Why this isn’t funny

This isn’t the post I originally wrote for this week. It was a pretty good one, too. I spent hours writing it, then more time reviewing it. And then I woke up this morning and realized I couldn’t run it.

I decided I couldn’t run the piece not because of the topics it touched on – gender identity and how confusing it all is for us older folks – and not because I feared the subject might trigger outrage from people who can’t wait to feel outrage. And it wasn’t because I made fun of people dealing with gender identity issues, that wasn’t my point at all.

And, honestly, I think it was a funny piece.

But funny at whose expense?

My good and insightful friend Annie recently shared a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell on the topic of satire. The thrust of Gladwell’s thesis (and if there’s one thing Malcolm Gladwell loves it’s a thesis) is that satire may be funny but it doesn’t change a thing. Satire is all bark and no bite.

I think the reason satire rarely changes things is because the notions it does (or should) attack are big, sometimes huge: politics, race, injustice, Donald Trump’s appeal. These are things that the best brains in the world are unable to figure out let alone some guy in sweatpants banging out 750 words.

The power is weighted in favour of the big issue. The only thing satire can do is take baby jabs at it. At best, satire is a nuisance. At best, satire and humour offer some relief from the madness.

But what about when the weight is shifted? What about when the subject of satire is virtually powerless?

Another one of Gladwell’s points was that satirists often go for the laugh rather than for the throat. This is where the satirist comes into conflict with the humorist. The satirist wants to topple the system; the humorist wants it to slip on a banana peel. Sometimes going for the joke is irresistible, even if that means ignoring facts. When people have asked me why I write humour, I’ve answered semi-seriously that with humour you don’t need actual convictions. As long as it gets a laugh.

My original piece did that. It had jokes but few convictions. It involved little if any research. The thrust of the piece was that gender identity is confusing.
But jokes from a point of view of ignorance does satire a disservice.

Moreover, the targets of some of these jokes, whether directly or indirectly, are people going through those gender identity issues. These are potentially vulnerable people. In this case, the power is in the humorist’s favour.

I had to ask myself, what exactly was my satire trying to achieve?

Next week, I’m speaking to a group of high school students about writing humour. I’ll explain that by taking the places we feel most vulnerable – how one feels about being black or overweight or skinny or gay or timid or awkward – and transforming them into humour, you gain power. You take ownership of your vulnerability and give it a voice.

That goes back to small satire versus big society.

But how could I face those kids if I were the writer who used my power to make jokes about an issue that some of those very students might be feeling vulnerable about?

Recently Quebec comedian Mike Ward lost a lawsuit concerning jokes he made about a young handicapped man. A number of comedians came to his defence, warning of censorship and libel chill. But the question is: what was to be gained by that joke? Other than a laugh (and a not very good one), what was to be gained?

When I first started in newspapers, I was taught the journalist’s purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. I think humour should follow the same creed.
It essentially comes down to what kind of humour I want to write. I will still be angry, I will still be sarcastic, silly, bombastic, bragadocious and hopefully scathing when I need to be. I will target those people and ideas that deserve targeting. But I want to remain mindful of power. Thankfully, I’ve had the luxury of reflection to reconsider my words.

In a world of anonymous trolls, I think we could all use more time to reflect and ask ourselves, does the butt of my joke deserve it?

I’m not looking for congratulations for something I restrained from doing. I just wanted to explain why this week’s column isn’t very funny.

About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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49 Responses to Why this isn’t funny

  1. I find the things that make satire good is that it’s smart (the writer is well-informed), that it is punching up, not down, and that it does have a point. The comedy I find least enjoyable tends to focus on an individual (other than the comedian) or the use of stereotypes, which is lazy fodder.

    I am uncomfortable with legal ramifications for awful jokes, but Mike Ward targeted a specific individual, which seems different than just being offensive. Of course, if we had a human rights tribunal in the states, it would collapse under the weight of backlogged outrage (and that’s just in the last month).

  2. I commend you for taking that step back. Sometimes using our filters is the most important thing we can do before we press “publish”.

  3. I heard that podcast too and wanted to tell Gladwell he was wrong, but by the end I knew he was right. Great satire does uncover truth but truth doesn’t really change anything. (See current election in the US for proof of that.)
    The shift in gender thinking has happened so rapidly that I’m not sure I truly understand the shift, but understanding people and accepting people are two different things. (See my wife’s acceptance of me for evidence.)

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Gladwell is a very populist thinker in that his ideas aren’t that complicated, only things we haven’t necessarily considered. (Speaking of thinkers, the father-in-law of one of my colleagues just won a $1 million prize for philosophy…) Since listening to it, I’ve been looking at the current satire through that lens. The SNL Baldwin/Trump sketch. Very funny. But it’s a parody only. No barb.
      One of my points in the piece was that people of our generation consider ourselves fairly progressive, especially in matters of sexuality. But everything shifts again. The last line of my piece was “I don’t care who you love/As long as you pass the gravy.” But that probably would have been lost in everything else.
      This is a long reply.

      • There’s a million dollar prize for philosophy? That must be like winning lottery (same odds at least).
        I do think SNL has been able to brand politicians over the years but rarely does that change minds, it just confirms what we already think. Baldwin is in a no win situation because creating an outrageous character from an outrageous character is impossible.
        Being a progressive is tough, each time I get stuff figured out a new thing comes along, it’s like owning an iPhone. I just started to get 9.9, now I’ve got to figure out 10! I want my landline back.

  4. pinklightsabre says:

    That’s good, about the gravy. It’s cool reading your book and how your voice is similar in it, but more expansive somehow, deeper I think. That’s a judgment I know, just pass the gravy. But seriously, I’m happy you zeroed in on the control part of it. I relate to that in how I present recollections of my past. It’s a kind of unearned authority, like holding a microphone, but one to take with respect I think, to consider how you’d make those real people feel, how much your words and how they land really matter in the scheme of things, considering change and real life issues or memories. Good stuff, I enjoyed this so much. Bill

  5. byebyebeer says:

    If the internet were to somehow disable anonymous comments, the world would be a better place (says the avatar byebyebeer).

  6. Ned's Blog says:

    I don’t know if it’s age, life experience or my new blood pressure medicine, but I have begun to look at my own writing and approach to humor a bit differently as of late. I still passionately believe in the importance of humor and satire, for different purposes, but I can feel my perspective shifting a bit. I think part of the reason — and maybe part of what you’re feeling as well — is a sense of (God forbid) responsibility. I think my saving grace in many cases is that I tend to be the butt of my own jokes, using myself as the prime example of how not to handle a situation, crisis or anything coming out of the oven. I see my role as a humorist being more about helping others to laugh at themselves by identifying with me and, maybe along the way, recognizing something about themselves they didn’t realize.

    Your piece today demonstrates what happens when a really good humorist also has a conscience and sensitivity. There’s no better kind in my book.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Self-deprecating humour is a shift of power. It’s self-preservation in a way but also creating a positive from a negative. It’s sharing the misery we all understand.
      I find myself getting further away from the personal in my writing, though, because I find myself less and less fascinating (compared to, say, me in my 20s, 30s). I think that’s why it’s gotten weirder and, in some cases, darker. But as long as that darkness does no harm, then I’m fine with it.

      • Ned's Blog says:

        Don’t kid yourself. As we get older, we remember our 20s and 30s less and less, which makes us believe we were probably more fascinating then. Weirder, darker, more substantive is definitely more fascinating, my friend.

        And my guess is that the only way your “darkness” will harm is if you accidentally walk into something.

  7. Judy Smith says:

    Reblogged this on Playing for Time and commented:
    Letting Ross Murray write my blog post today, since he already did and it’s too spot on not to share.

  8. badparentingweb says:

    Well, I think it was friggin’ awesome to see your thought process on a moral issue. Honestly, I wrote the comedic piece of gender identity, because I don’t think any topic is off-limits. I also try to be sensitive (having people of varying gender identities, sexual preferences, racial backgrounds, criminal backgrounds, political affiliations, etc.), because I don’t think any group should feel marginalized for trying to live a happy and fulfilling life. I would love feedback on it, since it’s more or less what you’re talking about (if you’re interested: https://badparentingweb.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/the-times-they-are-a-becoming-quite-different/)

    Thanks for sharing your creative process. It’s nice to see people have moral convictions!

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I think that was fine, like a conversation. I’m certainly not averse to addressing the subject. I just ended up not being comfortable with what I was saying. If you want to compare, email me at rossgrantmurray at gmail.com and I’ll send you the doc.

  9. Thanks for the sobering pep talk. I think the line that got me the most was the one about asking yourself what you wanted to achieve. Too often (speaking for myself, that is) I get hooked on the joke and just want to put it out there, which I suppose is the main reason satire doesn’t get things changed. Jokes are like balloons that either pop or fly away.

    That said, I was a little peeved a while back when someone took inappropriate offense to something I wrote. She didn’t get the joke part.

  10. Thanks for this, Ross. It may not be a funny post, but it is appreciably meaningful. Still a win.

  11. javaj240 says:

    What I have learned, through a fair amount of trial and error, and a moderate amount of people being angry with me (and, by people, I mean, mostly, my family) is that the person that should, almost always, be the butt of my jokes is me. Kudos to you for choosing not to prey upon a group of people who have been preyed upon for far too long.

  12. Elyse says:

    Good for you. But hopefully you’ll publish it after your talk with the kids.

    (But I kid. I went for the easy joke, in fact. At YOUR expense!)

  13. I tend to avoid the hot button and/or sensitive issues myself. I’d rather laugh, not at the expense of others, but at myself or just funny stuff. Mostly at funny stuff.

  14. dankyle65 says:

    This somewhat recalls the joke Joan Rivers made involving Helen Keller (as seen in “A Piece Of Work”) where a person in the audience became offended and yelled out at her that her joke wasn’t funny, as his daughter was disabled. I thought Rivers’ reaction was perhaps inappropriate, but as far as I am concerned when one chooses to expose themselves to “entertainment”, given that they are at least somewhat aware of what is involved, then their choice was made willingly. If offended – or worse, bored – they can simply change the channel.
    Self-censorship is, however, commendable.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I agree. A Joan Rivers audience should know what they’re getting into. But you don’t want to blindside an unsuspecting audience — go dark when they’re expecting light, for example. I’ve done edgier material before but I find a venue for it (I.e. McSweeney’s).

  15. Katie says:

    It’s funny you post this, because I’ve had a spate of readers who just discovered a very old (2014 to me) post about toe rings that people get very heated about. It’s not the funniest thing I’ve written, and if I wrote about the same topic again today, I’d probably take a different approach because my writing has changed and improved since then, but I think sometimes you just have to listen to what that voice in your head is saying. I’ve had posts like one you’ve described that I’ve scrapped because after giving them more thought, they just weren’t funny in the magic kind of all-encompassing way that makes humor accessible to everyone who reads it.

    But damn it, the foot jewelry community needs to chill out.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I actually remember that piece, and I remember thinking, “Katie’s thought far too much about this subject…” Ha!
      You never know what reaction a post will get. This one, for example, my rare serious piece, is getting more hits than anything else I’ve written in months. I hope I don’t give people the wrong impression.

  16. walt walker says:

    If there is any movement in the world that is ripe to be skewered, it’s the current movement towards tolerance over whatever gender someone claims they want to be. This is an example of nth degree thinking that has not yet reached the nth degree. Next up is racial identity, which is still okay to not tolerate, but hopefully not for long. I can’t claim to be black, yet, for example. Rachel Dolezal tried to be black when she wasn’t, and people had the gall to say that was wrong. The nerve! Why can’t people like her, or me, for that matter, ask a surgeon to remove our white skin and replace it with black skin? We’re not white, you see, we just look that way. What if I feel short inside, but I’m tall on the outside? Why can’t I hire someone to saw my shins off? They’re my shins, it’s my money. If tolerance is our highest virtue, then tolerate it all, we must. And there is always something intolerable to those espousing what should be tolerable, isn’t there? Why yes there is. At least for now. But just wait, because a world of unfettered freedom is coming. I’ll be a short black woman some day, and I might have a prehensile tail too, since I identify with swinging, grasping types.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I thought about riffing on race in these terms in my piece but it was already complicated enough. Instead, I had someone self-identifying as a small kitchen appliance: transblender.
      Unless I’m just rationalizing, my decision isn’t about political correctness. It really had to do with the position I was writing from. I don’t feel I’m on a slippery slope here.

  17. List of X says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong about joking about the gender identity issues – after all, it’s not just about serious stuff like bullying and suicides, the spectrum of the gender identity topic goes all the way to ridiculous like a couple trying to bring up their toddler without a gender identity, or the kerfuffle about Caitlin Jenner winning the title of the Woman of the year. It’s all about the part of the spectrum you’re focusing on.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I agree. Mine touched more on the people making these decisions in their lives. Even though the end line was, “we love you anyway,” it hinted their thinking was suspect. Let them think what they want. I admire your thinking, so I can send it to you if you like.

  18. calahan says:

    I like the deeper side of Ross. I wouldn’t mind reading more of it, actually. 🙂

  19. Letizia says:

    I do think that being funny at its best stems from being vulnerable and then allowing others to recognize their own vulnerability. You’re a deep one, Ross; I like you.

  20. Dang, but this is good introspection, it’s the kind that makes me like you. I wish more people thought of this – I’ve encountered too many who say “nothing should be off limits”. Maybe that’s true, although I don’t personally believe so, but that doesn’t mean you get license not to think about the consequences of your actions or who you hurt.
    It’s this sort of thinking that could have spared me a lot of stress in the past when guys thought it was a good time for a rape joke.
    Anyway I think I love this enough to share it on Facebook.

  21. These are mighty fine lines you’re describing. At what point do you compromise your writing through self-censoring? Comedians have cut college campuses off their touring schedule.

    Your journalist’s purpose seems unnecessarily negative to me. I thought the whole point was to shine a light?

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Maybe I’m a classic rationalist, but for me it came down to what kind of writer I am and want to be. It would be like Bob Newhart suddenly making faggot jokes. (Not that I went that far; I’ll send it to you if you like.) But you’re right: over-sensitivity is the death of comedy.
      Shine vs comfort: potato po-tah-to

  22. onyajay says:

    I love a funny column. Clever funny, not mean funny. As you have pointed out it is very different. It’s not even a grey area, either it’s clever or it’s mean, sometimes both but never neither .
    Thanks for the great post. I’m a new follower. If you’d like a laugh maybe try my “the learner driver exasperation”.
    All the best!

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