The Fine Line Between Acceptable and Unacceptable Jokes

I am a fan of well-written comedy, despite the fact that it is often contentious, derogatory, and heavily reliant on stereotypes. What I love most about good comedy is that it incites the viewer or listener to question the offensive tropes and clichés present in society and forces them to think beyond the bounds of a conditioned moral system. Given the fact that people of varying interests and personality types gravitate towards comedy, this gives comedians a powerful position in modern culture; and those comedians who use this power provide valuable lessons via their art.

Although a contentious character, Louis C.K. in particular is highly skilled at making us question our societal moral code. He does this by incorporating many perspectives in his comedy, which can be shown by comparing his skits:

I’m a lucky guy. I got a lot going for me. I’m healthy, I’m relatively young. I’m white, which, thank god for that shit. That is a huge leg up, are you kiddin’ me? Oh god I love being white, I really do. Seriously. If you’re not white, you are missing out because this shit is thoroughly good. Let me be clear by the way, I’m not saying white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better. Who could even argue? Now, if you’re white and you don’t admit that it’s great, you’re an asshole It is great, and I’m a man. How many advantages can one person have? I’m a white man, you can’t even hurt my feelings. What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? “Hey cracker!” “Ugh, ruined me day, boy shouldn’t have called me a cracker. Bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag.”[i]

This might not be a hilarious bit of his comedy (especially when you take away his comedic delivery) but I use this to provide a contrast to the perspective he maintains during an open mic in Toronto in 2004. In this skit, Louis C.K. makes a joke about the societal implications of the phrase white trash:

 So anyways, no money. I guess I’m white trash officially. And uh, white trash is a very funny expression to me because it’s the only racial expression you can use and no one gets offended. Nobody gives a shit when you say white trash. Nobody gets all quiet like, “Hey man, why are you talking like that. That’s not cool.” Nobody defends white trash. You can be talking to the most liberal hippy in the world and go, “Hey, I saw this guy he was white trash,” they’ll go, “Haha, fuck that guy. White trash piece of shit. Let’s laugh at him because he’s poor and he’s starving to death fucking looser. He lives in a trailer because he can’t afford a house. Let’s go shit right in his face right now.” That’s why they’re funny to us because they’re fucking poor. “He wears stupid clothes.” “‘Cause their fuckin’ free so he can eat. Ha fuckin’ ha.”[ii]

Now, it is true that Louis C.K. does come across as insensitive and white-male centric in these skits;[iii] but even if his language and jokes are offensive, it at least serves the purpose of getting the viewer or listener to question their perspective on racial stigmas and offensive, derogatory language and- ideally- to consider why the U.S. has- out of necessity- generated such a PC culture in the modern era, and from two different standpoints.

But before we delve into the importance of multi-perspective comedy, let us first focus on how Louis C.K.’s jokes work. Despite the fact that they are rooted in the bias of his white male status, Louis C.K.’s jokes work well because of his ability to include diverse viewpoints in his skits. He doesn’t only poke fun at one class of people, he maintains relatively self-aware attitude in his own biases and the biases of those around him, and he doesn’t let the closed, hushed mentality that culture has in regards to illness, pain, injustice, racism, and misogyny stop him from bringing the negative aspects of our society into the open. Moreover, he demonstrates that he can understand perspectives that are entirely opposite his own. For example, at times he even considers sex from the female perspective, which is something most heterosexual men fail to do[iv]:

“We’re so bad at sex, and then we wonder why women aren’t like really aggressive about sex. We think it’s because they don’t have as much desire as we do. That’s how stupid men are that we think, they just [stutter], they’re just weird. Women are like fucked up in the head, ‘cause they don’t wanna just fuck all the time. If I was [sic] a woman I’d just fuck everybody. Why don’t they wanna fuck all the time. I do. Of course you do because when you fuck you get to fuck a women.[v]

Yet, just as Louis C.K. expresses the subject matter of white privilege in differing perspectives in two different sketches, in contrast to the skit above he also expresses sexuality in a prototypical male perspective:

It’s really a male problem not being able to control your constant sexual impulses. Women try to compete. They’re like, “Well I’m a pervert, you don’t know? I have really sick sexual thoughts.” No you have no idea. You have no idea. ‘Cause see you get to have those thoughts; I have to have them. You’re, you’re a, you’re a tourist in sexual perversion. I’m a prisoner there. You’re Jane Fonda on a tank. I’m John McCain in the hut. It’s a nightmare. I can’t lift my arms. [vi]

The ability Louis C.K. has to place himself into other’s perspectives is what makes him such a genius artist. And that is, for me, the enlightened purpose of well-curated comedy and art in general: to push societal boundaries and make the viewer or listener think beyond their limited perspective; and it is the most intriguing artists (even if they do have biased tendencies based on privilege) who create an atmosphere where we are forced to rethink the manner in which we live our lives alongside a belief structure that is- for the majority of us- not so much a product of our own making, but a product of the beliefs of those around us.

Yet, there is a fine line we have to consider in comedy, especially in a culture that has mainly upheld white male humor that can be degrading, offensive, and negatively impactful for those who don’t fit the masculine, Caucasian status quo. To this day, typical fart jokes, defecation jokes, racist jokes, misogynistic jokes, and rape jokes are prevalent in white male-centered comedy, jokes that often miss their humorous mark on a large proportion of the population due to the cliché content and the manner in which the comedian presents them from the narrow perspective of the advantaged.

Take the show Family Guy, for instance. Recently, Family Guy has received a lot of flak for its style of humor, and rightly so. It is biased, only centers around the male perspective, and in an either unaware or senseless attitude uses jokes that revolve around damaging stereotypes without making any effort in perspective dallying or inciting the viewer to question or reconsider stereotypical thinking. Notorious in exploiting females and the female body, these harmful skits from Family Guy are the perfect example of the shows derisive humor:

Brian: “She’s, uh, she has this eating disorder. She’s bulimic.”

Stewie: “My God, that’s horrible!”

Brian: “I know, it really is. I mean, her hair is falling out. Last week she lost a tooth.”

Stewie “Really?”

Brian: “But man, I’ll tell you, all that purging just makes her body look fantastic. I mean, that’s what the supermodels do, and so many of them just look so great. Karen Carpenter overdid it, but I think Jillian’s found a good balance.”[vii]

and

James Woods: “Now, Meg, you want to be thin like all the Hollywood starlets, right?

Meg: “Yeah, but I love to eat.”

James Woods: “Well, I’ve got a way that you can eat all you want and look like a Hollywood starlet. Meg, let me introduce you to Mr. Pukey. Hiya, Meg.”

Meg: “Hi.”

James Woods: “Gosh, Mr. Pukey, you sure are good at making fat women hot. You think you could help out my friend Meg here? Yeah, I think I could give her a… hand. Now close your eyes, Meg, and let Mr. Pukey help you out.” (Meg throws up)[i],[ii] 

Even if it’s not the creator’s intention to promote issues such as body dysmorphia and eating disorders in the female population, the jokes and content of the show comes across as mindless, rather crass, and it pokes fun at real life people, sometimes in a vindictive way. Because of this, it lacks a diverse audience, as the humor is only valuable to a certain demographic. Furthermore, the jokes are typical, trite, and not forward-thinking or creative in the sense that your average individual could create them without putting much thought or effort into their words.

In contrast, take a show like South Park. In the beginning, the adult cartoon was riddled with masculine humor revolving around farting and shitting. However, as the show progressed the creators, Trey Stone and Matt Parker, often hid profound morals and critiques on society that cause viewers question the moral code they were brought up in.[iii] In a few stand-out seasons, Stone and Parker made the show revolve around a particular social issue (such as gentrification and social media usage) and employ satire in a manner that allows us to question the trajectory of modern culture. Moreover, the creators poke fun at all demographics in a way that is understanding and inclusive of differing perspectives. Akin to Louis C.K.’s standup, this allows their show attract a diverse audience and their jokes to insight ethical deliberation.

Yet, the fact that offensive comedy allows us to push the bounds of our oppressive moral system should not be used to excuse harmful jokes or actions from creators, regardless of their intentions or ability to partake in perspective dalliance. Especially when we take into account that most successful comedians and artists whose work gets broadcast nationally and internationally are wealthy Caucasian men with power, we have to be careful in our tendency to condone as the majority of these individuals can get away with their misdeeds and- because of this- will continue to be careless of the consequences of their words and actions. So promoting an artist’s work who has harmed others (such as Louis C.K. using his comedic fame to push his sexuality on female comedians with less status), or whose work is as offensive and targeting as Family Guys is a difficult task because, when doing so, one must keep in mind the both the character and overall artistic repertoire of the creator.

But refusing to consider work and creations from individuals who negatively assert their dominance or who speak about abrasive subject matter also serves to hide and ensconce the pervasive nature of the Caucasian patriarchy. Weather we choose to address this fact or not, domestic violence, rape, racial profiling, and derogatory humor are all pervasive acts in our world societies. We have to accept that, address it, and let it be openly discussed in both the public and private arena if we desire to combat the issue head on.


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CmzT4OV-w0.

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0slTBOQAZok.

[iii] (As well as in many others.)

[iv] This in no way should be used to condone Louis C.K.’s sexual behavior.

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iGsm-OV-f0.

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b7z9LNbHFQ.

[vii] Family Guy: Season 5, Episode 6.

[vii] Family Guy: Season 6, episode 9.

[ix] [1]I found these quotes from the following blog: https://dedret.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/family-guy-encourages-eating-disorders/.

[x] (Along with poking fun at male fart humor: See Eat, Pray, Queef; Season 13, Episode 4.)

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And that is, for me, the enlightened purpose of well-curated comedy and art in general: to push societal boundaries and make the viewer or listener think beyond their limited perspective

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