Was talking the other day with a friend, high on his mountaintop, about how humor works, particularly about how a joke or witticism that some of us find hilarious can be just the opposite to others: so, about how variable and tendentious humor can be.
Take the obvious examples of jokes about sex or religion. What a man, let’s say l’homme moyen sensuel, finds funny can infuriate other men, less sensual perhaps or more moral, or women, whether consciously feminist or not.
Of course, we don’t have to be talking jokes here, just stories or discourses of any kind, written or spoken, that concern sex.
Or, as I say, religion.
I had the poor bad taste the other day to respond in kind to an inflammatory remark, with religious implications, on Facebook. It was a post about abortion, from a right-wing Catholic woman, and one of her friends said abortionists are “murderers.” To which I responded, “Honestly, can we stop blubbering over the babies and take care of those who are born?”
Now, if the author of the murder charge, or the respondent, had tried a bit harder to fudge or disguise or polish his remark that might have led to a more apparently reasonable exchange, for whatever it would be worth.
Whether they concern religion or sex, controversial discourses can be made less offensive in a variety of ways. I think of the essay by E.H. Gombrich, the art historian, who took a piece of pornography or a cheesecake photo of a naked woman and then interposed a series of filters or lenses over the image. How many filters does it take any one viewer — concealments, that is, or transfigurations — before the naked becomes the nude, the nude becomes socially and personally acceptable, even becomes art?
You could try this sort of experiment with jokes too. Take a thoroughly raunchy joke and then gradually interpose filters to see at what point individual and then general audiences find it acceptable.
I think in this regard of the film The Aristocrats, which is a collection of stand-up comedians telling variations on a very raunchy joke just after 9/11, a joke so offensive most people would run like the devil from it. (A family performs before a vaudeville agent: the father fucks the daughter, the mother the son, and all sorts of variations and perversions are tried out.) So precisely at the time when the nation was in mourning, after the terrorist attacks, and tendentious humor was verboten, voila! that’s EXACTLY the time to test the limits.)
“What do you call this act?” the agent asks when the family is done performing and is wiping itself off. “The Aristocrats,” the dad responds.