Skip to main content

Why Society Should Rethink What It Thinks Is “Funny”

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

I will never forget some awful experiences I had in high school. I had only been in a new school for a few months when bullies started to make fun of me.
The bullies ridiculed me for being stupid and ugly, among other things. When the teacher called on me to answer a question, the gang visibly scoffed at the idea that I could give an intelligent answer.

When my teacher had asked the class to nominate candidates for several class positions such as class president one day, little did I know that I was about to be humiliated in front of my whole class. To my surprise, I was selected. I was bewildered. No one in the class had ever indicated that they respected me and saw me as a potential leader.

I was nominated for all the positions and had to go out of the classroom for each position. After returning to the room for the second or third time, I noticed my bullies were sniggering. Each time I came back, the laughter got louder. I realized then that the bullies were using this situation to humiliate me.

By the time the last “Freshie Queen” nominees returned, my tormentors were practically wetting themselves with suppressed laughter. I was hurt and totally humiliated. The message was I was too stupid to be a class official. Ugly Carola as Freshie Queen? What a joke.

I find the idea of a “roast” very troubling because it resembles the bullying I experienced in school. Over the last few years, I have seen comedy descend into this kind of denigrating and belittling of others. Posts on social media show people being humiliated and their reputations being destroyed. Here is my take on the current state of comedy.

Reasons Comedians Give to Excuse Jokes in Poor Taste

They Are Free to Do What They Want

Most commentators and comedians assert that they have the right to do what they want. The only topics that seem off-limits are cancer, chronic illness, racism, LGBT, serious crimes, misogyny, or war. Other issues may walk a fine line between acceptable humor and inappropriate content.

The nitty-gritty is that other people have rights, too. They should be able to live in peace without being harassed, ridiculed, or held up to the public as a laughingstock.

People Are Oversensitive and Should Toughen Up

It is true that some people are too thin-skinned. They are offended by the most bizarre things. On the other hand, their anger may be justified. For example, when Chris Rock made the crack about Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head, I recognized the reference to the movie G.I. Jane, where actress Demi Moore had a close buzz cut. I did not know that Jada Pinkett Smith had alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss.

I was really offended when I found out she had alopecia. I lost my hair during chemotherapy to treat my breast cancer. It was one of the most traumatic things I had ever experienced. I would have been devastated if someone had made fun of me. At least I had the hope of my hair coming back. I cannot imagine having a condition when hair loss is permanent.

It has become OK to ridicule and belittle others to get a laugh. Celebrities are expected to toughen up and take the abuse.

What Needs to Change

The Expectation that Celebrities Toughen Up

Famous people are expected just shrug or laugh off what can be called verbal abuse. Commentators and comedians accuse celebrities of being too thin-skinned and tell them to lighten up if they object. Instead, people who use dark humor should stop trying to get laughs and notoriety at other individuals’ expense.

The Need for Boundaries

There are plenty of sources of humor out there. When I have a memory lapse, I often blame it on “chemo brain” in a way that makes people chuckle. I can make fun of some of my breast cancer fallout because it is part of my own experience. However, if someone else ridiculed my chemo brain, doing so would be inappropriate.

Some topics should be off-limits for comedians and late-night talk show hosts. Unfortunately, many commentators will poke the bear to advance their own brand and become more rich and famous. Celebrities should be able to call out comedians for their inappropriate behavior without being accused of having thin skin. The public should support celebrities when they stand up for themselves in acceptable ways..

The Need for Accountability

Celebrities and high-profile individuals are responsible for their actions. The public looks up to these individuals and, in some cases, are led by celebrity examples. When famous people’s words are hurtful or their behavior is not acceptable, they should be held accountable.

Does that mean that they have painted a target on their backs, inviting people to shoot arrows? No one should be ridiculed and publicly shamed by their behavior. Chances are that celebrities will already suffer some consequences when they go wrong.

Commentators are also accountable for what they say and do. While satire about human frailties can help us look at ourselves and laugh, other so-called “humor” can make famous people feel vulnerable and wounded. When comedians go too far, they are at risk of some form of punishment such as lawsuits or financial penalties. They may also negative backlash from the public.

The Need or Mercy

Famous people are under intense scrutiny. It is hard for them to screw up in private like the rest of us. Some get a lot of commentaries when they deviate from the norm. For example, they are told they are too fat, look anorexic, or made poor fashion choices.

All of us are weak human beings who say the wrong thing or make dumb mistakes. We all deserve some mercy, especially for first offenses. How can famous people get better if they are always being shot down, especially if they feel humiliated by people who make fun of them? Are they supposed to be so tough that they cut themselves off from their feelings?

When comedians assert their right to debase, criticize, and bash celebrities and people in power, I think: What about the rights of the rich and famous? Don’t celebrities have the right to live in peace without harassment? It’s time to redefine our definition of comedy.

Jada Pinkett Smith Shouldn’t Have to ‘Take a Joke.’ Neither Should You, The New York Times
How to Know You’ve Crossed the Line, Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
When the lines between offensive comedy and off-limits jokes are blurred, ABC Everyday, Siobhan Hegarty
The limits of dark humour and freedom of expression, Canadian Constitution Foundation

© 2022 Carola Finch