I have to be very careful with how I word this article, or else people will think that I’m the most heartless bastard to ever exist. Regardless of its execution, I’m writing this entry for my personal blog, and thus I should be allowed the freedom and flexibility to say whatever comes to mind first. Even supposing that you might not agree with me.
In my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher told the class that (and I paraphrase), “You need to be careful with your words, because you just never know when you might upset someone.” I took his advice into deep consideration because there are extremely sensitive people out there who, even at the thought of lightly insensitive joke, will plunge into an epileptic rage. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that all jokes, offensive or lighthearted, span a metaphorical minefield: one false step and you’ll “set off” somebody else’s feelings. So where am I supposed to step in the minefield that is humor? What jokes am I allowed to make, and what jokes should I simply keep to myself for fear of striking a nerve?
There is an elevated level of ambiguity in acceptable versus unacceptable humor. What one person might find funny, another might find distasteful, so it’s important to always think carefully before you make that final, fateful punch line. But what if acceptable versus unacceptable humor, by its very subjective nature, is unknown?
I condemn such phrases as, “You shouldn’t joke about that” and “That’s not very funny” because the line separating topics that can be joked about and topics that cannot be joked about is obscured. We’re all unique individuals who have had different past experiences from which our senses of humor have emerged. Therefore, when I make a joke that fails to comply with your standards for acceptable humor, it’s not really necessary for you to express to me that you’re offended because I couldn’t have known that you would find it offensive in the first place. In fact, I’m offended that you’re offended!
Okay, okay. I need to moderate my tone now because I promised myself that I wouldn’t let this article devolve into an angry rant. But here me out for just a few more paragraphs.
George Carlin, my all-time favorite stand-up comedian, argued that you can make a joke about pretty much anything as long as the exaggeration that constitutes the joke is so out of line and so “out there” that is has no basis in reality. In other words, the setup of the joke should be mundane enough to where the punch line completely throws it off balance. That is something I consider to be the ingredient of a great joke—offensive or not.
Of course, there are limits that should not be pushed. For example, when an unfathomable tragedy such as a terrorist attack or school shooting occurs, we should probably put off making jokes about it for a while to give people the time and space to grieve. Making comedic references to a specific incident with the intent to downplay the enormous misfortune that it’s caused does come across as rather brash and ill-conceived. As far as sensitive topics are concerned, I don’t believe that they are entirely off-limits, and neither did Mr. Carlin.
I for one employ offensive humor as a way to emotionally distance myself from how chaotic this world can be. Many times, I feel like pointing fingers and laughing at something awful makes it less threatening.
But that’s just me. You might believe that some topics should never, under any circumstances, be joked about, and that’s okay. If we’re having a conversation and you happen to find that something I said upset or unsettled you, do not hesitate to call me out on it so that I can readjust my language accordingly. But to say that I’m not “allowed” to joke about [insert topic here] is an obstruction of my own free will.