Humor is the greatest weapon the powerless have against the powerful. When the powerful use it against the powerless, it’s evil.
This was my thought the day after Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s jokes during the broadcast ignited outrage:
Why Seth McFarlane’s Misogyny Matters by Margaret Lyons in New York Magazine
Nine Sexist Things At The Oscars by Hillary Reinsberg in Buzzfeed
Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ hostile, ugly, sexist night by Amy Davidson in the New Yorker
The focus in the essays I read was on sexism, but one could almost as easily put together a case for anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia.
But what made me think about the “purpose” of humor was not this expression of outrage, but the reaction to it – in published commentary and on social media. It all basically came down to: Can’t you take a joke?
Isn’t this exactly the response of school bullies? It’s the victims’ fault because they can’t take a joke.There is nothing less hip in our culture than finding a joke at your expense insulting rather than funny.
But humor is subjective.
I can remember in 1997, after Ellen DeGeneres’s character came out as a lesbian on her sitcom Ellen (a few weeks after DeGeneres herself had come out in an interview), that more than one commentator made almost word for word the same point – that they didn’t care if she were a lesbian, but they did care that her show was no longer funny. Was it just a coincidence that the comedienne was no longer funny as soon as she identified with a group outside the mainstream? (When did she become funny again? Was it after it became more acceptable to be openly gay?)
The esteemed journalist Russell Baker had a funny column in the New York Times for years. I recall his rule for humor: Never hit somebody who can’t hit back harder.
When did professional humorists start aligning themselves with the powerful against the powerless?
Comedians are paid to be “edgy” or “irreverent.” But the root of the word “reverence” means respect, fear and awe of the sacred or divine – or in other words, to translate into secular terms, respect for authority.
Are you being “irreverent” – lacking respect for authority figures — if you say, as Seth MacFarlane did before Salma Hayek took the stage, “Well we have finally reached the point in the ceremony where either Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek comes on stage and we have no idea what they’re saying but we don’t care because they’re so attractive.”
Is Salma Hayek a sacred figure, a person in authority, and is that why MacFarlane was being so rude to her? Or was it because she belongs to an ethnic group – Latinos – that is largely without parity or mainstream power in the United States?
Is it “edgy” (on the cutting edge; daringly innovative) when you make a joke, as Seth MacFarlane did through the talking teddy bear Ted, about needing to attend “secret synagogue meetings” with Jews so that he can continue to work in films and they’ll give him a private jet? Or is this mocking of Jews not innovative at all, but the kind of humor paired for centuries with the slander that Jews are secretly in control?
There was another standard defense of Seth MacFarlane’s jokes at the Oscars – that he was engaged in meta satire, pointing out American bigotry by pretending to embody it. One such MacFarlane defender scored what he considered the ultimate retort to the critics: the rating among viewers 18 to 34 was way up from last year’s Oscar broadcast.
When did “funny” become our most important criteria, an ends that justifies any meanness? When did humor become sacred? Irony and snark have become our catechism. Is it now a sacrilege to object to blatant bigotry if it comes with a punch line?