Monday, February 25, 2013

These Are the Jokes

Last night, during the Oscar broadcast, whoever was manning the helm at The Onion’s Twitter feed wrote the following joke, which has since been deleted:

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?

Quvenzhane Wallis is, of course, the 9-year-old star of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, and so therefore the joke has ignited what I’m sorely tempted to call a “firestorm of controversy,” and once I can confirm this phrase has never been used before, I shall do so. Until then, you should know, if you don’t already, that part of this firestorm has involved Edward Champion of Edrants writing a sprawling, for the internet, rebuke of not just the joke, but of The AV Club staff’s unwillingness to take responsibility for this Horror on Earth. And this is a good place to begin, because our culture has become so literal as to not only not understand what the offending joke actually is, which is a fault that can be ascribed to oh, so many other people as well, but to also, in Champion’s case, either not accept or not believe that The AV Club, which is the non-satirical pop culture review website that is linked to The Onion online and bundled with it in the few print editions left circulating, and The Onion actually have nothing to do with each other, other than that superficial pairing. Champion posts sceengrabs from his Twitter conversation with several of The AV Club staff he engaged with, such as editor-in-chief Scott Tobias, as though Tobias’s logical refusal to take responsibility for a joke that neither he nor anybody who works under him, or who work under the people who work under him, had thought of, written, or posted, was somehow evidence of an ethical lapse, which in this case further implies, what? Misogyny? Probably! The truth is, no one outside of those who work for The Onion know who made the joke, because The Onion feed on Twitter is anonymous, as are all the satirical articles The Onion has ever published. The books The Onion publishes come with a masthead, but none of the articles have ever contained a byline, save those bylines that are, themselves, satirical.

So that’s what happened. And now everybody’s offended, and are demanding that something or other must be done about this, I guess. It’s part of the selfish, self-serving, and self-righteous policy of our current phase of humanity, American Edition, that if a joke offends either us, a group with which we identify, or a group whose cause we have chosen to take up, that somebody had better pay up. The problem with this, as I see it, is twofold, the second fold of which is far more immediate, as it has to do with the actual joke in question, and will be addressed in a minute. First, though, is the issue of “being offended.” Everyone’s going to be offended by something, is the thing – I’ve been offended by jokes myself. What I do when that happens is I either roll with it, or, if the joke teller is a professional and their body of work does not otherwise please me, I disassociate myself with their work. “That will be quite enough of that!” I will often say, and carry my time and money elsewhere. The reason I don’t attempt any kind of retribution is because quite a long time ago my moral rights in this regard were obliterated. I have laughed at jokes that I know full well would be offensive to others. So have you, and you, and so has pretty much everybody else who’s gotten so pissed off over a joke that they’ve attempted to rally the troops to take down the offender. If you don’t believe that such hypocrisy can even be possible, ask yourself why any time a comedian makes a joke about rape they get their spines ripped out, but meanwhile child molestation jokes flow free and easy whenever someone brings up Jerry Sandusky or Catholic priests. And I have no doubt some people will read this far and decide that really what I'm after is to be able to tell as many rape jokes as I want to without anyone getting all up in my face about it, but really what I’d like is maybe that more people attempt to maintain a little bit of consistency before their self-righteousness kicks in.

Because I know that will never happen, let’s get to my main point. The argument against the joke is that it has no context, or some kind of traditional set-up, that it is simply a blunt insult. I was arguing about this with someone who compared it to The Onion writer flatly calling Jamie Foxx a racial slur. The reason that's a false equivalency is because the slur would simply be an insult, not a joke. But the Wallis joke isn't a joke at all, it's been said. The Wallis joke could only work, it is argued, if some scenario was in place so that the reader would know that we are not to take it seriously. To me this sounds like we want to have our intelligence insulted, and anyway my initial rebuttal was that no context is necessary because what’s being said in the joke is so patently absurd as to make it unnecessary. It’s a non sequitor, not enormously different from saying “Dragons never make good mashed potatoes.” But while I still believe a joke similar to the Wallis joke could be defended on those grounds, the truth is that the joke is actually very different. It does, in fact, provide context.

There are two parts to the joke. The first part is “Everyone else seems afraid to say it…” The last word of the joke, and the punctuation – “right?” – are connected to that first part. The second part, “but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt,” is indeed the punchline, and it also, yes, uses a word found highly offensive by many people to shock a laugh out of you. Which is part of the way jokes work, anyway, some form of surprise being key, but anyway, the use of “cunt” is the part we’re supposed to laugh at. But we’ve been set up with “Everyone else seems afraid to say it…” This is the context. The writer has created a sort of character, one who believes he or she lives in a world where the terribleness of this 9-year-old girl is plain as day, but nobody has the guts to say so. The writer is imagining they’re in a situation where everybody is going to agree with him on this one. It’s taking as a given something that nobody believes. That’s the structure, the set up, and the context for the punchline, in seven words. That’s the absurdity. It’s not even new. But the joke is actually on the imagined version of the joke teller. They’re an idiot for thinking this, and they’re even more of an idiot for thinking anyone would agree with them. The subject of the joke, and the shocking word, were not chosen at random (because there's another context here, which is The Oscars), but Quvenzhane Wallis is not a target here.

There was a time when you didn’t have to break a joke down like this. It all worked subliminally, at least if it needed to, and if the joke was any good. I don’t think this joke is astonishingly good by any means, but I certainly think it works as a joke. And perhaps I’m fooling myself by suggesting that things are somehow worse now, that people are less able to “get jokes” than they used to be, and it’s probably just that social media has made it far easier to find yourself cornered by people who don’t. At the very least, the internet outrage is the only thing making this the story that it is (such as it is). But we’re a damn sight more willing to try to tear down someone first before trying to understand where exactly they’re coming from. We’d rather be offended than understand what was said, and how it was said, and how the latter informs the former. Anyway, it seems to have worked. After I started drafting this post, I found out that Onion CEO Steve Hannah posted an apology -- essentially breaking character -- in which he said:

It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

So basically, The Onion has never before posted anything near as offensive as that one joke. Go ahead and take a minute and browse their archives and tell me if you think that's true. If you agree, for fuck's sake, why??

Hannah also said:

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Oh good. I know I'll sleep better knowing that one person will never again tell that particular kind of joke on Twitter, at least while employed with The Onion, again. Unless he maybe leads off by saying "Joke coming!" We can't be bothered with anything beyond the surface.

Anyway, lookit this. I’ve been reduced to writing about shit that happened on Twitter. May God save my poor soul.


jryan said...

Well said. Personally I thought the joke was lazy and depended entirely on being edgy, but the uproar is pure hypocrisy.

Granted, I am not entirely put off by hypocrisy because lately it seems the only way to establish that most people have any standards at all, but in this case it is all sound and fury, etc. etc.

bill r. said...

"Granted, I am not entirely put off by hypocrisy because lately it seems the only way to establish that most people have any standards at all"

Ha! Well, that's true.

Greg F. said...

First off, I read the Edward Champion piece. Lord, God, that man would have a tough time of it outwitting a basketball. I'm surprised he didn't contact the person that fills the newspaper stand with free copies of The Onion and demand he take responsibility.

Second, most people are too stupid to get any kind of joke. I certainly get the joke here and am surprised it created the uproar it did. When I read it, I thought, "Yeah, that's a pretty average joke." And then all this happened.

And that Jamie Foxx analogy is all wrong. The racial slur doesn't speak to Foxx's character which is what the joke does, which is, essentially, the oldest form of comedic irony out there: take something that is one thing and say it's the other.

Applied to other people the joke could be:

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that John Wayne was kind of a commie, right?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Tom Hanks is kind of a dick, right?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Cormac McCarthy is kind of a hack, right?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Audrey Hepburn was kind of a bitch, right?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that George Takei is kind of an asshole, right?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Jesus was kind of a greedy whore, right?

And on and on and on. The joke only works if the person ISN'T what the joke says they are! So, technically, in a roundabout kind of a way, objecting to the joke is kind of objecting to the person NOT being what the joke says they are. "I'm offended at that! John Wayne WAS a communist!"

In the end, it was the word "cunt." Had the writer used "bitch" or "asshole" or "stuck up" it probably wouldn't have made a ripple. And the word was, I felt, too harsh to make the joke funny. A lighter word would have actually made it funnier to me but that's splitting hairs, really.

Anyway, people are catastrophically stupid.

bill r. said...

I would argue that the harshness of the word is the only way to make the joke funny. And I'm not claiming it's a great joke at all, but I thought it was decent.

As for the rest of your points, exactly. The joke is irony in its simplest form, and yet people just flat out don't want/know how to peel back the thinnest of top layers.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I agree with Greg. Average joke; I found nothing offensive about it other than it was just kind of a blah joke. Also, Greg's examples get right to it, and it's certainly articulated well in your post, Bill, that we live in a pretty literal society these days where people don't really show the ability to understand a joke, why it's a joke, and why you may or may not find it funny. I'm not saying people can't do that; it just seems that they're unwilling to take a deep breath and see the joke for what it is.

The HBO special "Talking Funny" with Ricky Gervais, Louie C.K., Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld covers some of this stuff brilliantly. It should be required viewing for people that don't get jokes.

Great piece, Bill.

Tony Dayoub said...

I agree with pretty much everything said here by all. I had a run-in with Champion once that underscores the fact that he's pretty much a self-righteous attention-seeking troll, which should also place things in perspective.

But Greg is onto something with his focus on the word "cunt." For many, and particularly most women, that word is as non-negotiable a slur as the n-word has now become. It comes along with sufficient baggage so that it kind of eclipses anything around it, including the logic of the joke construction as you break it down here.

Good piece, though. Someone needed to say what you wrote here.

Adam Ross said...

There's a piece on Salon that argues the tweet is casually racist in addition to casually misogynistic. Wow, all that in about 20 words? I really don't see a word in the tweet that can be considered racist.

This is a great analysis and I think the tweet, while again not a very good joke, does fit in with much of The Onion's non-joke/non-news humor: "Area Man's Knee Making Weird Sound" is one of their recent headlines, and I'm sure many of these critics would ask "where's the joke?"

bill r. said...

Kevin - I saw that HBO special. It was excellent, and everyone interested in comedy should check it out. On a side note, one thing I found interesting/amusing about it was how out of place Gervais often was, and how baffled he was by the responses by these comics he so clearly reveres.

bill r. said...

Tony - I honestly can't get behind the logic that the word is "non-negotiable." I understand that many find it offensive, but it's so subjective and arbitrary (that word exists on a much different plane in the UK, for example) that I see no good coming from this kind of knee-jerk restriction, even on an individual basis.

bill r. said...

Adam - Exactly. If someone can't understand the logic of a joke as traditional as this, how do they react to The Onion on a regular basis?

And I haven't read the Salon piece. They seem to have written more than one about this already. How do they arrive at that particular conclusion, anyway?

Greg F. said...

I agree with Greg.

Greg's examples get right to it

Greg is onto something with his focus on the word "cunt."

Listen, Bill, if you want me to write your pieces for you, from now on, just say the word.

bill r. said...

I think "Greg is onto something with his focus on the word 'cunt'" should go on your tombstone.

John said...

"Area Man's Knee Making Weird Sound"

I haven't read that piece, myself, but the title alone, the way it clearly privileges the trivial health issues faced by the white male provincial elite, offers clear proof of this publication's shameful history of misogyny and racism and globalist propaganda and covering up all sorts of corporate malfeasance, etc, etc.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Oh man, Gervais was so out of his element on that special. I love a lot of Gervais' work, but he was talking out of his ass when he was saying that he would never want someone to know him for a laugh that he didn't think was "worthy." The look of bewilderment on Seinfeld and Rock at this statement is so great. And then they proceed to tell him how wrong he is because a funny bit is a funny bit...sometimes you can't deconstruct it the way Gervais was talking about.

But, yeah, there are few parts on that special that made me think of this whole "the words we choose/how we tell jokes" thing:

1. When Jerry talks about the word "fuck" and how he removed it from his act early on because something bothered him about how the joke he was telling didn't work when he didn't use that word (although he freely admits that he wasn't a smart enough comic then to figure out how to find a balance).

2. When C.K. talks about his bit on rape.

Oh, and Greg is right.

I just feel like this needs to be a part of all comments from now on.