services, I want paparazzi and I want publicists making a scene!” Rivers wrote. “I want it to be Hollywood all the way. I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents. I don’t want a eulogy; I want Bobby Vinton to pick up my head and sing ‘Mr. Lonely.’ I want to look gorgeous, better dead than I do alive. I want to be buried in a Valentino gown and I want Harry Winston to make me a toe tag.
    “And I want a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyonce’s.”

    how can you help but smile and say “hell yeah”?

  4. hyphenman says


    I don’t recall if you were in attendance on that particular evening, but the Socrates Cafe group once spent our allotted time (August 2003) exploring the question of whether or not it was possible to tell any joke that did not insult either the teller or others in some manner, no matter how slight.


  5. jonmoles says


    It’s been my working theory for quite a while now that all humor is at someone’s expense, the only differentiation is the subjective measure of taste. It also seems to me that laughter is a defense mechanism, but I can’t back that up with any science.


    I think that the point of roasts is more to take a figure that is in a position of power and show that they are humble enough to accept the slings and arrows of verbal abuse and to allow for a sort of catharsis of the envious. I love roasts, and I would love to be the object of one, maybe I’m a masochist, I don’t know.

  6. md says


    In another post you seem to indicate you are a Monty Python fan. John Cleese understands Joan Rivers, Rickles, etc.

    “Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited” — John Cleese

    Watch an old Dean Martin roast sometime if you can still find them. My favorites are the roasts of Sammy Davis Jr or Don Rickles (Foster Brooks is superb). This is great comedy and probably illegal in todays PC America.

  7. hyphenman says

    @ jonmoles No. 6

    i can’t immediately put my finger on the report, but I recall reading a number of years ago about a primate study where some of our closest cousins were seen laughing after accidents. For instance, a chimp that missed a branch and landed on the ground would bounce to his feet and laugh. The observers took this as a sign from the accident victim to the troop that he was ok and not hurt from the fall.


  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Insult humour can work, although of course mileage varies. The only big-name comedian I find offensive is Ricky Gervais. There’s just something mean-spirited in some of his stuff that I never saw in Rivers* or Rickles.

    *In her comedy, anyway. Her politics was pretty offensive.

  9. Ed says

    I liked Rivers. I tend to like comics whose main strategy is humorous storytelling and commentary rather than discreet “jokes” one after another. That way seems too old fashioned--too retro-Vaudville. Comedy came into its own as an art form moving beyond simple joke telling.

  10. busterggi says

    “I want to be buried in a Valentino gown”

    G’wan, Rudy never wear a gown in his life, it was one of them Ay-rab thingies.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    The peculiarly American idea of ‘roasts’ where people gather to pay tribute to an honored guest but where the speakers are expected to make jokes at the guests’ expense is something that I find particularly distasteful.

    I’m not that fond of them either, but at least in the case of roasts the honoree has volunteered for the role. I see that as better than attacking some unsuspecting/undeserving person.

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