Deconstructing Teh Funnay

Uncle Amy, guestblogging at Feministe, takes on a sexist joke and beats it to shreds. The particular joke – about a husband’s revenge when his wife fails to perform her marital duties, hereinafter referred to as the Intimate Financial Needs joke – is one of three that have driven me memorably up the wall in the recent past. And with all due respect to Uncle’s satisfying evisceration, it’s trivially simple to rip such jokes apart and pull out the sexist stuffing, and much much harder to respond to accusations of “silly screeching harpy, humor is completely meaningless!”

My other two knickertwisters, incidentally, are Team America: World Police (considered as a single joke for convenience) and an ostensible list of funny things women put down on the “father” space of their children’s welfare applications. The list was a familiar sort of dumb sexist (and in this instance, also classist) email forward, which included an instance of wryly described rape. When I mentioned how OMG the rape one is hi-larious! I was met with the completely serious assertion that a woman might, in fact, secretly desire to have sex with an unknown man while she is leaning out the window and vomiting, so therefore the word “rape” was inappropriate. Whereupon I flew screeching off the broomstick, because shee-it, what else ya gonna do?

My reaction to Team America (and South Park generally) is more complicated, inasmuch as Trey Parker and Matt Stone are skilled craftsmen who use offensive stereotypes in original and clever ways while email forwards are written and compiled by anonymous, unfunny hacks. But it brings up the same questions: Why are things funny? When does laughter reinforce stereotypes, when does it help shrivel them with the light of day, and why should we even bother thinking about this?

Everyone likes to make shit up about humor – Freud did it, Kant did it, we’re in good company here – but it’s ferociously difficult to formulate actual, testable hypotheses about it. And before you start thinking I’ve got a secret theory up my sleeve that generates actual hypotheses – nope. Although my secret theory has been that jokes fall into two categories (funny because they contain a kernel of truth, funny because they contain a kernel of absurdity) reading random dreckish humor theory on the internet has convinced me that such classification is futile, and certainly produces few interesting ideas for experiments.

Humor is certainly dependent on incongruity; Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) lists the elements of humor as “bizarre, cute, mean, clever, naughty, or recognizable”; and there’s the whole humor as sublimated aggression bit. I like a super-windbaggy theory by Thomas Veatch, which when you wade through the verbage, boils down to: something is funny when it is simultaneously normal and in violation of some principle one is emotionally attached to (“principle” being taken broadly to include things like grammar, or the normal order of events in a story). He has a questionnaire, too; you don’t get your “humor profile” right away, but it’s for science – FUNNY science!

And: this juxtaposition is exquisitely sensitive to timing. You can play a game with Woody Allen quips, moving things around to add extra processing time between the set-up and the punchline; you lose the funny. This is behind the first three strategies B. pointed out in the Rhetoric of Blog Humor, which amount to tricks for calling attention to the punchline. Because if you have to think about it, to sort out the extraneous crap or move your eyes back when they’ve saccaded past, it’s not funny any more. Dave Barry does this too (only he uses parentheses to draw your attention to the funny BIG NUMBERS! Or DIRE CONSEQUENCES! or BOOGERS!) – but hey, veering off-topic with your wine?

Apply Veatch’s theory to the Intimate Finances joke. Under any sane interpretation, it has a normal set-up and violatory punchline; a woman expressing her fear of being reduced to a sex object is normal, while a man expressing his fear of being reduced to a wallet is unexpected. Obviously, that we accept the situation as presented in ‘Act I’ as normal doesn’t mean we necessarily do so uncritically (though some people certainly do); there are a million ways to spin this joke, some of which rely on the reader’s sexist assumptions, others of which invoke some kind of meta-ironic awareness of society’s flaws or whatever. To tell it to a sexist audience acts to affirm that sexism, even if the teller has a more innocent interpretation, and so should be roundly condemned. But to tell it to a critical, nonsexist audience is just irony-drenched hipster wanking, which is usually harmless and often enjoyably fatuous.

So after a long post, we reach the shocking conclusion that humor depends on – gasp! – context. But anyone who insists that this context not be subject to inspection or argument is kindly asked to fuck off.


  1. PZ Myers wrote:

    I often find the irreverence of South Park funny, but Team America left me completely cold. Biting humor should pick on something with a germ of truth — but portraying liberals as dictator-loving killers was so far off the mark that it was baffling. It’s not as if there is a shortage of things to lampoon on the left.

  2. yami wrote:

    I’m sure it came off as a kernel of truth to conservatives in the audience, though, and I think that’s why it got under my skin so badly.

  3. Rana wrote:

    That questionaire is interesting. I have to admit I didn’t find anything very funny, simply because the jokes are all so stale! I’m probably going to come off as dour and humorless as a result (and I’m anything but).

  4. yami wrote:

    Yeah, I had to consciously rescale my responses. And the Quayle jokes were really dated, I was only 12 years old during his tenure and probably missed half the references. But I always like the joke about why the monkey fell out of the tree.

  5. Rana wrote:

    Me too. Have you heard the follow-ups?
    Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree?
    Because it was stapled to the first monkey.
    Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree?
    Peer pressure.
    (D. once had to tell/translate a joke in French class; this was the one he used.)

  6. yami wrote:

    Yeah, but they’re classic and always funny (though sequels are never as good as the original (except for the Interrupting Starfish)).

  7. Rana wrote:

    What does the Interrupting Starfish say?

  8. yami wrote:

    Well, starfish can’t really talk. So for Interrupting Starfish you smush your hand, fingers spread, into the other person’s face.

  9. Rana wrote:

    Reminds me of the brainsucker joke. And the “look ma, it’s a tarantula” joke. Similar sorts of handplay involved.

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