On What's Not Funny

If you're an ordinary American there's a strange war that you might not have heard abou that rages between journalists and academics, on the one hand, and comedians on the other. Usually the battles are fought via Twitter, and they're always about whether or not people today are "too sensitive" or whether "political correctness" is somehow ruining our sense of humor on a national scale.

This discussion is somewhat more personal for me, as someone who is both an academic and (was) a comedic improv actor (briefly, still am at heart, though).

The world of professional comedy is a strange place, with bizarre and incommunicable rules and norms. The only real rule, I suppose, is that you have to be funny. What you say has to produce laughter -- and not just any laughter, but laugher in an ideal audience. When I first started working at Comedy Sportz in the Twin Cities, this fact make for an utterly disorienting experience. My fellow actors would say things that were disgusting by the standards of polite society, or shocking, or racially charged, but the were funny, and the behavior was rewarded. I quickly learned, though, that it wasn't just any crude joke that would draw praise, it was jokes with meaning or purpose. It was jokes that stung. That revealed some tragic inequality, or double standard; jokes that made you laugh, then think, then look inward.

All this is to say: when I see comedians and journalists going back and forth about something like whether we can joke about sexual assault, or whether race has any place in comedy, I don't think either side is obviously right. I think it's a tough question, but not one that I think will likely lead to productive dialogue between the groups since the worlds they work in -- and the conventions they operate with -- are so vastly different. 

Enter Paul F. Tompkins. 

Tompkins was featured in a recent "Big Think" video talking about this exact issue, and I found myself thinking: thank God! He articulates so well what both sides of the endless Twitter war seem to miss: there's nothing you can't joke about, but not everything you say is funny. That's it. War over. (I wish.) Anyways, he says it better than I can paraphrase, and it's only 4 minutes long, so I'll just let you watch it. Let me know in the comments what you think. 



Update! This morning, after posting this, I came across a great post over at Brain Pickings on the exact same topic! Click through this picture to read that post!

Click on the picture above to read the full post on Brain Pickings (a phenomenal blog that you should really follow!)

Click on the picture above to read the full post on Brain Pickings (a phenomenal blog that you should really follow!)