Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Don't tell us to "Lighten up"!

Humor is a funny thing. It's very personal. Something you think is funny can leave me cold and vice versa. The other issue with humor is whether or not it is okay to offend people in the name of getting a laugh.

Some people hate Adam Sandler movies; some people love them. Some people find them offensive and some do not. The same with Kevin Smith, South Park, Joan Rivers and a lot of other humorists who tend to be controversial.

Several incidents have come up recently that were targeted by the "Bias Busters" program of the Obesity Action Coalition that have caused me to think about humor and what is entertainment and particularly about the oft-heard phrase when people do find a particular piece of humor to be offensive: Lighten Up! followed by the equally popular: Can't You Take a Joke?

One incident in particular happened when a doctor wrote a "humor" piece in something called the Outpatient Surgery Magazine about doing surgery on large-sized patients.

Since this controversy is largely over, I will not link to the article or mention the author's name. He has apologized and the purpose of this post is not to stir up trouble and get his inbox flooded with angry emails again, but to give my own thoughts on humor and when it's okay to make fun of an entire group of people and when it's not.

There were two problems with the article as I see it.

First, it wasn't remotely funny and second it was offensive. Which leads to the twin questions of: what is funny and when is it okay to be offensive in the name of humor?

I will be honest. I don't find South Park to be funny. It doesn't offend me most of the time but it doesn't make a laugh very often either. On the other hand, I find Joan Rivers' humor to not only not be funny but to often be offensive. Then again, I am a big Kevin Smith fan. This is another person who writes comedies that some people find offensive and/or not funny but I find his movies to be hysterically funny.

What is the difference between the humor of each of these comedians that some seem funny to me and some do not?

When it comes to funny, I think that the following sums it up:
It's funny because it's true.
The humor that falls flat is the humor that has no core of truth behind it. The type of humor I find rip-roaringly funny is the humor that speaks to my own experiences or at least ones I've witnessed and that exposes the truth of those experiences in a way that lets me laugh at them.

South Park probably falls flat for me because I never was a small boy, have no brothers, and basically can't related to a lot of what goes on during each show.

Kevin Smith, on the other hand, grew up Catholic on the East Coast (New Jersey) and is obese. I grew up Catholic on the East Coast (across the river from NJ in Pennsylvania) and was obese. I see the world in a lot of the same ways as he does and his humor speaks to me even though he's a man and I'm a woman.

Part of why this doctor's "humor" piece wasn't very funny to most people, including me, is that the jokes were not based on his own experiences of treating large patients. They were one-liners he recycled from other comedians as he admitted in his apology. Such as:
When your patient has more chins than a Chinese phone book...
Yeah, that gem managed a two-fer - both racist as well as offensive to fat people.

Another 'gem' from the article:
Your patient has a dog named Twinkie...
Um, what? Why exactly was it supposed to be funny? Because we fatties love junk food so much, I guess. This is the easy stereotype of fat people that's not particularly true. Not to mention that a quick Google search shows that Twinkie is actually a pretty popular dog name even if a lot of people think it's lame. So the joke fails on every level.

There were a lot more like that, but the magazine's web site won't send me my "activation" link so I can go back and pluck some out for you. Trust me, I read the article when it was posted on someone else's site (before they were ordered to take it down) and they were 90% head scratchers like that one with a few that induced mild chuckles at best.

But even if they were all rip-roaringly funny, the fact that this article was written at all was completely offensive to me. The reason is that here we have someone in the medical profession, the one whose motto is 'first do no harm' who is making fun of patients and for something that is very hard to control and most are already ashamed of.

Many overweight people shy away from getting medical attention already due to the way they are treated including having every problem they have being attributed to their weight. (Oh, you broke your arm roller blading? You should lose some weight!) And here was a doctor reinforcing every negative experience they'd ever had. ("See, I knew my medical team was disgusted by my weight even if they never said so.")

Now humor is sometimes offensive even as it's funny. So what if you tell a joke and someone finds it offensive? Does that mean it's not funny? If even one person finds it offensive, even if they are not a reasonable person, should the joke not be told?

When it comes to being offensive, I believe the following:
If the target of the joke finds it offensive, then it's offensive.
That means if you tell a joke about black people, women, fat people or any group that you don't personally belong to, and a lot of people who belongs to that group says the joke is offensive, please don't tell them to "lighten up" and "it was just a joke." Because only members of a group are allowed to define what offends that group, not people outside the group.

This is actually pretty simple concept yet it's not one that everyone gets. The editor of Outpatient Surgery Magazine, Dan O'Conner sure didn't get it as is shown by his non-apology on the magazine's website.

Of course, the polite thing to do when you offend someone, even if you didn't mean to, is to apologize and learn from the experience. Not tell them to get a sense of humor or threaten to sue them for quoting a bit from your article (which is covered under fair use) or say "see, this other person (who is also not a member of the group being made fun of) thinks it's funny, so I didn't do anything wrong."

Which is pretty much what Dan O'Conner did even if he didn't use the phrase "lighten up" or told us fatties we have no sense of humor, but just implied it very, very strongly.

Sometimes people act like this because they don't want to think of themselves as someone who would laugh at something that would make the subject of said humor cry. So they get defensive. I suspect this is Mr. O'Conner's problem. At least I hope so.

Because often times people use humor as a weapon. I was made fun of constantly as a child and when I would protest, I was often told to "lighten up" and "can't you take a joke?" as if the problem was me and not them.

Not liking South Park aside, I can most certainly take a joke and I tell many jokes and find many things funny. I make fun of myself all the time, in fact.

But I knew the purpose of the "jokes" I was subjected to in Elementary School and Junior High was not to get people to laugh at something that was truly funny, but to hurt my feelings. The "lighten up" accusation was just a way to justify being mean to me.

Which is not to say it's never okay to be a offensive in the name of humor. There is humor to be found in everything if you are willing to look for it and not all of it will be politically correct. There are comedians in wheelchairs who make jokes about the trial and tribulations of being in a wheelchair. There are people who are obese who make jokes about what it's like to be obese. And both sets of jokes are funny because they are the true life experiences of those people.

Likewise I'm sure there is humor in operating on people who are large especially when the OR is not made to accommodate them. If the author of the "XXL Patients" article had stuck to his own personal truths, maybe he could have written a truly funny column, one that he could have been proud of that wouldn't have offended nearly as many people.

Because facile, easy humor at the expense of another person is rarely funny and we should not "lighten up" about it.

Post a Comment