I’ve been interested recently in the ways in which norms from some domains impinge on norms from other domains. To that end, I’ve been writing about cruel jokes, wherein the funny and the moral intersect. I don’t at all deny that some cruel jokes are funny; I’ve been known to be amused by many. But there are some cruel jokes that, somehow in virtue of the cruelty, just aren’t jokes. The example I’ve been using is from Stephen King’s book (and/or Brian De Palma’s great film) Carrie. Carrie is raised by a rather terrifying fundamentalist mother, and she is so ignorant about her sexuality that she doesn’t realize what’s happening when she gets her first period in the shower at school. Her classmates tease her relentlessly, and the most cruel among them devise a prank: They make Carrie think she’s the prom queen, and as she’s standing up on stage, soaking in the applause, they dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. They all find this absolutely hilarious…until Carrie gets a little irritated (for the rest, read the damn book!).

This prank just wasn’t funny, I think. There are no comic reasons at all to be amused by it (and so her classmates are flat out incorrect in their response, and criticizable in virtue of it). It’s not as if there were comic reasons that were just heavily outweighed by the cruelty reasons in an all-things-considered determination of what response to have (amusement or anger). Rather, I want to say, the cruelty was such that this was no joke. Yes, it had joke-like features (there was a prank with a certain demand for timing and execution), but the cruelty properties were of such a type or degree that no comic properties were compatible with them. Here’s another example: Sometimes the human body can rest in funny angles. Perhaps you are at a museum and you see a skeleton whose skull seems to be resting at a funny angle relative to the rest of its body. Then you read the placard: This is what it looked like after a Nazi broke a Jew’s neck. Not funny now, no comic properties at all.

Or, again, so I want to say. What say you?

The idea behind and beyond this is that, in order to have competence in the funny domain, i.e., in order not to be fooled into thinking that some joke-like features in some cruel jokes give rise to reasons to be amused, one must be competent in the moral domain, i.e., be able to recognize when some moral properties are in place in a way that is incompatible with the existence of any comic properties.

And vice versa: There are some jokes that bend social conventions and look like slights, but aren’t. Consider insult comics. They (typically) aren’t really slighting anyone, because they mean no ill will. (Here’s a favorite example, just for fun: Jeffrey Ross, at a roast of a very plump William Shatner, to the guest of honor: “You’ve let yourself boldly go.”) So some insults aren’t slights. In order to not to be fooled into thinking that some slight-like properties are slights (and so avoid being a criticizable prig), you’ve got to be competent in the funny domain. Once you see the comic properties actually in place, you ought also to see that no slighting properties could exist compatibly with them.

The moral: True comic competence requires moral competence, and true moral competence requires comic competence. And this should be true across most normative domains that intersect, so that general normative competence is really sophisticated, requiring a whole host of competences, not just in individual normative domains but in the way those domains intersect and impinge on one another.

13 Replies to “Cruel Jokes & Insult Comics

  1. I think I agree. It seems to me in some cases someone getting a pie in the face or whatever is funny depending on whether the person had it coming. Bringing the inappropriately puffed up down to size is funnier than bringing the non-puffed up down to size, other things being equal. So what you say seems right to me—being wise comically requires being wise morally.

  2. Thanks very much, this is an interesting post. I’m sympathetic to the idea that whether a person is competent in one normative domain can depend on competence in another normative domain. I especially like the idea that moral competence depends in certain ways on comic competence. But I’m not sure that I yet see why you claim that cruelty cancels rather than merely outweighs the reasons to find certain things funny. The very same joke directed at two different people can have a very different humor status in each case. For example, consider a joke about lack of intelligence directed at a non-disabled friend who just did something ridiculous vs. the very same joke directed at a person with an intellectual disability. The former is funny but the latter isn’t (because the joke is cruel in the latter case but not in the former). But I would have thought that the reasons to think a joke is funny are at least partially given by something about the joke’s form (like some clever word play, for example). If that’s right, then in both cases, in virtue of its form, the joke provides exactly the same reasons to find it funny. The difference is that, in the second case, reasons to find the joke not funny given by other features of the situation outweigh the reasons to find it funny given by its form.

  3. Ian: You haven’t yet seen it because I haven’t yet given it. First, I was wondering what others thought about this type of case — did the Carrie prank have comic properties or not? — and then I intended to think about reasons there might be in favor of my leanings.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think that your suggestions work to push me off my view. While I agree that the very same *words* directed at one person might be funny, but not funny when uttered to someone else, that’s still compatible with the latter not being a joke at all. That’s because, as Sobel rightly notes, there are contextual properties that are different, e.g., the first person isn’t disabled and the second is. To the extent that those properties are included in the evaluative mix, they may render it impossible for there to be any comic properties, even though there is clever word play. ee cummings used clever word play sometimes, but not for comic effect.

  4. Well I can’t tolerate you being proud of me. Let’s see if I can disrupt that. So suppose we agree that there are jokes where it is important to have an accurate moral take on things to properly assess comically. There are several different ways we might describe the comic/moral connection. We might say that to be ideal as a judge of the comic one must be ideal as a moral judge. Or we might say, what you say, that to be competent as a comic judge we have to be competent as a moral judge. I am not sure the cases put on the table so far justify any particular specific understanding of this connection yet. Further, it does not yet feel to me that we have ruled out there being cases where being a good moral judge interferes with being a good comedic judge. So I wonder if someone might grant the cases we have highlighted so far without reaching the specific conclusions you urge.

  5. OK, I am less proud of you now, I admit it. You are right, nothing rules out the alternatives you give. So the conclusion is hedged: There are *some* cases in which being a competent comedic judge requires being a competent moral judge (and vice versa).

    But let’s think about the other two possibilities. I’d be (for obvious reasons) particularly interested in hearing about the possibility that being a good moral judge *interferes* with being a good comedic judge. Cases of priggish moralism I have in mind are cases where there’s a kind of incompetence: one either commits the moralistic fallacy (thinking that the fact that a joke is immoral/offensive eliminates any comic reasons) or one mistakenly sees the moral reasons to be upset or angry at a joke where there are none (as when I think that the fact someone is insulting me gives me reasons to be angry at the slight, even though it’s an insult comic who means no ill will). Perhaps, then, the former sort of priggish moralist is nevertheless a good moral judge (he can see the moral reasons there are), but somehow his being a good moral judge is what has him seeing no comic reasons (or seeing them swamped by the moral reasons)?

    My thought is that this sort of person is criticizable (as a priggish moralist) due to an incompetence: Not being able to see comic reasons, or not being able to see that moral reasons don’t eliminate those comic reasons for amusement. Does this person count as a good moral judge, therefore? I’m not sure. To the extent that he is criticizable, then either being a good moral judge doesn’t get you off the hook for a kind of blame, or he can’t be a good moral judge after all (given that he wouldn’t be criticizable if he were). As I’m interested ultimately in what’s criticizable, and what abilities are required for it, I may not care which of these two answers one gives.

  6. Hi prof Shoemaker, I am not a philosopher (not even a first degree in analytic philosophy, I studied Finance) but I am a fan of analytic philosophy and analytic philosophers, so I thought of sharing a thought concerning your post, hoping I am not wasting your time:

    If the skeleton joke (“This is what it looked like after a Nazi broke a Jew’s neck”) had been uttered by a Jewish person aiming to amuse her Jewish partner, I take it it would have comic properties, simpliciter. But for a non-Jewish bystander, who overheard the joke, it should not be funny, despite his knowing that the two persons visibly amused by the joke are Jewish. I mean, he could find it inspiring that two members of an ethnic group exorcise away their fears (or anger) through black humour, but, still, he shouldn’t himself be amused by the joke in any way. Yet we have already admitted that the joke as uttered had comic properties. I am not sure what to make of this, but it makes me lean on the “outweighing” construal of the joke (i.e that it had comic properties that are outweighed, as far as the bystander is concerned, by the contextual property of the bystander’s being non-Jewish). But what if we include this property too in the evaluative mix? What should we then say about the joke’s comic properties? That it had not any, that it was not funny? But then why would it be fitting for the two Jewish persons to find it funny?

  7. I feel much more comfortable now that I am back to the usual situation of not having your respect.

    Here is a case that occurs. Suppose one thought it morally good to not eat factory farmed meat. The most stable way I think most folks achieve this is by having a kind of aversion to meat generally, even morally acceptably produced meat. So one might have an instrumental moral reason to develop such aversion. But this broad aversion will predictably get some cases morally wrong yet, let us suppose, be the best humanly available motivational state. I wonder if something like that could go on in the moral/comic case. Additionally, I’ll just state my own view that there is a LOT of what passes for top-notch comedy that seems to me both funny and morally questionable at best.

  8. I think ‘funny’ is a causal concept, something like “tends to provoke feelings of amusement.” The fact that something is morally offensive will often prevent it from provoking feelings of amusement, which is why particularly cruel or insulting jokes often don’t seem funny. But they don’t seem funny to certain people, i.e. the morally sensitive kind; other less sensitive people think they’re hilarious.

    So at this point you can moralize funniness, defining it like “tends to provoke feelings of amusement in people with the correct moral emotions”–this will get you the result that say racist jokes aren’t funny. Or you can index it: the proper concept is ‘funny to X’, and its definition is something like “tends to provoke feelings of amusement in X”. ‘Funny’ full stop would be something like “tends to provoke feelings of amusement in typical people.”

  9. Heath: I don’t find that a tempting understanding of the funny. Many concepts, such as delicious, fearsome, and I would say funny are about what merits a certain response, not about what in fact causes it. Just because many people enjoy Big Macs (to use a D’Arms/Jacobson example) puts no pressure on me to admit that they are delicious. Similarly no matter how many people love Jerry Lewis, I can be completely competent with the term funny (indeed an acknowledged expert on the funny) and deny that he is funny.

  10. David, I’m aware that philosophers like to use ‘funny’ as an example of these response-meriting concepts. It’s just that, after reflection, I don’t think it is one.

    Two items. (1) You have to index ‘funny’ anyway. What is funny to five year olds is not funny to adults, and what is funny in another culture might not be funny in this one. There is no Platonic form of funniness. Of course you can handle this within the response-meriting theory but it fits less well.

    (2) The “acknowledged experts” on funniness are professional comics, who are indeed very serious about their craft, and in their lingo, ‘funny’ means “what makes people laugh.”

  11. Dionissis, thanks for joining the conversation. You make a good point. I’m thinking that you have given a different joke. The original “joke-like” object was a skeleton whose skull was at an interesting angle. What you’ve done is point to something with different properties, a sentence uttered by one Jewish to another, perhaps with a nudge and a bit of a gallows humor wink. That’s something that could well be funny. But an observer might see it and not be amused, or think he doesn’t have sufficient reason to be amused (so that the “gallows” outweighs the “humor” in his all-things-considered deliberations). I’m fine with that.

    Nevertheless, the question of what a third-party to an “inside joke” has reason to respond to is a really interesting one. Can something that is a joke between friends not have any comic properties at all for someone outside that group? I guess I don’t want to be a relativist of that sort about the funny. I think that, once the third party has been filled in with all the relevant context and group information, he’d be able to see it as a joke with comic properties, even if he didn’t himself find it amusing.

  12. Heath: I wonder if you are conflating “amusement” with “funny.” What amuses a five year old will, yes, be different from what amuses an adult, etc. But that doesn’t mean we don’t rightly say of the five year old’s lame attempt at a knock-knock joke that it wasn’t funny, even though he’s cracked himself up. And professional comics, while surely aiming to make people laugh, don’t at all think that the funny is “what makes people laugh,” full stop. They could have a dead room some night and think that the crowd just didn’t get it. And many also hate the crowd-pleasing comedy of Jeff Dunham or Carrot Top. Rather, I think it more accurate to say that they are aiming at the laughs of people with a certain refined comic sensibility. But that’s to say that they think there are normative standards.

    But just because there are normative standards doesn’t at all imply that there’s a Platonic form of the funny. The standards instead are more likely a function of human sensibilities.

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