Humor is a funny thing. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it can also wound deeply. John Stackhouse addresses this issue thoughtfully in his post, Why No One Here Is Laughing at My Jokes. While lecturing in India, he discovered that all his standard jokes fell flat with his Indian audience, except amongst those who had been educated in the West. Only when he switched to more obvious, I Love Lucy-style joking did the others respond.
Their humour, it seems, is straight on the nose, big smiles telegraphing the punch line, with no ambiguity: That’s a joke. Ours, instead, comes at you sideways, no smile, with a dash of bitters. Oh, yeah: I get it.
The experience caused him to reconsider his own joking.
Friends have warned me...that people near me, whom I want to stay near me and to enjoy being near me, are frequently uncomfortable with me just because they’re not quite sure what I mean by that. And not knowing means not feeling safe. And nobody likes to feel unsafe....
So some of my students are wary of me. Some of my colleagues keep a certain distance. And some of my family members wonder—if only for a second—whether I really love them.
That’s a pretty big price to pay for trying to be humorous.
Humor has indeed taken a dark turn in recent years. Even children's movies must have a cynical (or sexual) twist, to entertain parents while purportedly going over the heads of the children. Walt Disney would be appalled at what now passes for humor at his theme parks, where even the guests are insulted by pattering cast members. Family members and friends routinely disrespect each other, verbally and physically. All in the name of a joke. This is not new behavior, but it does seem to be more widespread, and accepted, than ever.
The root of the problem is not, however, simply I Love Lucy versus Frasier. Like Stackhouse, I prefer cleverness, wit, wordplay and irony to slapstick. It's not a specific genre of comedy that I find disturbing; anyone who has watched the Three Stooges knows how cruel the latter can be. Rather, to paraphrase a line from Randall Garrett's marvellous Lord Darcy mysteries, black humor is a matter of symbolism and intent. If we would not give offense, it is important to know both ourselves and our audience.
What is my intent? Does my supposed humor mask real hate, anger, or contempt in my heart? If so, the victim is sure to detect it. Worse, hearers who harbor similar feelings will be encouraged in their sin.
What about the audience? The physical and mental sparring that might strengthen some would crush others. To trade insults and even blows is a well-accepted form of bonding, especially among males; whether this is overall beneficial or harmful I'm not in a position to judge, though I have my suspicions. An appreciation of such humor requires a certain security, emotional stability, and self-confidence that I'm not sure we have a right to assume. To joke about fat people with those who struggle with weight issues, mental illness among those who've fought depression for years, or brain death to one who has ever faced life-support decisions is to deliver a potentially devastating blow.
I would not have all humor crippled by a fear of "political incorrectness," but love and decency require that at the very least we not ignore the circumstances and personalities of those with whom we jest.