I’ve never been offended by a joke. Not once. It’s all fair game for me: whites, blacks, women, Polacks, poor people, kids with developmental disabilities, my family, your family, the First family.
You hate me already, right? I haven’t even told a joke, and I’ve managed to offend you.
I don’t dislike any of these groups. I have black friends and Polish friends and am relatively poor myself. I have a wife, who is a woman, and I love her very much. I make fun of all these people. They make fun of me, too. It’s pretty fantastic.
On Monday morning I read a slew of pieces in reputable places complaining about Seth MacFarlane’s crude tongue at the Oscars. They claimed he was a sexist, a racist, in favor of eating disorders for women, that he trivialized serious actresses by focusing on their anatomy. All these criticisms were predictable in their anger. He told piggish jokes and was, therefore, a pig. And anyone not offended was, likewise, a pig. For me, this argument is eerily reminiscent of those used by community members at a school board meeting who insist on banning Huck Finn because it uses the “N” Word.
The reason I’ve never been offended by a joke is because jokes are fiction. They aren’t criticism and they aren’t memoir. And they have one goal: make you laugh. That’s it. Anytime you insist they showcase moral shortcomings or the underpinnings of society’s prejudices or are castigating one group in favor of another, you are claiming that the joke is doing something it never wanted to do. Jokes aren’t arguments. They aren’t windows into the true nature of the teller. They’re miniature, made-up stories designed to make us laugh, nothing more.
Why do I seem to be the only one who sees the fiction in them? It’s why so many of them are told in the first person and are, you know, not true. They employ the same strategies as great and controversial fictions: expositions, allusions, reversals, manipulated point-of-view strategies. So if you get offended when Seth MacFarlane suggests that 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis is almost too old for George Clooney, then you also have to be offended by Lolita. Offended by people who make jokes about cancer? You don’t get to like Lorrie Moore. Offended by suicide? War? No Willa Cather, no Tim O’Brien. Keep this up, and we’ll run out of great literature.
Of course, any intelligent person who reads Lolita knows that Nabokov isn’t encouraging pedophilia or that Tim O’Brien isn’t suggesting we all join the Marines and go kill some foreigners. They accept that Lorrie Moore is allowed to joke about anything she wants to joke about, not simply because of her personal experience, but because she writes good stories. How can so many smart people suspend disbelief for fiction but then choose not to for jokes?
The strangest part for me is that most lewd jokes use an incredibly simple form of irony that I know all the offendees (at, say, The New Yorker) are familiar with. I adore the educated sect of our society. I am one of the educated of our society. But why are so many of my colleagues determined to be so damned offended all the time? Keeping your guard up like that must be horribly exhausting.
If I have any beef with MacFarlane’s go as Oscar host, it’s that most of his crude jokes just weren’t very funny, and his more tame jokes were horribly derivative of his predecessors. He started out as a show-tunes version of Richard Pryor and morphed into a lesser Billy Crystal. But I wasn’t offended by any of his jokes. I don’t think they exhibited his own moral shortcomings or rampant prejudice in modern society. They were little made-up stories, and as a fiction writer, I have an obligation to respect stories and storytellers. I have that responsibility even when their plots are mean.
Of course, you’re allowed to be offended by anything you like. You certainly don’t have to justify it to me. So avoid these fictions. Complain about them. Suggest they lead us toward a social Armageddon. Starve yourself of them if you like, but please don’t take them from me. Don’t judge me when I choose not to be offended.
Photo Source: Indiewire