“Geeze, can’t you just take a joke?”
We’ve all been there, we’ve all heard that joke, and seen its fallout. Whether you were the supposedly funny joke-teller, the offended party being labeled a humorless kill-joy, or a bystander to the whole debacle, we’ve all seen this all too familiar sequence of events unfold. But why does this happen? Why do people tell offensive jokes, especially when they know that some segment of their audience will find them vastly unfunny? What is about these jokes that is so offensive? And why do the joke-tellers get so defensive of their controversy-provoking jokes when they don’t or wouldn’t for when any of their more banal jokes fall flat on the audience? Some of the answers to these questions can be found in what psychologists like to call scripts, the learned set of behaviors that tell us how to act in certain scenarios, and our responses to them at both the individual and societal level.
Starting at a very young age, we learn scripts for everything: from how to categorize things (dogs are animals, but rocks are not) to how to behave when presented with a certain set of events (like how to use a checkout lane at the grocery store). Sometimes our scripts are a little too broad and we have to learn how to refine them, much like when a small child mistakes a cat for a dog because to the child all furry animals with four legs and a tail is a ‘dog’ or when a person comes across their first automated checkout lane. We learn and adapt our scripts, modifying them slightly to match the new scenario quite easily. The one thing we do not take kindly to is having our scripts completely flipped on us. If we were to find out that the cute, fuzzy, four-legged thing meowing at us is not just not a dog, but not even an animal or that the cashier at the checkout is absent or refuses to do their job, we find ourselves at a loss, confused and maybe even angry. The rules that our world is built on no longer seem to apply, leaving a lot of uncertainty and cognitive dissonance between what was supposed to be true and the reality of what is true.
This is exactly what happens when a wannabe funny-maker cracks a joke at someone else’s expense and the offended party pushes back. On both sides of the funny-or-not divide, the scripts for joke-telling and joke-receiving have been inverted and unfulfilled, causing everyone some level of discomfort and dissonance. However, these similar results stem from very different reactions and circumstances. Each needs to be looked at separately before the interactions between then can be understood.
The script for the joke-teller is fairly simple on the surface: tell a funny joke to the audience and await the reward of appreciative laughter. On a deeper level, though, there is a lot more that goes into crafting quality humor, just ask any (good) comedian. Not all jokes are funny to all people. Without even touching on the ones that are offensive, some jokes are completely meaningless to some people or just aren’t considered to be in the realm of funny. An astrophysicist cracking a joke about the Higgs Boson particle is probably going to fly right over the head of a biologist because they don’t understand the context surrounding the joke or find physics to be the most boring thing in the world. It’s just plain common sense that joke-tellers have to gauge their audience and tailor their jokes appropriately if they want the joke to be a success. Knowing that your audience knows the context of the joke, that they understand the implications or juxtapositions that make up the joke, and that they are likely to appreciate that kind of humor are the key ingredients to being a successful joke teller, a true funny maker. If, for whatever reason that astrophysicist does decide to subject the biologist to the Higgs Boson joke, knowing that there is a large chance the biologist doesn’t understand or appreciate the humor at play, does the astrophysicist get all huffy and start internet flamewars about the humorless kill-joy biologist? Usually not, and that’s because the astrophysicist didn’t follow the recipe, the script for the joke-telling. The audience was not gauged properly and the joke was not successful enough to prompt the biologist to engage in their part of the script. It is simply the nature of jokes and joke-telling that sometimes jokes fall flat or are ill-received because they were not properly tailored to be funny to the audience at hand.
For some reason, though, this all gets thrown out the window when it comes to jokes known to cover certain offensive territories. This is because the joke-teller has a special set of scripts for just these kinds of circumstances working alongside the normal joke-telling scripts that override the common sense rules. This special set of scripts are a gift from the kyriarchy that we all live under in our society. The kyriarchy gives members of privileged and non-privileged groups thousands of scripts with which to navigate its hierarchical social structure, but for this particular instance it gives us a script that slightly changes the normal joke-telling one. Instead of needing to gauge the audience for knowledge of the subject and if they’re likely to find it funny or not, the kyriarchy gives the offensive-joke-teller the knowledge that their audience will be fully aware of the subject at hand and that they will be well versed in the context that creates the joke’s implications or juxtapositions. It also gives the offensive-joke-teller assurances that privileged members of the audience will find the joke hilarious and that non-privileged members will at best find the joke funny because they’ve internalized the hateful messages of the kyriarchy or at worst laugh nervously to appease the privileged among them or stay silent. It is rarely expected that the butt of the jokes in these cases will call out the joke-teller for the joke’s offensiveness, and it’s definitely not expected that privileged members will defend the non-privileged. This is where the flamewars start. The joke-tellers kyriarchy granted script has been shattered, what they thought was true of the world is being forcefully shown to be wrong. They’ve been told their whole lives that cracking jokes that uphold the ideals of the kyriarchy will get them nothing but praise and forward momentum through the social rungs. Being met with opposition is the last thing they expect and can call into question their entire worldview, creating a lot of cognitive dissonance and anger.
Now, we need to look at the other half of this equation: why are these jokes offensive to people? There are many reasons that jokes can be considered offensive, but one of the underlying principles is that someone has decided to use your lived experience as fodder for a cheap laugh. Rape jokes make a farce of the brutal trauma that many women and men have had to suffer through and can potentially trigger memories of the event. Sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, and bigoted jokes serve only to belittle and propagate the indignities, inequalities, and violence that minorities suffer through on a daily basis under the kyriarchy. When a joke-teller attempts a kyriarchy-approved offensive joke, not only are they asking for the butt of their joke to play along in their humiliation, but it’s also implicitly asking them to confirm for the joke-teller that all those nasty stereotypes are true, that the kyriarchy is right to keep up its oppressive hierarchy because these minorities are just so inherently less than. It’s like asking a rape survivor to agree that they were totally asking for it or asking a woman to say that of course she should be paid less than a man for the same work because her silly lady brain can only handle baby-making. That is why these jokes can be so damn offensive, the joke-teller is asking their audience to be complicit in their own oppression.
To add insult to injury, the audience is left hanging in their joke-receiving script. Their part of the script is to listen to a joke, determine if its funny or not, and if they find it funny they are supposed to reward the joke-teller with their laughter. This only adds to the cognitive dissonance caused by the joke itself. Audiences want to laugh at jokes, even at jokes that aren’t that great, because it fulfills their end of the bargain and gives them the warm-fuzzies of completing a social contract. However, asking an audience to laugh at their own humiliation and oppression, and to praise the person inflicting that indignity upon them is too much.
Coupled together, the cognitive dissonance from an unfulfilled script and the resentment from being expected to laugh at their own oppression, this is where the anger at offensive jokes comes from; which is what prompts the audience to speak out against the offensive-joke-teller, breaking away from both the kyriarchal and normal scripts, causing all hell to break loose (i.e. an argument starts about oversensitivity, PC-ness, first amendment speech rights, and a whole crap ton of trolling *eyeroll*). However, it is important to note that it is not the audience who is being oversensitive or failing at their scripts. It is the joke-teller who has broken the joke-telling script: they did not appropriately gauge their audience properly to see if they would find the joke funny or not. The kyriarchy scripts let them know that their audience would understand the context and gave them false assurance that they would be well-received, but only because the joke-teller never stopped to really assess their joke. They were not sensitive enough to the lived experiences of their audience. Just as when a regular joke falls flat on an audience, when an offensive joke gets some push back from the audience, it is not a failing on their part. It is not the audiences’ job to laugh at the comedian’s joke, but the comedian’s job to tell a joke the audience will find funny.