Post-PC Humor

I noticed a thread concerning "post-PC humor" at Andrew Sullivan's blog, specifically this post, in which Andrew approvingly quotes e-mail from a concerned reader.

While I do agree that post-PC is a sign of a healthy and tolerant culture, I believe that there is a segment of the population that in fact is not in on the joke. Instead, I think that some see the over-the-top prejudice so common in post-PC humor as reinforcement of their own prejudices and in the worst cases, hatred.

Summary: we're laughing for the right reasons; they're laughing for the wrong reasons. Apparently this is a huge concern with post-PC humor. All us enlightened, tolerant folks are beyond being offended by provocative humor dealing with sex, race, religion, etc. But we're still concerned about … those other people. The ones not "in on the joke."

As an example, Andrew's reader quotes from a Time article on the self-destructing Dave Chappelle:

[Chappelle] was taping a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races. The black pixie--played by Chappelle--wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle.

I would expect that would be a pretty fine line to draw for a comic: let's write jokes that will be controversial and edgy, but ones that only nice people will laugh at. God forbid we should amuse a bigot! One longs to grab Dave by the shoulders, shake him, and say: "Dave, don't worry so much about people laughing 'loud and long'; worry if they're not laughing."

Andrew's reader continues with his own Chappelle-show data point:

It's difficult to quantify, but the best example I can give is when I watched some Chappelle skits with some southern relatives of mine who would be charitably described as racist. I couldn't figure out why they were laughing at what was clearly a sketch written to make fun of people with attitudes and beliefs exactly like theirs (The blind, black KKK sketch). I noticed they were laughing not only at the wrong time, but for what appeared to be for the wrong reasons. Later, when they were quoting what they considered the "funny" parts of the skit, it wasn't what everyone "in on the joke" was quoting.

It's difficult to quantify, but it's my speculation that this yarn may have been punched up a bit to "prove" the gulf in humor perception between the elite and the unwashed. Andrew's reader reminds me of the stuffy Army officer wonderfully played by the late Graham Chapman on Monty Python. Expressing his unhappiness with the silliness of the sketches, he harrumphed:

Now, nobody likes a good laugh more than I do. … Except perhaps my wife … and some of her friends. … Oh, yes, and Captain Johnson. … Come to think of it, most people like a good laugh more than I do. But that's beside the point!

Chapman, as you may know, was gay; nevertheless, he had no apparent compunctions about playing stereotypical flaming "poofters", and I've never seen a shred of evidence that he ever worried that members of his audience were laughing "for the wrong reasons" or "at the wrong time." And how many of the audience were laughing, but simultaneously glancing from side to side, worrying that some of their neighbors weren't "in on the joke"? None, I'd wager.

Wake me up when "post-PC humor" catches up to "pre-PC" 1970s British TV sketch comedy. Until then, I'll be holed up with my Python DVDs.

Last Modified 2006-01-24 6:11 AM EDT