What is Funny? The Sociology of Comedy
In what context is it okay to:
A. Give detailed – and I do mean detailed tips to women on performing oral sex?
B. Use the “n-word” so frequently that it seems to be used after every other word?
C. Talk about “essential” traits of black men, black women, black people?
D. Say that you hope someone’s kidneys fail?
E. Say that a young woman was “knocked up” at a baseball game?
At least with the examples of D. and E. you probably figured out that this is a list of things that comedians have said as those two have been widely discussed in the press. I heard the first three at stand-up comedy performances. Example A. was at a comedy club performance by Sheryl Underwood. The possibilities of who I am referring to in B. are many, but before his conversion away from the use of the word, it was true of Paul Mooney. White comedian Gary Owen seems to have built his career on the basis of C. (Owen says that he is married to a black woman and uses this as his entrée into the ways of blackfolk which he compares to those of whites.)
Listening to him, I am left with the impression that race is a biological determinant. In case you missed the event and the resulting dust-up, example D. refers to the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at which comedian Wanda Sykes said she hopes Rush Limbaugh’s kidneys fail. (Limbaugh had said that he hopes President Obama’s “liberalism” fails.) E. is an allusion to David Letterman's jokes about the daughter of Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.
How about pretending to be a health official and telling someone that they have “oaktreeitis” and that a tree will grow out of his navel? And that the condition could cause his death! I heard this prank telephone call on comedian Steve Harvey’s syndicated radio show recently. The call was made by his nephew (called Nephew Tommy) who excels at these calls and has done so many that they seem to have enough to play at least one per day. He told one man that his wife, Tina used to be his brother Tim! Nephew Tommy confirmed that Tina has a scar above her left hip and a birthmark on her shoulder and after some more details the man seemed to believe that Tina used to be Tim.
During one call, posing as an immigration officer, Nephew Tommy informed a Guyanese-born American citizen that she would be deported to Guyana, and that he would be keeping her U.S. born son. On another call, Nephew Tommy told a man that it had become apparent that Tommy and his wife were being treated by the same fertility specialist as the man and his wife. Tommy explained that he had just been notified that there was a mix-up: Tommy’s sperm had been used to artificially inseminate the man’s wife, instead of her husband’s. The husband was shocked and furious. And unbelievably, it was this man’s wife who arranged for the prank call to be made. In every one of the Nephew Tommy prank calls that I have heard people have become so upset that they curse at Nephew Tommy and their words are bleeped out on the air. The man with “oaktreeitis” started crying.
The whole gotcha branch of comedy has grown in recent years. Have you seen Punk’d? I have only see one or two episodes of this television show but the premise seems to be to put a celebrity in an upsetting situation with cameras rolling. I saw an episode in which former NBA player Magic Johnson’s vehicle was vandalized by a young woman who said that Johnson’s son had used her sexually. Funny, right?
Without the settings of comedy routine or comedy bits, many of these incidents would be considered rude, obscene, or even tasteless. Why are they acceptable because they’re funny, or meant to be that way? Is there any other avenue in our lives in which we are allowed to behave like this? Both Sykes’ and Letterman’s jokes drew tremendous responses from people saying they had gone too far, while others said they were simply funny.
But what is funny? And who decides what is funny? What if most of your friends and family think that something is funny and you don’t? Does that mean you are hypersensitive? Think about how context shapes what is and is not funny. Time is an important aspect of context. Compare old comedies with your current favorites. How has comedy changed over time? And how does the setting of a comedy club influence what we find funny? What if Sheryl Underwood undertook her instruction with the woman sitting next to her on a plane? With prank calls and shows, the victims are unaware of the comedy context, hence their distress and heightened comedy. What, if anything, do we learn about our society’s humor when it’s at someone’s expense? Is humor always at someone’s expense?