“In PC culture, no one can take a joke anymore!”
Oh hush, imaginary other part of this conversation. This is a frequent battle cry, but also a lazy cop-out and only scantily half-true. You can’t tell bad jokes without people being offended. We still live in an age in which stand-up and sitcoms are considered fresh and edgy if they keep taking cheap shots at someone considered “other.” When you speak against the “fresh n’ hip” comedy, you are automatically labeled as someone who can’t take a joke.
Here’s the thing: I love sitcoms and stand-up and hate degrading humor.
I fully believe it’s possible to have amazing material that addresses different groups (for example, Jews and LGBT+ folks) without demeaning them. In order for a joke or bit to work, it needs to both not belittle or demonize an identity class and offer a fresh perspective.
While this is something I could talk about five-ever, I’ve narrowed down my examples to three “do’s” and one, 10-season-long, “don’t.”
Why this works:
Mulaney’s shtick on how Jewish women are more prone to speaking their minds than gentile women does not rely on tired stereotypes or add to a negative perception. Rather, he points out a positive attribute (clear communicative style) in such a way that does not green light inappropriate behavior directed toward Jewish women.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (B99)
Captain Raymond Holt:
B99 is filled with jokes and bits relating to how non-flamboyant the openly gay police Captain is.
Why this works:
The show regularly uses Holt’s lack of stereotypical “gay” behavior as a source of humor. He is never made fun of for being gay, but instead for personality quirks like enjoying obnoxiously bland food, saying, “I brought these. Nutrition bricks. I have original no flavor and whole wheat no flavor.” (2.13)
While his blandness is juxtaposed by his gayness, his identity is never the punchline. These bits work to further establish him as a fully fleshed out character as they amplify how he does not conform to societal expectations and stereotypes.
Dean Pelton: “I’m not openly anything, and gay doesn’t begin to cover it.” (6.4)
Why this works:
Rather than belittling the Dean for not fitting into a clear category, this line and the entire episode celebrates him for refusing to let his identify be boiled down to something simplistic. The butt of the joke in the example above is the School Board duo for their complete cluelessness and attempted conniving, and never the dean for identifying as gay and other things that are never named.
Nearly Everything Is Wrong
Why this kept not working:
Don’t be like Friends.
Yes, there are some cool moments, and yes, the Susan and Carol wedding episode (2.11) in season two is beautiful and was groundbreaking for the mid 1990s, but a lot of that good is negated by lazy, cheap jokes. For example, a sub-plot of 2.11 shows Phoebe being possessed by the spirit of an old woman, who, wanting to see everything, leaves Phoebe after the wedding, crying out, “Oh my God, now I’ve seen everything!” With that exclamation, the wedding is boiled down to a cheep punchline.
Additionally, Chandler’s Dad is used as a source of shame for Chandler and is turned into an added joke when he is described as a gay man but portrayed by Kathleen Turner (7.22, 23, 24).
Finally, during an episode where the gang spills juicy secrets about one another (7.4), Ross reveals Chandler’s “secret” of having accidentally kissed a man in a bar to the uproarious guffaws of the gang and studio audience.
All these things reinforce gayness as a goofy departure from the norm and something to be avoided and laughed at.
I’m not complaining just for funzies; I’m doing this because bad jokes and mean bits can do real harm by spreading misinformation, prejudice and mockery.
When used for good, comedy is a beautiful tool that allows us to discuss topics that are difficult, see from other perspectives and provide a beautiful, sunshine-filled moment of “that’s like me!”
So write the scripts, tell the jokes. Just commit yourself to being creative and compassionate with your humor.