On Jokes and Opinions

New guy comes to a club, and observes a comedian on the stage saying: “Thirty One.” The audience collapses with laughter.
Another comedian gets on the stage and says: “Fifty Three with an Irishman.” He gets a standing ovation.
Our guy has no idea what’s going on, so he asks one of the waiters. The waiter explains: “You see, Sir, what we found is that same jokes get told over and over with very small variations, our regulars know them all, so we created a catalog, assigning a number to each of the jokes, and our comedians now just name a number and sometimes add their variation. It saves a lot of time and our customers enjoy more jokes and feel less inhibited to get on the stage themselves.”
So, after a while our guy decides to try it. He gets on the stage and says: “Fourteen.”
He’s met with dead silence. Then one guy walks to him, smacks him on the face, and says: “We don’t tell that kind of jokes, when the ladies are present, Mister.”

My friend Ann brings up a good question on appropriateness of jokes, given their potential to offend. An issue I have more than a passing acquaintance with: in the past, a number of friends commented to me that they would be really offended at my jokes, but couldn’t get themselves to be offended at me. And a number of people that barely knew me, mostly from online conversations, got pretty upset over some of my remarks.
A lot of it has to be in the delivery. I love people, especially my friends, and it hurts me to see them offended. In personal conversations this must come through pretty clearly. Online, written word (not my strongest form of communication) is the only thing people see, and the message gets distorted.

I’d like to think that I’ve learned from those experiences. Unfortunately, the “learning” means that my online jokes are much fewer and milder than they used to be, and my jokes in real life, while nowhere near as mild as the online stuff, are also fewer and milder than before.

Still, pretty much any jokes are a risk to offend, and this risk should never be the reason to abstain from joking. Any words have the potential to offend, and if we kept the conversation only to things that would offend no one, this would lead to political correctness hell, where we would spend the time bored to death, or silent. Or both.
This is not about jokes, jokes just bring the issue to the surface. Expressing strong opinions – political, religious, economical, etc. tends to do the same.

The principles I hold with regard to both jokes and opinions:

  1. It’s not ok to make a personal attack
  2. However, it is ok to make light of, or attack an opinion. If one of the people I talk to happens to hold that opinion, it’s not a personal attack against them. If they can’t tell the difference, they have bigger problems than just holding the opinion in question.
  3. Making fun of an opinion often leads to an argument, and holding an argument, no matter how polite, sometimes requires walking a very thin line on the border of a personal attack. For example, when in order to counter someone’s opinion we have to point out their incompetence in this area, would this be justified? “How can a person with such a big nose hold this opinion?” obviously would not be. “How can a person with no experience in this area make judgment calls about it?” is perfectly fine. Not everyone seems to agree with this, and it got me taken off one person’s “friend list”. Their right, I stand behind everything I wrote, and have nothing to apologize for.
  4. The only person who can make jokes about someone’s personal appearance is that someone, and no one else.
  5. The only people who can make jokes about race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. are the people who belong to that race, religion or sexual orientation. (Can I please, please, please get Catholic priests excluded from this rule – I know a really good joke …)

What are your experiences and rules with jokes and opinions?

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Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 11:12 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very fine analysis. It’s nice to be in the company of another student of comedy, another person who thinks about these things — and especially nice because you write about them so well. I hope you get some good feedback as to your question, because this is a rich field in want of mining.

    • Thank you, Ann. You’re too kind to my scribblings. I will respectfully disagree that this is a “field in want of mining”, though. Most of my experiences seem to suggest that there is no want of mining in this field, it’s quite a minefield already 🙂

  2. […] I had a fun discussion in comments recently, which reminded me of this earlier post. […]


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