So This Horse Walks Into a Bar

curmudgeon logo2Have you seen the commercials – or perhaps they are public service spots – on TV about how it’s not cool to make fun of gays?  These have cropped up in recent weeks all over the tube.  These damn liberals want to take all the fun out of life.  If we can’t make fun of gays any more, who’s left?  They even took “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” off TV, and I’m sure you will never see that word in a television show title ever again.

First they told us it wasn’t cool to make fun of Polacks.  I grew up on Polack jokes.  My dad carpooled with a Polish immigrant who had a heavy accent.  They were good friends.  His name was Steve, pronounced Schteeeve.  He was my primary source of good Polack jokes.

Then we were told we couldn’t use the “N” word.  Where I grew up, when I grew up, I didn’t even know there was another word to describe people of color until I went to college!  And that was far from the south, by the way.

Since then we have been bombarded with ethnic joke prohibitions.  You’re not allowed to tell jokes about anyone who’s not like you any longer.  And what fun is it to tell WASP jokes?

Q: Why did the WASP cross the street?
A: To get to the middle of the road.


But if you’re ethnic, you can tell ethnic jokes.  If you’re Mexican you can call Mexicans “beaners” and get away with it.  Gabriel Iglesias can make fun of how many beaners can be stuffed into a beater car, but if I do it, the political correctness police will break down my door.   If you’re black you can use the “N” word all you want and make “cracker” jokes at the same time.  Watch a Chris Rock HBO special sometime.  Now we have Indian comics who not only poke fun at Indian culture, but others as well.  Russell Peters talks about Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, and others in his standup routines.

I guess I have to change careers and become a professional stand-up comic before I can tell ethnic jokes.

At first I was going to say that we’d lost our sense of humor, but that’s not right.  We go to see these comedians and laugh our butts off.  I guess we’re just confused.  Our culture keeps changing on us.  What was ok to say yesterday may not be ok to say today, so we’d better not say anything.  Better if we wait until we hear some comedian say it on TV and then quote him.  That way we can distance ourselves from the political or social gaff being made while earning them big bucks.

But comedians are a special case.  Somehow, when we plunk down our money at the ticket counter and walk through the auditorium doors, we have signed off on all the political correctness prohibitions we would normally observe.  We give them a license to work as blue as they want and to be as socially offensive as they want and we laugh as much as we want.

There is edginess about breaking taboos and that’s been around for a long, long time.   Lenny Bruce (remember the smart device, kids) worked packed clubs lined with police officers waiting for him to utter profanities that you can hear most nights on “The Daily Show” today so they could arrest him.  We love to see people working the edge of social correctness –if they are also funny while they are doing it.

“Funny” has always been fickle and hard to define, though.  What I find funny may easily not be funny to you.  There are all sorts of theories and treatises on what constitutes humor.  Not a single one of these is at all funny.  They are dry, pasty things that you have to slog through to get anything of value out of them.  They go by names like the “Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor.”  Try using that in your next stand-up routine.

Basically, there are three general theories on why we laugh at things.  The easiest one to understand is the “superiority theory.”  This goes back to Plato and Aristotle (the guy who gave us rhetoric, remember).  The superiority theory states that we laugh at things because it makes us feel superior.  That explains why ethnic jokes are funny.  When we tell a story about “beaners” crammed into a beater car, we are really just feeling superior.

And in today’s social climate we are not supposed to feel superior.  And if you’re a living white male, you’d damn well better not feel superior!  We now go to great lengths in our schools to make sure that no one feels like they are better than anyone else at anything.  So that’s why you shouldn’t be telling ethnic jokes.  No matter how funny they are.

The superiority theory also accounts for blonde jokes, of course.

Superiority suggests power and power implies struggles and all that is bad.  Even though our society is hyper-saturated with power struggles they are off-limits for humor.  Unless you are a comedian.

Then there’s the “incongruity theory,” which is sort of a circular argument.  This theory says we laugh at things because we realize at some point that they are ridiculous.  One of the definitions of ridiculous is that it is something that is incongruous or laughable.  Circular.

So, a horse walks into a bar.  The bartender says, “Why the long face?”  The horse says, “My wife just died.”

Incongruous, ridiculous on several levels, and funny… to some of us.

The third is the “relief theory.”  This states that we laugh at things to relieve tensions caused by our fears.  Humor, according to this theory allows us to overcome “sociocultural inhibitions.”  This could explain why it’s ok to sit in an audience and laugh at things that we’re not supposed to laugh at during the boss’s dinner party.

It may also explain why some things are just not funny to most people.  There are sore spots in the American psyche that no amount of humor is going to overcome.

But the “relief theory” seems to be in contradiction with the “superiority theory” if we can’t laugh at our power struggles.  I supposed it depends on how the whole thing is framed.  Would it be ok to tell a “downtrodden minority” joke?

When I was young we told “dead baby” jokes.  There is nothing funny about a dead baby, of course, but that didn’t stop us from laughing at the joke.  There’s a difference between a dead baby and a dead baby joke.  One is a tragedy and the other is in poor taste.  And the whole thing is on a level with fart jokes which only Larry the Cable Guy is allowed to tell these days.

Taste is a subjective thing, though, determined by the culture in which you live at any particular time, and cultures are in a constant state of change.  Hence the confusion.  It isn’t a question of “is this funny?”  It’s a question of “is this acceptable?” so the theories of humor are not going to help us here.

And I’ve noticed that the younger you are these days, the more offensive you’ll find humor that is “unacceptable.”  The days of “that’s terrible, but it’s funny” are numbered.  For a growing number of younger people today, if it’s unacceptable it isn’t funny by definition… no matter how hard they would really like to laugh.

For a comedian, shock value is part of the humor.   Working the edge of acceptability is one way to ensure the gate.   Just about anything is acceptable if it results in a laugh and better attendance.  Just about anything, but not anything.  Sometimes a comedian crosses the line.  When he does, he disappears.  No one laughs anymore, and attendance goes down the porcelain fixture.

The same rules do not apply at a dinner party.

They also don’t apply on TV.  Jon Stewart may use profanity on “The Daily Show,” but he gets pseudo-bleeped when he does.  There are still laws on the books.  Sam Kinison was banned from NBC (although they later relented after pressure from fans) after doing a live SNL sketch in which he suggested that Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “NOT THE OTHER ONE!  NOT THE OTHER ONE!” while pounding the floor with his mic.  There are still limits.  Daniel Tosh … well, let’s just forget about that jerk.

But what are the rules then?  How are you supposed to know?

In an effort to clarify this for those of you who are still dazed and confused, I have come up with a few rules to make your life easier.

  1. Never tell a dead baby joke at a Lamaze class.
  2. Never tell a queer joke to a gay biker gang.
  3. It’s ok to tell a dead gay biker joke to a baby.  Just don’t expect it to laugh.
  4. Pictures of cats are not funny, no matter how many times they have been posted on Facebook!
  5. Blonde jokes are just dumb.
  6. If you have to tell an ethnic joke, be sure you can do the accent.
  7. If your ethnic joke involves a culture that is involved with car bombs, check under the seat after telling.
  8. If your ethnic joke involves Polacks, you’re too old to be telling jokes in the first place.
  9. Don’t expect people to laugh out loud over a pun.  Consider it a success if they roll their eyes.
  10. If you have to tell a rape joke, don’t.   There are sore spots in the American psyche.

So, this dead, gay, blond, Afghani biker baby walks into a bar with a cat on his head…

If you know the punch line to this one, please let me know.  I haven’t slept on the couch in ages.

Your Humble Servant,

The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

4 thoughts on “So This Horse Walks Into a Bar

  1. WBC,
    First, this is an excellent treatise on humor. Now to the point… I’ve not checked a dictionary lately, but doubt that the word “gay” still means happy or joyful. I’m fairly sure the definition has been superseded by homosexual (male, mostly, but I use it for both). So now, every time I hear the Christmas song “Deck The Halls…”, I have this vision of donning gay apparel, consisting of leather chaps with exposed butt cheeks and mesh shirts. Yes, this is so wrong, but I can’t stop my brain from going there. Luckily, I have the dispensation to laugh at jokes about southerners, gays, immigrants, women, Asians etc, as I fit into each category. It is a blessing and, I reckon, a curse. Regardless of political correctness, society really should respect our differences. Name calling and nasty joking, meant to offend or attack, are not acceptable to me. But… there is certainly a time and place for a bit of off color humor among friends.

    The Dixie Chick


  2. I feel I need to add that you express this way better than I. Too much time spent alone has lead me to tangential verbal expression. The real point I try to make is that we all could use a little levity, not taking ourselves so seriously that we lose the ability to laugh at things that are just plain funny, even if they might be taken badly in some situations. If we moderate our humor with respect, even dead baby jokes can be laughed at without having to punish ourselves with “politically correct” guilt.


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