When I was going to Drexel, everyone was required to take three Humanities classes. The classes were Humanities 101, 102, 103 and they were relatively stupid. 101 and 102 were the same for everyone. They covered things like basic composition. Actually, that’s all they were about. They were boring and having come from a highschool where the writings of everyone I ever read there were at least coherent and relatively well crafted, workshopping the pieces of people who could clearly speak English but couldn’t seem to write it down was quite aggravating. I became known for bringing a red pen to class and decimating the drafts of people’s essays. I was nice about it in that I often rewrote people’s thesis paragraphs and such, so, you know, less work for them. I think they all got A’s so no particular bitterness ensued.
Anyway, the third Humanities class ended up being a wild card. This class was more specialized and each teacher had a different focus. I was unaware of this and the class descriptions were the same regardless of time slot, so I picked whatever class was most convenient schedule-wise. This was a mistake.
I ended up in a humor in literature class. I suppose that this could have been interesting and entertaining. I mean, I love laughing, love writing humorously…and apparently I think that everything is funny, so this should have been a win. However, talking about humor is only entertaining if you are talking about it with someone with a sense of humor. You would think that someone really interested in humor would be funny themselves…or perhaps only I assumed that…but as it turns out, this was not the case.
It was taught by a woman who wrote a giant paper with her husband on the subject of humor in literature. Her thesis was that all humor could be broken down into four specific categories and that each of these categories could be assigned to a specific season of the year. Satire, being old and cynical, was winter humor (when all the trees were dying or whatever) and fables, being young and ignorant, were spring.
I hated this class very, very much. The woman teaching it was completely humorless. It was astounding how incredibly unfunny she was. I would spend entire classes pondering how this was possible. I didn’t laugh ONCE in that class in the entire 10 weeks we were subjected to it. One of the reasons is that while we were talking about humor classifications the whole time, no one was ever cracking jokes or anything. In addition, our text book was a collection of “humorous” stories and poems from throughout the centuries that our teacher compiled. Everything in it also happened to be public domain (advantage being that it kept the cost of the book down), so the most recent thing in there was from the 1920’s or 30’s. Our daily assignments were to read passages from it and then explain why they are funny, assigning specific qualities that make things funny. For instance: Is this story about being getting drunk and getting into craaaazy hijinks? Then that gets a 2. Debauchery. Is the story about stupid shit happening because someone mistook a person for someone else? That’s 3. Mistaken Identity. What was worse was that because everything in the book was completely dated, I found that nothing in there rang as funny to me. Some of it was a language issue (the fables, for instance, were written in some kind of dialect and I wasn’t entirely sure what was being said all the time), but clearly much of it was “you had to be there” humor, in that it would have perhaps been funny if you were around at the time it was written. If you are amongst the culture, you have the context to “get it”.
My teacher was seemingly frustrated that we were too dim or something to find anything we were reading hilarious. What she failed to recognize was that humor changes through the years. The taste of the population shifts with time. Also, the things that are deemed “appropriate” change. For instance, black face used to be hysterical, apparently, but now it’s just gross…unless the joke is that the character in question is a big fucking racist. Something that current people find hilarious today would make no sense to someone from a hundred years ago, and likely, they also wouldn’t understand why things from back then might not be particularly hilarious now.
So, as I may have explained previously, the people I work closest with at my job are pretty inappropriate in general. I have grown to like this about them as I enjoy working in an environment where I can drop F-bombs to my heart’s content . I am never particularly inclined to making “inappropriate” jokes here…unless you count all of my chemical safety related jokes as inappropriate…which you might since I’m on the safety committee and all. I remember making a joke at school once about dissolving someone’s face with acid and someone who had gotten a very bad chemical burn informed me that this wasn’t funny. Yet later I made a decapitation joke and she laughed, so I guess it’s all contextual. I got massive amounts of solvent in my eyes once and STILL make eye melting jokes, so maybe I’m twisted. Also, I’m not blind, so I’m not bitter…not too much (bastards in the lab who didn’t help me when I yelled for help!).
However, there are still a lot of types of jokes I don’t appreciate, unless it comes from someone who I respect as an intelligent, progressive, critically thinking. For instance, I don’t appreciate any kind of sexist joke from any of the sexes (I dislike “Women are all smarter than men” jokes as much as “Women are all stupid, crazy, and obsessed with shopping” jokes). The only time I think that’s funny is if it’s being said quite sarcastically or ironically, with clear understanding that the reason it’s funny is because assholes think that way. I feel similarly about racist humor or anything like that. I find it funny if it’s some kind of social commentary. I do laugh if you clearly are a racist or a misogynist and it is usually quite easy to tell.
In gaining a place at work, I had to endure a lot of bullshit in this regard. I was never sexually harassed (well, not in the traditional sense. I got hit on by plant employees and it could be a little uncomfortable at times, but they weren’t in a position of power and, if I felt uncomfortable enough, I probably could’ve had them fired), but I was uncomfortable a lot about the type of jokes that got thrown around…simply because I know that many of the people were/are homophobic, racist, sexist, ableist…you name it. I sensed greatly that the humor came from a place of great ignorance. My presence as a “Capable Woman” helped to keep the sexism at bay. If there was ever a “You know how woman do X” comment, I would quickly say, “No, tell me what I do.” And that would be it. But everything else? I can only point out that what they’re saying is bullshit, which doesn’t really do anything. And there have been times when I have felt that I was fighting a one woman battle. No one else fights against this crap. They either laugh or stay silent.
And yet, I feel guilty for many of the things I do laugh about that in a politically correct world are frowned upon. For instance, I find the word “retarded” hilarious. The word itself just is funny to me. Much in the way that people hate the word “moist” just because of the sound of it, the word retarded rolls off the tongue and seems to be the perfect thing to describe something that is screwed up. I don’t say it myself often, but it always makes me snicker when I read or hear it. I’m not really thinking of mentally challenged people when I hear it, but I know that’s where it comes from and can’t really be separated from that.
The people close to me are very smart, very anti-ignorance, very inquisitive and progressive. I feel OK sitting there with them making terrible jokes because we know that they’re jokes. If you make an off-color joke that offends no one that hears it, does it make an impact?
I make a lot of jokes about things that aren’t super relevant anymore. For instance, I make a lot jokes about communism, Russia threatening to bomb us, and Joseph McCarthy. The reason for this is that known Communists don’t get black listed anymore. People’s lives aren’t exactly torn asunder for being socialist. I am distant from the time when these fears were real and entrenched. Looking at it from my modern perspective, that entire period in history is so absurd that I can’t help but find it hysterical. The Russian space program of the 50’s and 60’s cracks me up due to how very much of a death trap the entire thing was (this links in with my science safety humor trigger I guess). But perhaps if I was living in the 50’s, I wouldn’t find McCarthy to be the comical idiot that he was but instead of loony monster hell bent on destroying lives.
I admit that I likely don’t have the reverence for various things in history that I should. I am distanced from historical atrocities by time and circumstance. I view the world as a most absurd place and this is on the same wavelength as my sense of humor. Part of it is likely a coping mechanism. I laughed a lot about the idiocy that was the “War in Iraq”. I laughed quite a bit about how ignorant and nationalistic Americans are. I laugh about the concept of the “Homosexual Agenda”. I laugh about it all. I make jokes about it all.
But in moments of quiet when I find myself thinking about the difficulties going on for so many, I don’t laugh. I simply wish that there wasn’t anything to make fun of. And often I take a minute to remind myself of the reality of the history I mock. I read an article about the brutality of the Russian space program back then and was upset reading it. I was so moved by it that I wrote a song about it (a bluegrass number called “The Cosmonaut’s Wife”…I can’t keep my sense of humor completely out, people). I try to remember. I want people to educate me when I make a joke out of ignorance. I’m trying, always trying.
This whole thing was inspired by reading Jason Alexander’s apology to the gay community for calling cricket a gay sport. It was a heartfelt, very real (seeming anyway, I can’t be in the guy’s head) apology. He made a stupid joke and some people got offended and instead of simply saying, “I’m sorry that you were offended”, he didn’t offer up an apology until he really thought about WHY people might be offended and, upon understanding that, decided that he had been, in fact, wrong. When I think about all the dark stuff I laugh at, I sometimes fear that I’m not feeling enough, that I don’t care enough. In a society where the disenfranchised have a much louder voice than before, I wonder if I should be laughing at anything at all.
I have been amused lately in watching shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5 that all the alien cultures on there make statements about how humans are so unique, that they’re wild cards, so unpredictable. Humans laugh and do crazy shit because they’re emotional and passionate…as opposed to all other humanoids apparently. I, at this point, don’t have any alien life forms to compare us to, but I will say that humor is something very important to us as a species. If we can’t laugh at the ridiculousness, we will just cry instead. Perhaps I laugh at some ignorant humor, but I won’t stop laughing. If I laugh in a way that is remiss, the best I can do is approach it like Alexander and think about it critically and if I come to the conclusion that I was wrong, I will apologize. But offending someone doesn’t automatically mean that you are wrong.
I think that’s my point…I knew I’d get there eventually.