The other day I saw this thing on Facebook that I thought was funny enough to Share. It was a picture of Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles, captioned “instead of trying to not offend anyone, can we just get back to offending everyone again?”
And I got this response from one of my FB friends (name omitted to protect the guilty): “Meh. The youngins who keep saying this kind of stuff about things like ‘Blazing Saddles’ and George Carlin don’t seem able to grasp that their strength did not rely in ‘offending everyone’. It was about the way they unflinchingly told the truth with humor while PUNCHING UP. It pisses me off when people want to pretend the milquetoast bothsiderism of South Park and some dumbass ironic/not-ironic comedians like Daniel Tosh or the verbal diarrhea of the alt-right are heirs to the legacy of ‘offensive’ classics. ‘Blazing Saddles’ and George Carlin had no problem taking sides. They specifically took the side of the oppressed against the privileged. They just did it with self aware humor. Any idiot could see what their point was. Unlike some of today’s ‘satirists’ that can’t figure out (that) part of satire is actually having a fucking point. ‘Offending everyone’ as a goal in itself is weak bullshit.”
Well, point taken about Daniel Tosh.
But I wanted to respond in depth, and in doing so, I realized I would be committing the same error as my interlocutor: Namely, if you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny. But that’s part of why I have a blog in addition to Facebook. Going into depth on Facebook would be that much more defeating the point, but as long as I’m going to explain a joke, I might as well do so on a blog nobody is reading.
The reason humor works is because of thwarted expectations. One expects a certain thing and then something else happens, sometimes something embarrassing to the subject. There is not much funny about pretty or privileged people humiliating the ugly and powerless. After all that is too much the norm in many places. But the reverse offers some potential for humor. As Krusty the Clown said when he hired Sideshow Bob, “the gag only works when the sap’s got dignity!”
For instance, there’s this verse, which is (I think) from the legendary Steve Allen:
Roses are red / And violets are blue / You think this will rhyme / But it ain’t gonna
And then there’s the following: “Before I post something on social media, I ask myself three questions: Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind? And if the answer to any of these is No, I go ahead and post.”
These are examples of thwarting expectations.
These points are not inherently opposed to the social message of Blazing Saddles, which was very real. It’s just that in addition to the social message, that film was also a platform for extremely vulgar jokes. Thinking that your piece is supposed to be a vehicle for class consciousness before it is a vehicle for humor is the comedy equivalent of producing Christian rock. And nobody wants that. Although Mel Brooks actually did produce a farce about the period of the Bolshevik Revolution. It wasn’t as funny as the real thing, but there weren’t nearly as many casualties.
By the same token, sensitivity and political correctness sometimes intersect with the point that “punching down” usually isn’t funny. But sometimes they’re just a different standard of funny, in the same way that veganism is a standard of cuisine that dispenses with elements that were based on cruelty and power relationships. Elements like “fat”, “sugar” and “taste.”
For instance, take “the dozens.” A.K.A. “Yo Mama.” Like, “Your mom is so stupid, she stares at the can of orange juice cause it says ‘Concentrate’.” Or “your mama’s so lazy, she thinks manual labor is the president of Mexico.” What did your mom ever do to deserve this? Isn’t this sexist?
By contrast, back when I was growing up, you had a lot of ethnic jokes. Some of these were only told within the ethnic community, as with Jewish jokes in the Borscht Belt or the material black comedians still use. But I remember seeing several joke books with stuff like “Polack jokes.” As Wikipedia points out, the problem is that such ethnic jokes are “conditional jokes” in that they require accepting some stereotype that may or may not be accurate. It seemed as though a lot of the joke writers were World War II vets. Most of the Italian jokes ridiculed Italian military performance (‘did you hear of the Italian tank with seven gears? One forward, six in reverse’) or cowardice (‘the reason it was called the Six Day War is because in 1967, the Arabs fought the Israelis and six days later the Italian Army surrendered’).
Such jokes discount the point that part of Italian reluctance to fight in World War II was because most soldiers were poorly paid, poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly led, fighting for a Fascist government that since 1922 had led Italians to a steady decline in living standards.
Meanwhile the Poles of World War II fought valiantly, but usually in exile, because Poland was a country carved up between a brainwashed leftist collective and a racist war machine. Sort of like the 2016 election, only with tanks.
The point being, at one point in history, nobody got the memo that “punching down” isn’t funny, because that sort of thing was a lot more popular. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense now.
So to test the efficacy of “punch up” vs. “punch down” humor, I decided to engage in a little thought experiment, which I think both Left and Right will enjoy.
Basically, take any one of those generic ethnic/insult jokes, and substitute the target (Mexican, Italian, blonde, etc.) with the word “Republican.”
Q: How do you know a Republican has used your computer?
A: There’s white-out all over the screen.
Q: How many Mexicans will it take to pay for Trump’s wall?
A: None, Republicans. You are.
Q: What’s the difference between a prostitute and a Republican?
A: A prostitute won’t fuck her own kids for a tax cut.
See, now THAT’s comedy.