Monday, January 18, 2010

The Social Utility and Responsibility of Comedy

smbc3


Zach Weiner, the cartoonist behind Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, recently received a call from his mom. She was offended by one of his cartoons. This gave an opportunity reflect on the value of comedy to a society and what social responsibilities fall upon a comedian. It's a fascinating essay. Here's a snippet:

And yes, to create that connection, the comedy had to be somewhat edgy. It had to be able to cross boundaries. Have you ever seen two strangers getting chummy over perfectly polite and socially acceptable humor? No. Quick bonds of friendship are more often created with dirty jokes or gallows humor. I suspect this is because these things reveal something more intimate, which implies a level of trust.

Now, you might argue that just because an artist can effect social good, it doesn't automatically make his art acceptable. Stalin probably built orphanages, but he was still a dick. That's fair. It is an issue which every comedian has to grapple with. Am I indirectly affecting society in a bad way in order to directly affect society in a good way? For example, I might make a mindless violence joke, and use the social cache from its being funny to help fund relief efforts in a 3rd world country. But, it's possible that the initial joke will inadvertently affect someone's ethics negatively.

It's hard to tell. I recall once doing a comic in which a doctor calls "dibs" on a baby. To me, this was a dumb joke about a doctor misusing the logic of "I saw it first!" Later, a reader emailed me, laughing about how funny it was that I did a joke about a doctor having sex with a baby. To be clear - I would never, ever do a joke of this type. Ever. But, by accident, at least one person thought that I did.

I agonized over whether this result was my fault. And, if it was my fault (however indirectly), was it my responsibility? My eventual resolution was that I should do my best to make my jokes and viewpoint clear without compromising comedy. That was almost ten years ago now (holy balls!), and I think I've improved quite a bit in this regard since.

In other words, as a comedian, you have to accept that some of what you do will influence people in an undesirable way, but you also have to accept the responsibility for trying to marginalize that effect, and for trying to promote the opposite.
In the past, I've censored myself many times and decided not to post things that I thought were funny, but might offend people that I know.

But as Weiner says elsewhere in his essay, you'll have nothing to write about if you try to avoid every possible source of offense. The comedian has to take risks. And the audience must not personalize every joke.

These days I mostly keep this assumption: one day, my daughter will read everything that I write. Will it corrupt her? Will it cause her to think poorly of her father?

I don't care if I offend people, but I do try to avoid hurting them. I distinguish these terms because in my experience, there are people who want to be offended but aren't actually hurt. And there are those who are actually hurt by particular jokes. If there's something that I think will hurt a family member or a regular reader, or even a hypothetical reader, I won't post it.

via reddit

8 comments:

James R. Rummel said...

I read the essay, and the overwhelming impression I took away from the experience was that the author is completely full of himself.

The social responsibility a comedian has in his work? Okay, I'll bite. How many wars have been ended earlier than they might have because of stand up, anyway? Or by funny stories, or novels, or comic strips? My major in college was military history, and I can confidently say that the grand total is zippo.

He might have a point about how it is impossible to avoid giving offense to everyone, particularly because it is necessary to mock a few sacred cows every so often to make with the laughs.

But the claim he made that "Comedy is useful for social change.." gave me a bigger chuckle than I ever got from his comic. If that assertion had any truth to it at all, then Robin Williams would be a major policy maker in the United States, just as Jerry Lewis would be Supreme Ruler for Life over in France. Those guys might be able to get laughs by riffing on social concerns of the day, but to actually do anything about them because they are entertainers???

Don't make me laugh!

bob said...

Causing offense can cause us to think. Thinking of All in the Family, Archie's bigotry while funny it also made Archie look stupid. How many people became less bigoted because of this is debatable but the intent was clearly to enact social change.

Dan Trabue said...

one day, my daughter will read everything that I write.

You're dreaming. You'll be doing good if you can get her to read her birthday card if there's not money in it, much less read what you write (in cynic mode, just for fun... I'm sure your daughter will hang on every word you utter with great delight.)

John said...

Allow me to rephrase, Dan. One day, my daughter might read everything that I've written. In this case, this blog will serve to her as a demonstration of my moral character.

jockeystreet said...

Nothing to do with comedy, but with the "creative arts" in general... it is very frustrating (but maybe unavoidable) when people misconstrue what you're doing, take something from it that is not supposed to be there.

I ran into this on more than one occasion with a band I played in years ago. We were four young white guys with shaved heads, playing very aggressive music. Angry stuff, but angry more in a "frustrated" sense. After shows on a couple of different occasions, bigoted rednecks who had somehow wandered into the venue would come up to us after the show and cheer us on, slap us on the backs, thinking we were some sort of nazi punk band. Very discouraging, almost let to fisticuffs in a Legion bathroom...

John said...

James wrote:

The social responsibility a comedian has in his work? Okay, I'll bite. How many wars have been ended earlier than they might have because of stand up, anyway? Or by funny stories, or novels, or comic strips? My major in college was military history, and I can confidently say that the grand total is zippo.

It's possible to do harm to people without resorting to the level of war.

A personal example: a while back, there was an absolutely hilarious Onion News video about the government installing secret cameras everywhere to watch schizophrenics in order to help them out.

I thought about posting it because it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen on The Onion. But I knew a guy with schizophrenia. A sweet man who had suffered a lot -- as did his whole family -- because of something that he couldn't control. His family told me stories of the nightmare that is life with a schizophrenic, including the constant fear of being watched and spied upon.

If I had posted that video, it wouldn't have started a war. And it wouldn't have even broken his leg. But it might have hurt him emotionally when he was trying to hard to get his life together.

So I didn't do it. That's taking social responsibility for one's work, and I think that that's what Weiner is talking about.

John said...

bob wrote:

Causing offense can cause us to think. Thinking of All in the Family, Archie's bigotry while funny it also made Archie look stupid. How many people became less bigoted because of this is debatable but the intent was clearly to enact social change.

I've heard that All In the Family was an effort to confront bigotry in American society. I'm not sure what social change took place as a result, but anything that can both entertain and enlighten is good.

John said...

Jockeystreet wrote:

After shows on a couple of different occasions, bigoted rednecks who had somehow wandered into the venue would come up to us after the show and cheer us on, slap us on the backs, thinking we were some sort of nazi punk band.

Wow! That's like the four blind men and the elephant.