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To Laugh or Not to Laugh

By Dr. 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 and experts.

Artists are 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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