It hurts to laugh

When you write comedy you walk a fine line, writes Peter Walsh.

louis ck

Among those who fetishise free speech, there’s nothing more odorous than a vocal left-winger attempting to police what can and can’t be said. Every three or so weeks, the Honey Soy Facebook groups erupts with a ~60 comment thread about things that are or aren’t funny. It’s a conversation worth having and re-having – the kind that clarifies the role of satire in a newspaper like Honi Soit. 

When you look at a joke, you’re not just looking at what was said, but who said it, when, and why. How it’s said is important, too. And who laughs. Louis CK has a bit where he contrasts his thoughts on a particular subject (“Of course, children who have nut allergies need to be protected”) against the other thoughts in the back of his head (“But maybe… if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die”). He goes on to apply the same thinking to war veterans and slavery, but the heart of the joke is responsibility. That if you want to be politically incorrect, you can be, so long as you’re aware of, and responsible for, what you’re saying. In our own Honey Soy, we have a rule: punch up. Satirise the people in power and not the perennial victims.

Everyone recalls a social situation where someone makes a joke that makes someone else feel uncomfortable. The uncomfortable party, usually – sadly – is made to feel that showing their offence will only isolate them further. “Have a laugh,” you can imagine the offender saying. “Stop being so serious,” they continue. Most of the time – which is to say 99 per cent of the time – I’m willing to err on the side of not being a fuckwit and say the joke isn’t worth saying. That other 1 per cent, the land of borderline cases and grey areas, is the one I’d like to interrogate.

Take a look at The Onion’s recent political headlines like “Police Officer Doesn’t See A Difference Between Black, Light-Skinned Black Suspects” or “79% Of Minority Suspects Receive Miranda Rights While Unconscious”. These are the kinds of jokes that ostensibly punch downwards – making light of the police’s endemic vilification of people of colour – before diverting up at the last moment, drawing attention to unfathomable injustices and the institutions that perpetrate them. At the same time, there’s a question of autonomy – who has the right to write something like this? Can an individual with one identity make a joke at the expense of another’s identity? Or is this merely an insidious manner of enforcing broader institutional oppression?

On one hand, comedy is a method of transmuting unbearable emotion into something tolerable. Sadness becomes laughter; insecurity becomes laughter; resentment, frustration, and anger become laughter. But when you make fun of the poor, the disadvantaged, or the marginalised, you must be aware that your punchline is a person, too. They’re living, breathing, thinking individuals, with experiences more resonant than the echo of anyone else’s laughter.