What’s Funny?

A few weeks ago I watched that Joan Rivers documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work. I grew up thinking Rivers was some sort of fashionista, red carpet sideline, talk show host. I was too young to see how Rivers’s comedy helped pave the way for comedians to invite us to laugh at things that we normally wouldn’t laugh about, or ought not to.1

There’s one scene in the movie in which Rivers tells a Helen Keller joke, which should be pretty tame by 2011 standards. But the joke gets her heckled. “That’s NOT very funny!” a man shouts over laughter. “That’s not very funny if you have a deaf son!”2

Rivers strikes back, stating, “Yes it is!” and defining what comedy should really do. “Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things!”

“You idiot!” she adds.

When people try to define what comedy should do it’s a lot like listening to people explain what any art form should do. It’s an exercise in futility. Who really cares? I think everybody should have some idea of what they want their work to do, but who has rule over what the entire medium should do?

…Besides the obvious. What comedy needs to do is make us laugh. I agree with what Rivers says, but not all comedy needs to be like that. I also laugh at things that are much more lowbrow…like Jackass. Jackass doesn’t challenge any belief I hold or persuade me to think about something in a different way. It’s just a bunch of people doing incredibly stupid things, and I think that’s funny.

Yet in some weird way way Jackass demonstrates what was at the core of Rivers’s heckle — it’s funny to watch people get hit in the balls until it happens to you.

The best comedy is a tug of war between what’s smart and what’s tasteful. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my Twitter feed, which I’ve filled with people who can make me laugh in under 140 characters. On Twitter you’ll find tons of people joking about Rebecca Black, Charlie Sheen, and Lindsay Lohan. Trending topics are the tee-ball of Twitter jokes. What didn’t trend were jokes about the tsunami in Japan, which were immediately shouted down by people who were offended, including other funny people.3

Jokes about disasters are one of the most divisive things in my Twitter feed, but in the struggle between taste and safety it’s a sure thing that what’s completely safe is never funny. That doesn’t justify every insensitive thing ever said, but it does justify the risk.

  1. The whole documentary, which may be funded by Rivers herself, is clearly a promotional venture portraying her as an under appreciated comedienne that never truly got what she deserved. But going through old Youtube clips I wonder if there isn’t some truth to it. 

  2. This clip is on youtube, but you should just go ahead and add the whole movie to your Netflix queue

  3. This most notably happened to Gilbert Gottfried, who lost his job as the Aflac duck over his tweets about the tsunami. It’s similar to when TED had Sarah Silverman do a talk and then regretted it…didn’t they know what they were getting?