121: Just a joke

A Thousand Things to Talk About
121: Just a joke


Is there any topic you count as completely off-limits for hyperbole and/or joking?

Show notes and links:
Bill Cosby Shows Why We Need Off-Limits Jokes (Vulture)
The Philosophy of a Controversial Joke (Philosophy Now)
Too Soon? Why No Joke Should Ever Be Off-Limits (Huffington Post)

Full Episode Script:

Specifically, Is there any topic you count as completely off-limits for hyperbole and/or joking?

Hyperbole and jokes are two linguistic exchanges that both engage our brains in order to understand – because they are both very contextual. In the case of jokes, something is often funny because two, incompatible scripts or frameworks are brought into the same context, at least according to Volume 11 of Media Psychology. Hyperbole relies on breaking an expectation by exaggerating for the sake of emphasis – going far above and beyond what is called for in a situation to make a point.

In both cases, it’s a matter of expectation – and often, broken expectations. As we talked about in Episode 60, often targeted humor is intended to show the strength of a relationship by testing it – and it is often because of those previously held expectations that something works, or doesn’t.

Which makes the choice of what may or may not be “off limits” as individual and contextual as each relationship itself. Yet there are larger social and societal questions when it comes to humor. In an interview with NPR, Joan Rivers discussed how she used jokes as a way of bringing controversial topics to light, using the lightness of a joke to clear the path to discuss controversial topics.

Yet comedy and hyperbole can also trivialize very serious issues. In 2012, the very loud and ongoing debate was about rape jokes. As described in Vulture, some claimed that these jokes should never be off-limits, because considering something off-limits is muzzling the potentially important and socially constructive jester role — an individual that can bring to light the things that no other individual can, in a way that it can be understood. While at the same time, others argued that it is fundamentally impossible to create a joke about something that does not perpetuate a status quo that is toxic to everyone involved.

It would seem the question is more about how humor is approached than the topic itself – after all, a joke about Bill Cosby’s famously family-friendly brand of humor now has a very different context, and one that may force people to confront something they’re otherwise uncomfortable confronting.

Yet even with that, there are some topics that may just go too far – for you personally or for society in general. It may be because they reinforce a negative status quo, or it could be because it’s something that simply should not yet be joked about.