Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the fourth episode of “Hello Ladies” (a very promising comedy series that HBO scandalously cancelled last week) Stuart Pritchard (Stephen Merchant, Extras) and Jessica Vanderhoff (Christine Woods, FlashForward, The Walking Dead) managed to be invited to a dinner at Margo’s (Jessica Lundy, Hope and Gloria), some rich woman who allegedly “throws the best dinner parties in Los Angeles”. Margo is surrounded by gay friends, including the funny Justin (Christopher Moynihan, Man Up!) whose mouth is full of sexual innuendos, and a couple, Andy and Armand, who catch Stuart and Jessica’s attention: Andy (David Hornsby, Six Feet Under, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) owns a model agency and can set Stuart up with models (Stuart’s goal in life). Armand (played by Alimi Ballard, Numb3rs) writes profiles on up-and-coming actresses in Vanity Fair (Jessica hopes to revive her career thanks to him). So after dinner, all the guests find themselves in Margo’s hot tub. Stuart has spent the whole evening attempting to impress the gay couple with gay jokes. Now in the hot tub, he is unstoppable:
JUSTIN: Now, everybody, please keep your hands where I can see them.
STUART: Talking of hands, what do you call a lesbian with long fingernails? … Single!
ANDY: Where do you get these jokes from?
JESSICA: Ha ha ha ha, I know, isn’t he delightful? We’re roommates, so I’m laughing 24/7.
ANDY: Alright, Kimberly is gonna love you. She loves to laugh.
STUART: Oh, well, I hope so. Err…err… And thank you again for, you know, making the introductions. In fact, I would love to invite you gentlemen, in fact, everyone… welcome, to come over our place sometime. When she’s not tap-dancing, she’s a tremendous cook.
JESSICA: I am.
ARMAND: Thank you, that sounds lovely.
ANDY: We need some fun new friends. We’re always hanging out with the same boring people.
JUSTIN: Boring? How dare you? I too am hilarious. What is the definition of confusion? … 20 blind lesbians in a fish market.
STUART: Did you hear about the gay rock star? He drank a bottle of scotch and then tidied his hotel room.
JUSTIN: What do you call a gay man from the South? … A “homo-sex-y’all.”
STUART: When does…when does a gay man become a faggot? When he leaves the room!
[Stuart is the only one to laugh]
ANDY: That’s really offensive.
STUART: No, it’s not. Why?
JUSTIN: It’s homophobic.
STUART: No, no, you weren’t listening. No, it’s about hypocrisy, if anything. Listen again. When does a gay man become a faggot? When he leaves the room. Do you hear what I’m saying? It’s saying that straight people call you faggots behind your back! Which we do!
JESSICA: But we shouldn’t!
STUART: But we shouldn’t. No, I mean, we don’t. But, you know, some people do.
ANDY: Please stop saying “faggot.”
STUART: It wasn’t even originally about gay people. I changed the words!
JESSICA: Yeah! See?
STUART: Yeah, originally it was “When does a black man become a ni…”
(Awkward and eternal eye contact with the African-American Armand)
STUART: Gosh, I don’t remember what it was.
MARGO: I think you should leave.
STUART: No, I honestly don’t think you’re listening to my point.
ANDY: Please go.
[Stuart leaves the hot tub. All eyes on Jessica suggest she should leave too. Which she does. Outside the tub, she bends over Armand and says:]
JESSICA: It. Was. A pleasure… meeting you!
[Armand rolls his eyes]
Well, you have to admit it, that scene is hilarious! Stuart does not seem to notice how offensive his last joke was (at least, to the homosexuals who heard it), which reminds us of Socrates‘ statement that “No one does evil knowingly“. Like Socrates, some christian philosophers such as Nicolas Malebranche and Saint Augustine maintained that the choice to do evil was no result of our will but of our ignorance.
Some researchers found out that humour varied over space and time. Laughing matters vary from one country to the other. In the US, jokes will be more sexual and aggressive, while the Chinese will joke about social interactions. The less industrialized cultures find humour on their physical environment. Thus, American leaders use more humour than the French and Italian leaders. Comedy shows are rare in Belgium, in Yugoslavia or in Israel, whereas they abound in the UK and the US! Funny seems to be a relative concept. A Cameroonian may find a joke funny, that will make no Cambogian laugh; a six-year-old may laugh really hard at a joke that an adult will find quite dumb. A straight person may find a gay joke funny, that a gay will find insulting.
So what if Stuart had told his last joke not because of he did not know it was insulting, but because he was not in position to find it insulting? What if a joke is funny depending on who hears it? The whole night, Stuart had made gay jokes that he had looked up on the internet, when he was in the bathroom. The whole night, everyone had laughed at his jokes. Each of them could have been found homophobic, they all had a massive homophobic potential, but gay and straight people chose to laugh. The last joke offended the gay friends of Margo’s because it contained the word “faggot”. The joke becomes insulting as soon as someone feels insulted by the joke. The funny is not in the sender or in the message, it is in the receiver.
Joseph Klatzmann, a French agronomist and statistician (Knight of the Legion of Honor in France), published in 1999 an untranslated book entitled L’Humour Juif (The Jewish Humour). For the Jewish humour to be Jewish, it has to be about Jewish issues. He wrote: “The Jewish humour is about laughing, in order not to cry“. Here, laughing is a therapeutic mechanism that helps to heal, to overcome the wounds. In America, the Jewish humour was embodied on the screen by Woody Allen and the Marx brothers , but also in literature by Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Jewish humour is made by Jews. Would Stuart’s joke have been less offensive if Justin has told it himself? Or is the wound caused by the unrelenting homophobia still too fresh, for the word “faggot” to become a matter of humour anytime soon?
Some people say that you can laugh about everything, some others add.. “but not with everyone”. Humour is a taboo-free zone. Jokes are allowed to break conventions. Humourists laugh about sex, stupidity, people’s looks, diseases… But jokes can also be weapons, weapons that can hurt people. Offensive jokes can make some people laugh. You do not decide what you find funny or not. But should you be blamed for laughing (even internally) at a joke that offended someone? When a joke is immoral, does that make it less funny? Does that make you immoral? The American philosopher Noël Carroll (born in 1947) thought about that matter and gave his answer in the following joke: “Rape is an assault with a friendly weapon”. It is clearly immoral and sexist, but still, Carroll finds it funny, but still, he will refrain from laughing. “Humor is beyond good and evil”, he says.
Humor is closer to philosophy than we think. According to Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, 2008), good jokes are structurally similar to good philosophical arguments: they start with a familiar, apparently non-threatening situation; lead the listener towards a path he thinks he can see; and then they suddenly take a sharp turn to deliver either the punchline or a surprising conclusion. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) believed that “a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes“.