Can’t you take a joke?

15 Feb

“When I said that I’d be faithful

When I promised I’d be true

When I swore that I could never

Be with anyone but you

When I told you that I loved you

With those tender words I spoke

I was only kidding

Now, can’t you take a joke”

–    Weird Al Yankovic

Comedy and tragedy are old bedfellows. They are the very symbol of the theatre, the two sides of the human coin. Being human, we flip between them – and I believe it is essential that we do so. I am a strong proponent of comedy, of laughter, of a basic need for the silly, happy and cheerful in our lives. I believe comedy can serve many purposes, from lighthearted entertainment to thought provoking boundary pushing satire.

I particularly believe that we need laughter in hard times. When Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator” he said “we must laugh at Hitler”. We need humour to help us survive. To give us perspective. To feel less alone. To give us hope. To remind us what it’s like to be happy. We need humour to cope. When I am feeling miserable, one of the things that helps me most is this picture:


But that basic human need for comedy doesn’t mean we should turn everything into a big joke.

What many comedians, jokers, and assholes seem to forget, is that just as you have the right to make a joke, I have the right not to laugh. Or even to be offended by it. Yesterday I tweeted that I couldn’t take the Oscar jokes, and I was going offline (which I happily did). That was my personal response to the situation, and it is just as valid as saying that some people cope with death or tragedy by making jokes. Absolutely, people do. Warren Robertson makes this point eloquently in his article on the same subject , where he looks at John Cleese’s eulogy of his friend and colleague Graham Chapman.

There’s a world of difference between joking in a context of friendship, knowledge, a career forged in comedy that treads the line of taboo, and making crass jokes about women “forcing” their boyfriends to kill them, or being “taken out” for Valentine’s Day. And these jokes, piled endlessly on top of one another, in a context of a country grappling with horrifying rapes and domestic violence, should not go unprotested. Too often any complaint about a joke being distasteful is dismissed as the complainer not having a sense of humour. In some instances, it may be the “joker” who is devoid of humour and compassion (or even a basic grasp of spelling).

Humour is one of the most subjective things there is. Sometimes I don’t find jokes funny because I think they’re weak jokes, or jokes I’ve heard before. Sometimes I don’t understand them. Sometimes they piss me off. Because often humour, especially black humour is very close to the bone. And the thing about bones is, my bones are different from your bones.

As the incomparable Weird Al so delightfully illustrates for us: not all jokes are funny. And this is particularly true of those which are at someone’s expense. If you want to make those jokes, great news, you can, you are free to. But don’t be surprised if someone has a funny bone to pick with you.


3 Responses to “Can’t you take a joke?”

  1. Warren February 15, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    As a comedian my job can never be to look after someone else’s offence. In my column I indicated where my line is when it comes to jokes – I use humour as a defense mechanism and to help ease shock and sadness. I do not feel comfortable making jokes about the victim. This is my personal barrier. Other people set their barriers a lot looser, or a lot tighter. You set yours at joking being alright as long as it is between close friends and family.

    The biggest problem with online “too soon” commentary is that the person doing it is placing the burden for their offence on the joker, and not on themselves. Very few people would read the tweets and say, “this crosses my line, I am logging off”. Most people would take their offense to mean that they are in some way right. They campaign against the joker and tell them they are a bad person for making the joke.

    Last night I wrote a joke about News24 disabling their commentary. It received roughly 30 retweets and one person said I was not funny cause I was joking about death. They did it in a self-righteous way, as if to correct my heinous behaviour. They treated me like I was lacking in empathy and an empty husk without emotion regarding this incident. They were wrong. That joke wasn’t even about death.

    I think in essence my column wanted people to relook at the jokes and the reasons why people write them. I wanted people to have some idea that one can make jokes and still be empathetic. I hope therefore for people to avoid this culture of self-righteousness. Their offense doesn’t make them right. Rather relook at the joke, try to appreciate the role it is playing in the lives of the person who wrote it and those who laughed at it, and if it still offends your sensibilities, realise that there is no one else to blame for that, but you. For my part I will do my best not to offend you, because honestly I am not an antagonitic person, but I can’t promise that won’t ever happen, as only you really know where your boundaries are.

    • karenjeynes February 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

      Thanks for your reply – I don’t at all set a boundary at joking between family and friends. I am saying that is one context, and that context plays a huge part in humour. And I also agree that being offended doesn’t automatically make you right. I don’t ask anyone to be responsible for what offends me. I know my jokes often offend people too. What I’m emphasizing is that if you make a joke in a public space you open yourself up to people’s responses, positive and negative.

      • Warren February 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

        Totally fair. And when they respond to me, those people open themselves up further to me. It’s a vicious cycle. haha.

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