On Jokes

I recently told my partner Sarah the following joke, from Woody Allen’s stand-up:

I’m getting sued because I made a nasty remark about her [my ex-wife]. She lives on the upper west side of Manhattan, and she was coming home late at night, and she was violated. That’s how they put it in the New York papers: “She was violated,” and they asked me to comment on it, and I said “Knowing my ex-wife, it probably was not a moving violation.”

We both laughed, and then Sarah pointed out that not only was the joke about rape, it made fun of a woman for not actively participating in her own rape. This observation put a bit of a damper on the laughter. Fortunately, after I overcame my mortification, we had a fun conversation about the ethics of jokes, a philosophical question I consider frequently but usually fruitlessly. Some thoughts follow.

I think that both of the following statements are true:
a) the Allen joke is quite funny.
b) the ideas about sex implicit in the joke are lousy ideas that hurt people, and propagating them probably has bad consequences. Thus, it’s an “immoral joke.”

Now, there are at least two problems here: for a) different people find different things funny, and it is not clear there is a fact of the matter about whether a joke is funny, and for b) it’s not clear that jokes, or other narrative fictions, contain ideas, truth claims, etc. in any straightforward way, or that telling a joke ever amounts to advancing an argument or claim about the truth. Let’s bracket a)–if you didn’t laugh at the joke at all, I’m sorry. Let me consider b) before I bracket it.

There’s another way to read the Allen joke: it’s making fun of how we talk about rape. It is indeed ridiculous that newspapers use the word “violate” rather than “rape” or “sexual assault”–it is a puritanical, sex-negative euphemism, and the joke shows how inadequate a word it is by juxtaposing its usage here with its usage elsewhere to denote a traffic “violation.”

Here’s another point: the whole genre of jokes that make fun of someone’s passivity during sex is actually disturbing, when you think about it. Probably many women in 1964 were passive during sex with their long-term partners because they did not want to have sex in the first place. Now, Allen’s joke is much creepier when you think about that, but it’s not clear whether the creepiness reflects the nastiness of the joke (making fun of women in relationships that are sexually unfair) or of the whole convention. Indeed, by juxtaposing a sexual-passivity joke with a rape joke, the joke helps us see why the first type is so unpleasant.

A good deal of the challenge of this second line of interpretation to b) hangs on the extent to which, in what I think are Wayne Booth’s terms (The Rhetoric of Fiction) Allen is the joke’s narrator (the person whose speech act or writing act the text purports to be, i.e. the person who the text indicates generated the narrative), and the extent to which he is the joke’s author (more difficult to define well–let’s just say for now, to get a “family resemblance,” the person as far behind the text as one can get, or the person whom we assume really generated the narrative, or who “authorizes” interpretations, or whose intention the text reflects). If we admit the possibility of the gap between those two, it’s possible that we cannot straightforwardly assign blame. Consider the following Allen joke:

My wife was an immature woman. See if this is not immature to you: I would be home in the bathroom, taking a bath, and my wife would walk right in, whenever she felt like, and sink my boats.

Here, the joke is on Allen: he’s calling her immature, but he still plays with toy boats in the bathtub. It works only because Allen, the person telling the jokes, is a character, whose speech act is distinct from the author’s, and capable of being read ironically. Most people seem convinced that most speech acts ‘mean what they say’–whatever that means–and can be judged on it in some straightforward way. The bathtub joke clarifies that one should at least be wary of doing that for jokes, as with other literary creations. Now, in the bathtub joke, it seems obvious that the irony is intentional–otherwise, the joke’s not funny. In the rape joke, it’s ambiguous to what extent the irony’s intentional–the joke is complex enough to yield multiple plausible interpretations of Allen’s intention. But it might not matter: the great revolution of the New Criticism in literary criticism was to separate out hermeneutic authorship (the theoretical presence that authenticates interpretation) from biological authorship. More on that another time, when I’ll also discuss people like Roland Barthes, who (I think) rejects authorship–and thus ‘true’ interpretations–entirely. Anyway, now that I’ve explained why the objection to b) is serious, bracket the objection for another, much more complex post.

If a) and b) are true, it follows that immoral jokes can be funny. That idea contradicts one view you sometimes hear of the relationship between humor and morality, which is that “immoral jokes” aren’t funny. Now, there are two versions of this view: i) “‘immoral jokes’ aren’t funny” just means “one should not laugh at immoral jokes, or otherwise show approval of them.” I’m not arguing against that claim here, except to point out that I think it involves a very imprecise use of “funny,” one which should be corrected. The other version holds that ii) the property of being funny is intrinsically bound up with being morally good, such that morally bad jokes just flop. This version is, I think, taken by a friend of mine of strong political convictions who writes humor. He thinks that good jokes inherently deflate the illusions that prop up bad social orders. On the strongest, most expansive version of this view, aesthetics and morality are the same thing, and the phrase “a good joke” has just one meaning.

The Allen joke suggests that an alternative view of funniness holds for at least some jokes. On this view, which I’ll call Formalism, funniness is an aspect of interactions of concepts, words, and images independent of their moral goodness or badness. I use the word Formalism because the word people often use for these interactions is “form”: in this case, the double meaning of “violation” is very unexpected, and the introduction of “moving,” which makes the sudden (and possibly morally wrong) point that his wife didn’t move much during sex, is introduced very quickly and unexpectedly, while the other turn is happening. I find the Allen joke to be remarkably graceful. Steve Martin, in his memoir, seems to endorse a Formalistic view of comedy–he emphasizes timing, word-choice, paradox, and the absurd as structural elements that make for funny jokes.

Finally, you may want to listen to George Carlin’s routine on rape, which treats very similar concerns. I don’t have my own ideas worked out clearly enough to engage other thinkers yet, but he will definitely be an interlocutor.

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5 Responses to On Jokes

  1. Sarah says:

    Yeah, putting New Criticism aside for the moment, I actually think the narrator/author distinction is a really important one, and not just within the joke itself. The way comedians present themselves as characters informs the way any joke is received, even a joke that doesn’t inherently lend itself to irony or otherwise exonerate its own offensiveness. There are awful things Sarah Silverman says that I find funny only because they come from this sweet-looking girl. And what about the it’s-OK-to-make-fun-of-yourself theory? I’m OK with black jokes from Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle; race jokes of any kind from pretty much any white comedian would make me totally uncomfortable. I guess the point about Woody Allen specifically is that even if the joke itself can be interpreted ironically or whatever, Allen’s general attitude towards women is such that I am predisposed to dislike any women jokes from him at all.

  2. Muffin MacGuffin says:

    I’d agree with Sarah, that the author in this case does put a damper on the subject matter of the joke. I also think that you can’t dismiss the experience of joke-telling (you are there and the joke-teller is there) as a necessary component to understanding the impact of such a joke. There are those who argue, not without merit, that Allen himself being a man and thus FAR less likely to be a victim of rape means that, even in character as a means of deconstructing the way we talk about rape, is somewhat less qualified to perform such a deconstruction. Further, it belongs in the company of jokes such that you, as a not-misogynist (perhaps a leap, but I think you’re pretty aright) telling this joke to a woman, create a less tense environment than Allen, telling this joke to his largely male audience. These are the perpetrators of rape sharing this joke about rape – if they themselves are not perpetrators (and statistically, more than a few are) they belong to the ruling class of rapists.
    What I mean to say is that I agree that it’s a well-constructed joke, but Allen has MANY well-constructed joke, and a comedian who can come up with a joke this well-constructed about rape wouldn’t hurt anyone to apply his skills to more personal subjects.

  3. invisible_hand says:

    i don’t think it is the case that white comedians cannot tell good jokes regarding the subject of race. i think that sort of sanctioning is knee-jerk.
    louis c. k. is the prime example. he wrote chris rock’s “pootie tang” movie. he does supremely intelligent racially-focsed humor.
    por ejemple: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG4f9zR5yzY
    why is this the case? it has nothing to do with louis himself or his whiteness. it entirely has to do with a full-on social awareness of the real persisting social inequalities perpetuated by current racism in our society. louis is funny precisely because he acknowledges the problems of whiteness itself. he makes no apologies nor apologetics. he is not reveling in being white nor is he making fun of the less privileged. he is funny because he recognizes the reality of privilege and makes fun of it.

    louis also has also used rape as an element in his jokes. i think it’s done well, and never are raped women used as subjects of laughter. but i there is always an element of discomfort for rape as a topic coming into proximity with humor, even when done as intelligently. weirdly, i watch louis c k the most when i hang out with my friend who is a fellow comedy nerd. she laughs much harder than i.
    here is a joke in which he says he would rape hitler instead of kill him. rape is recognized as a horrible thing, comparable to murder. and at the end, he effortlessly deconstructs the perverse logic behind coerced sex. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu9q4sM1vmc
    here is another example in which he investigates the prospect of rape fantasy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu9q4sM1vmc
    it’s notable for me, since the lynchpin of the joke lies precisely in his recognition of rape as a horrible thing.

  4. Thanks all for comments; I’ll restrain myself from replying because there are multiple strands here that I want to pick up in later posts, and I’m still insecure about having enough material…

  5. invisible_hand – I think you’re arguing a strawman here – there is a distinction oceans wide between a sexist joke and a joke about sexism and a racist joke and a joke about race. And the same for rape. And I think a good shorthand might be whether you’d feel comfortable telling this joke about rape to a woman (or person) who had been raped. And if you wouldn’t, it’s probably a joke on the victim/victim-class instead of a joke on the perpetrator/rape culture, and you shouldn’t ever tell it in mixed company because chances are you will be telling it a woman who was raped.

    Raffi – I wonder where the audience comes in. There isn’t really such a thing as a joke that’s funny – it has to be funny TO somebody. And there are sexist jokes that would be honestly funny to people to people who are sexist or not at all sensitized to sexism, not funny to those that aren’t, and perhaps even actively triggering to others. Who decides if the joke is funny? Why would one person’s subjective opinion be more decisive than another’s?

    I think a more useful question to ask might not be about whether or not the joke is funny, but about whether it is helpful, harmful, or neutral, to whom, and in what context.

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