Why do we laugh at such terrible things? Because comedy is often the sarcastic realization of inescapable tragedy.
-Bryant H. McGill
As the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, I see no reason why anyone should be exempt.
Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.
Recently I heard someone say flat out that there were at least two subjects they would never make a joke about. My gut reaction was a suppressed eye roll followed by disappointment that this individual couldn’t understand how comedy is a healthy way of confronting the worst parts of existence. If we can’t talk about these things in the pleasurable medium of humor, how much harder will it be to talk about them coldly and seriously? Laughter helps us cope with tragedy. Have you ever seen someone so furious, crestfallen, or full of despair that all they could do is laugh at their situation? It releases tension and brings us back from the edge (serotonin or whatever).
As I mentioned in my post I Fucking Love Cursing, I believe that when we designate certain words, or in this case subjects, as off-limits and unmentionable, we cede them control over us. If we’re afraid to talk about them, then these concepts have the power to hurt us. That’s why Harry Potter doesn’t pussyfoot around like the rest of the wizarding world by allowing the taboo of Lord Voldemort’s name frighten him. Adoy! Furthermore, the more taboo a subject is, like say erectile dysfunction or girls pooping or (ready?) abortion, the more shame is experienced by those whose lives are affected by those subjects. Another example is how shame-based religions that refuse to address sex in an honest, healthy way can create sexually dysfunctional individuals that are afraid of the subject (That’s probably the point, but I digress…).
Comedy is not only indisputably intertwined with tragedy (there’s about ten million BrainyQuotes on the subject), but it’s also sewn into the fabric of truth. There are different reasons things can be funny, but one thing for sure is that we like relating to jokes. How many times do we basically think “that’s so true!” in reaction to a good comedian? We like it when they talk about things relevant to our lives, and sometimes there’s a lot of terribleness in people’s lives– so why ignore the truth? We also use jokes as a way to say what we really think under a the guise insincerity. Just think of the ol’ sassy-remark-followed-by-“just kidding.”
The primary requisite for comedy is observation. Comedians look at the world and point out the (many) ridiculous things about it which can be a huge benefit to society if it inspires them to think differently or if it gives a voice to the voiceless. Names that come to mind are Bill Hicks, David Cross, Louis CK, Tina Fey, Dave Chapelle, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Rob McElhenney and the Always Sunny writers, and a shitload of Saturday Night Live. They can reach people and make them think about issues because when we’re relaxed and enjoying ourselves we’re more willing to hear an opposing viewpoint than if we were being sternly debated. Humor helps people lower their guards and open their minds. It can make a huge difference; just consider how SNL’s portrayal of Sarah Palin affected the entire 2008 election.
Consider the welfare state.
In sum, comedians should be able to talk about whatever the hell they want with one stipulation: it should be funny. I realize what’s funny is subjective, but the goal should be to amuse, not to hurt. No flat-out-meanness or irate rants without a sense of playfulness. My dad once told me a quote and although I have no idea where it’s from (and Google isn’t helping), I think it nails down this issue completely: “The only joke that’s in bad taste is the one that isn’t funny.”