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Humor and responsibility

As a stand up comedy fan, I know that there are times when it helps to suspend my sensitivities to take a joke. The issue of sensitivity, or political correctness, often comes up whenever humor in artistic or social events might offend certain groups or individuals. Indeed, some worry that this increasing aversion to offense supersedes opportunities for honest and valuable cultural exchange, especially when it leads to the avoidance of controversial or unfavorable ideas. At Stanford, in fact, we recently saw a debate about the ultimately cancelled production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and another dispute about Cinco de Mayo festivities. This debate rests on the uncertainty of an imaginary line: when is something offensive, and when is it harmful?

An example of comics’ approach to the topic of rape can help suss out where this line is, and it all comes down to who is being used as the target of the joke; people have a responsibility to use their expression wisely as a positive tool. Daniel Tosh’s idea of a rape joke, for instance, crosses the line because it suggests to his audience that rape is okay. When heckled, Tosh remarked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?” This isn’t funny either because it pits rape victims as the ones we should laugh at.

The scripted rape joke in Comedy Central’s Broad City, on the other hand, is funny. One character, Abbi, is having sex with a guest character played by Seth Rogen when he passes out. Abbi and her friend Ilana are having a conversation about whether or not Abbi committed a sex offense when Abbi tries to justify herself by saying he “seriously wanted it.” “That is literally what ‘they’ say,” Ilana responds. For one thing, this joke makes fun of rapists. For another, it is contextualized in a broader discussion that squarely seeks to denigrate rape culture, as many cultural critics have also noted.

The line of offensiveness can be seen as an arrow: when the arrow is pointed toward someone without broader context, the joke is often relying on tired tropes, stereotypical attitudes about people, and can do real damage in promoting them. Turn on Comedy Central’s roast of Justin Bieber, for instance, and you’ll find nothing more than a series of wisecracks about the female comedians as whores, the black comedians as “new money,” and Justin Bieber as a woman or gay. The entire episode relied on perceptions of gender and racial differences. Bieber is effeminate, therefore not masculine enough, therefore worthy of mockery because being feminine is “less than.” The female comedians are women, therefore sex objects, therefore deserving of scorn or ridicule based on this classification alone.

There is a danger in the attitude that everything is fair play. Certainly, any comedian has a right to say whatever they want, but we should expect more. We should expect comedy that is smart, that doesn’t rely on shock value and that communicates something meaningful. Amy Schumer does this when she comments on the lack of visibility of female comedians (women were only a fifth of Justin Bieber’s roasters, for example) and the stereotype that female comedians aren’t funny. “I think that I get labeled a sex comic just because I’m a woman,” Schumer said. “I feel like a guy could get up here and literally pull his d–k out and everyone would be like, ‘He’s a thinker.’” She does this too with her material on contraception and abortions — offensive, sure, but not injurious. And Aziz Ansari has recently made a point to joke about people’s reluctance toward feminism, and the types of harassment women experience.

This responsibility to know the difference between offense and harm becomes more complicated when we leave the world of professional comedy for Stanford, but using this framework of determining who is the target of a joke is useful. Planning a party that mocks a racial or ethnic group places certain people as the butt of a joke. The production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, might be considered more of an invitation for dialogue and a mockery of Andrew Jackson.

These issues are further muddled by the question of whether or not the university should be involved in moderating them: Stanford does compel us to have certain moral obligations to our peers as a condition of our acceptance and education under the Fundamental Standard. More importantly, whether or not one believes that Stanford should intervene in cases like these, we should remember our unwritten moral obligations not to turn each other into the butt of our jokes. Use humor in art or entertainment responsibly, and think before crossing the line of controversy and offense into more hurtful territory.

Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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