There once was a guy at my wife’s gym who fancied himself a joker. This opinion was not shared by most of the other gym habitués at that hour of the morning, but they tolerated his attempts at humor, and those who wanted to tune him out simply donned headphones and pedaled away in blissful ignorance of what he was saying. The day after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the gym’s self-appointed joker felt duty-bound to offer a quip about the tragedy. Presumably feeling that his morning companions’ sensibilities had been inured to crudity by the 24-hour ravings of shock jocks, cable TV shouters and Sunday morning gasbags, he tried out this bon mot: “Well, that’s one down, 534 more to go.”
The reaction to the guy’s “joke” was swift, loud and outraged. One fellow, summing up the feelings of most in attendance, shouted, “Get the f___ away from me, you a__ h___.” The joker soon drifted away, seemingly baffled as to why anyone would take offense (“it was just a joke!”). He began doing his workout in the afternoons and my wife has, to her relief, not seen or heard him since. His once “harmless” banter is now considered toxic and he’s persona non grata among those who had previously comprised his daily companions. All because of one “joke.”
When does humor—otherwise one of life’s greatest pleasures—cross the line? Where do jokes jump the shark?
These thoughts occurred to me while perusing a new book called CollegeHumor: The Website. The Book.
Begun in 1999, the website CollegeHumor claims to receive 10 million visitors per month. If this is true, then it is undeniably a popular site for those seeking the sort of proudly un-PC humor that once filled the pages of National Lampoon. But this is National Lampoon as created by some unshaven guy subsisting on Cheese Puffs and a broadband Internet connection. Actually, according to the contributors’ list at the back of the book, it was created by 21 unshaven guys and four women—in fact, the most shark-jumping piece in the book (“Horribly Inappropriate Things to Write on the Facebook Wall of the Kid Who just Killed Himself”) was contributed by a woman. Be that as it may, this is strictly laddie humor, frat-boy banter about tits, drinking, puking, condoms and navel-gazing embodied by such articles as “Drunk-O-Vision,” “Alcohol is My Wingman” and “Mapquest Helps you Find the Clitoris.” Presumably, if you enjoyed I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, you’ll LOL at CollegeHumor.
Am I the only person who’s noticed that everyone thinks they are a comedian now? Indeed, tasteless jokes and snarky banter like that found in CollegeHumor are as widespread on the radio airwaves, Cable TV’s back channels and the Internet as mildew and cockroaches in a warm damp basement. Unlike on radio and cable TV, the Internet allows jokers fresh new territory to roam. You can always tell the jokers because they are the ones trying to be funny…but not succeeding—like the joker at my wife’s gym.
These are the people who compulsively append comments to articles and blogposts, using what they believe is humor to make, or score, political points, or to repeat themselves ad nauseam. For example, some weeks back, a reporter for the Hartford Advocate (to which I’m a regular contributor) wrote a blogpost about a Canadian supreme court ruling that Tasers were deadly because, well, they are. It is, in other words, a demonstrable fact that Tasers can kill, and have killed, people. This, however, is not what one might think of as a demonstrable source of humor. But, alas, to one intrepid commenter, the subject of being electronically murdered was grounds for a joke about the Canadian health system. (“To be fair, Tasers are only deadly in Canada because of the extensive waiting period to see a doctor”). Never mind that Canadians live, on average, three years longer than Americans and that most health insurance plans in America needlessly and often cruelly delay any attempt to see a medical specialist or, more to the point, that millions of Americans have no health insurance at all or they have policies that are essentially useless for anything other than catastrophic emergencies.
This exchange about Tasers is the sort of cheap, unthinking “jokey” commenting that soured me on blogging. I learned that you can’t respond to the jokers or their follow-ups will spread like skin rash, and you can’t delete the joker’s comments or the anonymous person will scream about “CENSORSHIP”. So, the joker’s comments just sit there at the end of your blogposts like dog turds on a sidewalk. Eventually, all the intelligent and/or truly witty commenters who’d previously visited your blog get tired of walking around the stinking piles and move on to some other blog.
CollegeHumor has taken this self-proclaimed-joker mentality to the next level—by putting it between the covers of a book. This is a “book” in name only. Graphically and textually, it is a website. That is, it is a cut and paste job from the website to the printed page, with little attempt to utilize the unique appeal of books. There are things that Internet sites do well and there are things that printed books do well, but nary the twain shall meet (at least in my, ahem, book). As a result of such lazy production standards, CollegeHumor looks cheesy and cut rate. The text feels cannibalized, not unlike those novels whose main characters are novelists trying to write novels. And the art and graphics look as if they were found via a Google Image search, containing none of the idiosyncrasies of individual artists.
This is Internet humor whose targets are mainly other aspects of the Internet. For example, CollegeHumor contains a promising riff on the Google logo that peters out quickly when you realize you’re looking at a book that cost $20 and, therefore, you don’t want to be looking at a website that has been transferred to a printed page. Hey, you think, I can waste my life looking at junk like this on the Internet for free. (This brings up two other topics, for another day: Do books exist anymore? If everything is free, does it have any value?). Huge chunks of the text in CollegeHumor are disguised as blog comments or tweet exchanges whose topics of mirth include “Introducing Google Smartass,” “Honest Cyber Sex”, “Instant Messaging with Mom,” “5 Websites Your Parents Think Exist,” “5 Apps That Need to Happen,” “Commenter Keyboard,” “Communisim, if it Were Run by Today’s ‘Communists’” (which is really a thinly-veiled, profoundly uninformed right wing rant).
It’s no surprise that the best parody in CollegeHumor is the one that looks created for a book and not a website: “Frank Miller Makes History Awesome.” But that is too little too late, at least for me.
In his accessible (and, yes, funny) book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud theorized that joking masks our anxieties and fears but that it also serves a valuable psychological function of releasing the tension of repressed desires and unconscious thoughts. If there is any experience more fraught with anxiety, repressed desires and unconscious thoughts than college, I don’t know what it is. Perhaps that explains the often messy inner landscape that is CollegeHumor.
For my money, the best book about jokes is G. Legman’s masterful Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Read it and weep. With laughter.