One of my hobbies used to be telling people that I found certain jokes offensive based upon my peculiar life experiences. I had to stop because people started taking me seriously. Whenever I entered a room, they would freeze and pull out long, neatly typed lists of verboten topics. “We can’t talk about ice-climbing, those little tabs they put on bags of bread, ice dancing, manatees, transsexuals, carburetors, or people whose cousins are exceptional chess players.” “Or whaling,” I would add with a heavy sigh, sinking down next to them.
But other than the things you can’t talk about, what is there to talk about? Everything is so fragmented these days. Our base of shared reference is constantly eroding and it seems like there’s a new internet meme to follow every morning, so that the only thing people can reliably talk about in common are the massive shocks, sometimes seismic, that catch everyone’s attention.
This is not to say that people have not always made jokes about shared disasters too soon after the fact. There’s a very tasteless reference in Aristophanes’ Clouds to some skinny, pale philosophy students who look “like the prisoners from Pylos.” And this was 423 BC! But the tendency to allude to communal tragedies as a source of kinship with an audience that increasingly hasn’t read the same books, seen the same movies, or learned the same historical facts—except for the big shocking ones—has only become more pronounced in recent years.
Sept. 11 stemmed this tide for a time, at least until Gilbert Gottfried tried to breach it at the Friars’ Club. Now even it has crept into the comedy vernacular, entering the routines of mainstream artists like Sarah Silverman. The Holocaust, long a staple of the joke equivalent of “Do Not Call” lists, has generated an ever-increasing volume of jests thanks to its continuing power to shock. And the “too-soon” breed of joke has proliferated over the past few years. From Steve Irwin to Brittany Murphy, jokesters circle celebrities like vultures, waiting to swoop in with ill-timed jests. Michael Jackson, already an object of mirth, scarcely had the usual brief grace period before jokes about him began pouring in.
But it’s hard to blame people.
Over the past fifty years, there has been a seismic shift in the material society declares offensive. Fifty years ago, people made jokes about Poles, segregation existed, and Playboy was a radical new concept. Now, people get into and out of cars without underwear, sensitivity prevails, and certain isolated individuals still make jokes about Poles. H. L. Mencken called Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Now Puritanism is gone, its place is occupied by political correctness: the creeping fear that someone, somewhere may be offended. This discomfort around certain words, thoughts, and events is rich terrain for comedy.
But it only goes so far. There is a strong sense of “clearance” associated with certain types of humor. If you’re the only member of a particular demographic in a group of sensitive humorists, you exert almost imperial control over whether or not a joke dies, simply by modulating your facial expression. (“Norwegians are so Scandinavian, they lack the ability to find jokes funny!” my hypothetical friends crow. “That’s not funny,” I reply.)
The recent Pfoho housing video, copying a popular internet meme that depicts Hitler reacting to things with shock and subtitles, has triggered one of the discussions that this sort of humor usually ignites. Hitler has long been a safe target for jokes—even during World War II, he was mocked with broad general remarks that I assume people with small mustaches find insulting. Now he’s a cultural staple, from The Producers to Inglourious Basterds, and the vast well-meaning meme machine can make him respond indignantly to the iPad or the news that he’s been assigned to Adams House.
But some people find this offensive. The Pfoho list erupted in emails worrying that people would be offended by the video. Is Hitler too soon? Who decides? How far can a joke about Hitler go before it becomes a joke that hurts too many people to be funny? (Speaking as Hitler, I’m kind of offended that my image is being used to promote a house where there is diversity and very little spoken German, but maybe I don’t have clearance to speak as Hitler anyway.)
The problem is connection. If we had more in common, we wouldn’t need “too soon.” If everybody in the country were forced to read Moby Dick, our range of available jokes would skyrocket. “A squeeze of the hand is as good as a Fleshlight to a blind man,” we’d say, elbowing each other in the ribs suggestively and guffawing.
Instead, we do what we must. “Too soon!” people intone, after someone tosses a J. D. Salinger joke into a crowded room. But is it? We’re just trying to connect. Besides, it’s that or these Pole jokes I’ve been preparing.
Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.