To Laugh or Not to Laugh
Molly Barrow, Ph.D.
The elements of
comedy usually require a surprise, a wet paint bench, an
embarrassing mistake or a pratfall for the hero to transcend into
the victim and make us laugh. The victimization can run the gamut
from good clean fun to lightly-veiled sadistic words meant to
destroy the object of the joke. Situational humor is one kind of
joke, slapstick is hysterical for some or can become boring rather
quickly and bathroom humor seems often too gross. Yet, have you
laughed at a Pollock joke, an Irishman, an Italian and a Frenchman
in a bar joke, or a blond joke? If so, can you be quite as outraged
as you ought to be when someone says a sexist, racist, or sexual
orientation joke or comment?
Do you hold the
sense of humor of a teacher, elected official or religious leader at
a different standard than your favorite stand- up? Is the cowboy hat
a costume of farce when worn indoors? Thus, is Imus a comedian? If
Imus is a comedian, then people who choose to listen to him expect
to laugh. Did you consider Imus a pillar of our society or was he
simply coarse entertainment not meant for polite company? Was the
national outrage because Imus was a newscaster with some political
clout and high powered guests? Or was he a comedian who exposed his
white boy attitude.
Revamping the way a
society treats minorities and women is an important task. Turning
off voices of ugly misplaced superiority is a good beginning.
However, equally distasteful and dangerous are programs that
masquerade as news, when they are clearly misleading exaggeration
entertainment. Perhaps “news” could be a protected word only used by
fact-checked and balanced reporting without opinion. If a lie is
discovered those misstatements could be heavily fined and
disdainfully exposed with matching flair and equal airtime. Perhaps
then, the public would not confuse our edgy comedians with scholars
necessary to expand the confines of a society even when their art or
humor goes too far or makes us uncomfortable. Art and performance
changes our perceptions of ourselves and our world. When we silence
our artists, our society shrinks and stifles all of us. Sometimes
art goes too far and tests a society. Sometimes art lifts the rug
and exposes dirty truth lurking beneath. No one wants to associate
themselves with the Imus remarks of white male supremacy but was it
really the first time you had heard that kind of talk? The firing of
Imus is a symbol of a shift in our society, a leap to higher ground,
even if rooted in the anticipatory fear of sponsors.
What then, exactly,
has been redefined? Hopefully, comedians still have freedom to
offend. Must mainstream networks make every program appropriate for
all viewers? Can we laugh at ourselves but not at others? How can
someone tell if you are laughing along with them or at them? If the
offense is in the ear of the victim, can the victim then rob
another’s right to free speech? These questions will be debated as
awareness exposes millions of examples of slurs in every corner of
our world. People with poor self-worth use insensitive and cruel
words as a misguided attempt to elevate themselves by putting others
down. Slurs demean the status of the speaker more than the victim.
Severe risks and consequences occur whenever you wander over the
mercurial line of decency.
One clue is when no
one else is laughing.
Read other articles and learn more
about Dr. Molly Barrow.
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