Offensive humour revisited

The notion to take offense, and the notion of offense, has taken up some presence lately. There are some views which are offensive, but is that to make some views an offense?

I have been watching some British comedies over the past few months. I have noticed in some of the late 90s/early 00s, that there were some jokes which seemed to be in bad taste by today’s standards. There was an episode of Black Books where Eastern Europeans were represented as eccentric and poverty-stricken. There are some jokes which should offend, but are justly comedic expressions. That Mitchell and Webb sitcom show had a sketch which mocked how dumbed down the vanguard of the higher echelons of BBC broadcasting standards had went; where people have an ‘A’ level superficiality and appropriation of issues, and are unwilling to engage in areas that they are either unfamiliar with, or afraid to tackle in fear of difficulty. Likewise, Armstong and Miller have made a few sketches to denote how the BBC are populist and pander to listening to whatever response people have about the news, or news stories, or events.

I’ve been in many philosophy seminars where I had neither an idea what they are takling about initially, nor familiarity with the background literature to which they were referring. Eventually, as most philosophers do, they get used to this environment and learn to get used to being around those with unfamiliar views, approaches and even their background literature fetishes. Some for instance are science-based, or mathematically based, or an x-in-disguise. There is a skill in being able to listen, being silent and trying to gain a handle on an unfamiliar issue. One may not automatically understand, nor have a valuable opinion on the issue, but to outright dismiss the unfamiliar is an intellectual dis-virtue that is beyond the pale for any civilised and proper person. This latterly point, was the moral, I think, in the Mitchell and Webb sketch.

Offensive humour that targets us is supposed to critique us. It is a part of good character to accept critique, although one need not necessarily agree with any given critique; being self-critical can lead to blind spots that others are better placed to see. Such would not be possible if it were the case that offense would be outright disallowed. A humourless world is one of philistine mentality and closed minded idiocy. Creativity comes in all forms, granted; although outrightly banning a media or theme hinders on any kind of creativity. Offense can also be funny.

As a closing point I would like to address a slightly different angle. In the film ‘The Aristocrats’, concerining the “world’s most offensive joke”, there was an address of how this versatile joke, The Aristocrats, has such power to be made relevant to many different ages. Whoopi Goldberg humourously mentioned how racial sensitivities, which are very real, can be exploited to humourous effect. The South Park interpretation of the Aristocrats, which I found the most funny as well as original. The South Park interpretation highlights 9/11 hysteria and lampoons it to powerful effect through the crude and childish mouthpiece of Cartman.

The comedians discussed with veneration the interpretation of The Aristocrats by Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried’s version was told in 2001, at a time close to the bombings of September 11th. Gottfried, being a comedian who had made a reputation of making dirty jokes; had made a joke that was beyond the pale, referencing the September bombings. Gottfried made a successful attempt to save face by ‘going the other direction’ (of offensiveness) by making an interpretation of the Aristocrats. What is notable about Gottfried’s rendition of the joke is how the sexual acts are taken to a degree that is comical in that it is slapstick, and yet devastating and graphic. Gottfried’s humour is not supposed to be taken seriously and aims to give big and guilty laughter among the audience. Jokes are teased out of the audience from laughing at things that they do not consider in their real moral agencies, such as flippant and parodical portrayals of sexuality, ethnicity and gender, while dispersed with seemingly politically correct observations (in gest). Gottfried’s humour occupies an old kind of mentality where realities are overemphasised in an attempt to evince humour, which very much contrasts with the kind of offensive humour that subtly and conscientiously mocks the attitudes of others. I think it is this that marks what makes Gottfried’s humour as being ‘in the other direction’ of offensive humour.



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