Comedy often has a political dimension even if it’s not ostensibly about politicians. You can subvert and undermine with laughter, draw attention to issues, and raise awareness. This is the kind of work we might want to associate with the Druid satire tradition. Such comedy is a means by which those who have little worldly power can call to account those who have a great deal of power over them.
There is another kind of comedy. It is used by the powerful to crush the less powerful, through mockery, ridicule, stereotyping and misleading. It is used as a cover for hate speech and prejudice. I am seeing this online a lot, and it troubles me greatly. Abusive, humiliating and cruel, hate speech is easily framed by joke shapes. Object, and you will be told that the problem is you, for having no sense of humour. Feminists who object to rape jokes are told they have no sense of humour. “Just a laugh” is used to excuse reinforcing the idea that women are inherently inferior, that it is ok to judge women purely on looks, and all manner of other unsavoury things. I’m prepared to bet that other groups subject to hate speech also have to endure ‘jokes’ that aren’t funny.
The first rule of comedy is that it should get a laugh. Lines like “You’re so fat and ugly” are not innately comedic. Using words like ‘lame’ and ‘gay’ as criticisms is not ironic, or clever, or funny, it’s just lazy language use that needlessly reinforces prejudice. I’ve seen far too much of this. If you are using comedy to attack someone who has less power than you, then you’re doing it wrong. If you spot someone making gags of that shape, it’s worth calling them out. The point of satire is to keep the powerful in line and civilised, not to bash the disadvantaged.
Calling out unfunny bigots who claim comedy as an excuse for airing their hate, is not a safe or easy business. Expect to get a dose of it too. If you say “that’s not comedy, that’s racism” to someone online, then a response like “you’re an ugly bitch who can’t take a joke” is likely. Probably even if you’re a guy. I think guys who challenge are more likely to be told they aren’t ‘proper men’, that they must be ‘gay’, have a vagina, or otherwise not be macho enough to laugh. Hate pedlars come in both genders, and will justify and defend their hate without a second thought. Usually by giving anyone who questions it a thorough dose of their poison. If you’re calling someone out, you have to weather this. Take it personally, and they will call you weak and ridicule you, while their prejudices go unchallenged because they can avoid taking you seriously. I can’t say reasoning with the unfunny brigade works, but if you try it, do it calmly, without anger and without resorting to hate speech yourself. There are forms of sympathy that can get under people’s skin. “I really feel sorry for you. Life must be pretty grim if this counts as funny. I’m guessing you aren’t a very happy person.” A ‘poor you’ approach can confuse, challenge, break down defences and leave no room for a really angry comeback.
Refusing to get the joke is an interesting strategy for dealing with the unfunny. Even good comedy suffers when you have to explain it. Play clueless, and try and get them to explain to you why the ‘joke’ is funny. There’s nothing like having to break it down and expose the core prejudice to make it clear to someone exactly what they are saying. Conveying the idea that it doesn’t work as a joke helps reduce the incentive to keep pedalling it.
People use comedy to draw attention to themselves, and to show off how clever they are, in part. Failure to get a laugh, drawing the wrong kind of attention, or getting feedback that tells you that no one thinks you are clever, makes trying to pass hate speech off as humour less appealing. If the aim of being unfunny is to make sure that you are the aggressor, not the victim, getting laughed at is not the outcome you wanted.
It’s one thing laughing at the foolish things people do. It’s another laughing at the things people have no control over. Laughter that deflates arrogance is a good thing. Laughter that crushes the vulnerable, is not. Far too many people either do not know, or do not care that there is a difference. We need a culture shift, to which end it may be productive to start laughing at the people who are not funny, rather than laughing with their hate speech or being silent in a way they will understand as tacit support.