What we laugh about when we laugh

Whenever I’ve been asked to describe my sense of humor, I begin answering under the assumption that I absolutely know its definition. “I’m kind of silly and self-deprecating,” I start saying. This is about as far as I get before I start to second guess how to continue. My instinct is to continue, “I think it’s a bit smarter than other people’s sense of humor. Not in a referential sort of way, just in a more sensitive and observational way.”

It’s a good thing that’s not a vague description.

I’ve been seeing someone the last few weeks and he’ll often try jokes on me. When I don’t laugh, he seems surprised. At this point, he probably shouldn’t be shocked anymore. We have fairly different styles of humor. His jokes tend to comment more on mental models of societal groups. That’s my polite way of saying he makes jokes about stereotypes. He’s an equal opportunity commenter – Asians, lesbians, Jews, and feminists are all free game in his book.

I recognize that there’s a group of people who enjoys this vein of comedy. “It’s clever & plays on the peculiarities that we avoid articulating,” they probably argue. Maybe there are some comedians out there who do this exceptionally well. To do it successfully, I imagine you’d have to combine stereotypes, social commentary, & wordplay in a fresh way. These are probably the same kinds of comedians who ridicule the audience members who don’t laugh at the jokes. “Ohhhhhhh. Don’t want to laugh at that and get your liberal panties in a bunch, do ya? Come on, we’re all assholes here.”

Until recently, I haven’t been forced to explain why I’m not a fan of this kind of comedy. I think I’ve got it though. The way I see it, this vein of comedy functions primarily by poking at others. Beyond the obvious (making the audience laugh), I can only assume the goal is to portray the comedian as a witty, superior, and crudely charismatic alpha. I’m either too jaded or I’ve read too many books to not see through this. Whenever I hear this stuff, it’s like the comedian is offering the joke up and expecting the audience to award him for being so clever and ballsy to speak so politically incorrect.

The thing about politically offensive jokes is that if they’re not done well, it backfires and makes the comedian look insecure. These jokes aren’t gutsy. They’re simple commentary whose vehicle is previously established phrases and unevolved assumptions. Instead of uniting people in a shared experience, it divides them between those “gutsy enough” to laugh and the “prudes.” Call me idealistic, but I don’t see the humor in an offensive term or quip that reduces a person (or group of people) to single societally-decided negative characteristic.

We’re complex creatures whose narratives continuously overlap, but so much of our lives are spent focusing on obligations and frustrations to see that our insecurities and quiet humiliations are universal. The jokes I appreciate function on good storytelling and the comedian’s willingness to be vulnerable. It’s wry and sensitively self-deprecating. Instead of simply illustrating their own idiocy, the comedian is telling a personal story that resonates with the audience at an individual level.

Stand up

I’ve said this all without ever having done so much as an open mic, so that might weaken my entire argument. But that standup spotlight and mic has got to be lonely. Nobody wants tell a joke and see offended expressions and obligatory laughter. I’m sure there’s a multitude of reasons a person does standup, but the goal is the same: to feel connected. This isn’t an argument for easy jokes to get the most laughter. But if you’re going to do this at all, what’s the sense in seeking anything other than a genuine connection with the audience?

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