Risk vs. Reward: When are Jokes too Risky?

The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.

Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.

Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?

These questions remained undecided, even in the post-panel beer drinking, and will most likely remain undecided by the end of this post—the questions are just too large and too situation specific. That does not mean, however, that we should not have such a discussion, and continue to have it. Such discussions can promote tolerance between disparate groups.

Americans have always enjoyed poking fun at groups considered “Other.” While those in the “other” group may change over time, or may not have considered the jokes funny, they generated laughter from “insiders.” Polish jokes by non-Poles, Dumb Blonde jokes by both men and women, and region specific jokes (Kentuckian jokes told by Ohioans, Cheese head jokes about Wisconsinites by Illinoisans, etc.) abound within our culture, and politics has become a staple for late-night talk show hosts. Bill Clinton took his share of flak from Whitewater jokes and Intern jokes. Both George W. Bush campaigns produced plenty of fodder for the likes of Letterman, Maher, and Leno. In a 2004 monologue, Bill Maher had this to say about the presidential Town Hall debates:

“I don’t want to say who won this debate, but today the FCC is furious and is fining the networks for showing the emperor with no clothes.”

Americans always seem to accept jokes about political candidates, particularly if the joke is on their opposition candidate. Thus talk show hosts are almost guaranteed to carry at least half of their audience along with them no matter which side of the political aisle they satirize. The situation is a bit different when one attempts a joke about events that polarize large groups of people. While Internet jokes abounded after the events of 9/11, these carried a great deal more risk than any of the election humor. The website Slay.me specializes in jokes with just such an element of risk. Their logo and motto warn readers from the start: Serious Times Call for Serious Laughter. The page opens with an image of the American flag on a dark blue background with the caption: “Never Forget. 9/11”. It also includes a short paragraph stating:

“First, we would like to say that 9/11 was a horrible event and really isn’t a joking matter. That being said, there are a few jokes out there on the Internet that are not totally in bad taste, what do you think? Is it too soon to laugh? “

The disclaimer notwithstanding, many readers would consider some of the jokes in poor taste, to say the least: “What does WTC stand for? – ‘What Trade Center.’” When terrorists are the butt of the joke, it seems less offensive to American readers. After such a tragedy, we always want a scapegoat, and the site’s Top Ten Good Things about the World Trade Center Attack focus mainly on that side of the issue; others are much more questionable:

Q: Who are the fastest readers in the world?

A: New Yorkers. Some of them go through 110 stories in 5 seconds.

In preparation for this post, I went looking on the Internet for jokes about a tragedy in my own neck of the woods: Saint Louis, Missouri. After the Ferguson debacle, I thought there might be less folks willing to joke about what happened. I found this Merry Christmas image from Ferguson, MO:


Since the World Trade Center attack, America has been a difficult place for Islamic people. Roberta Wolfson’s talk, “Playing with Humor in the Risk-Saturated Era of Islamophobia,” demonstrated ways in which humor can foster a more open understanding of cultures and lifestyles other than our own. The Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, is a parody of the long-running series, Little House on the Prairie modeled after the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of children’s books, placed an Islamic family in a small Canadian town. Each episode deals in one way or another with the ways in which the town’s inhabitants deal with their differences from the newcomers, and ultimately how they learn to live together.

The show has attracted a segment of the Canadian population, and even a bit of a niche following since it first aired in October of 2007. However, even though the show had an acceptable market share, American television stations refused to air it. Given the conservative nature of most of the larger networks, this does not seem surprising, but even the cable networks have yet to syndicate the show. Apparently the networks feel that 9/11 is still too close to joke about. Do Canadian audiences find it more acceptable because in some sense, the tragedy is not theirs? Do they have an Islamic audience large enough that they (and their advertisers) believe the show is viable? Or are Canadians simply less conservative than their American counterparts? Part of the series’ acceptance seems to stem from its more balanced treatment of the two opposing cultures. Sometimes the joke is on the mostly white population of the town; at other times the joke is on the rigidity of some of the tenets of Islamic culture.

Jennifer Santos’s presentation, “Humor and the Holocaust: Epstein’s King of the Jews deals with a different aspect of the question: Can only those who are insiders joke about a tragedy like the Holocaust? Can anything be funny about the annihilation of millions of Jews in concentration camps? Santos’s answer seems to be that the mixed reception for Epstein’s novel stems from the fact that he, himself, was not a Holocaust survivor. What she believes saves this text from such criticism is that in order to write the novel, he researched archives for jokes actually told by Holocaust victims during their imprisonment. She believes that this text can demonstrate for readers the resilience of a people under unimaginably horrible conditions.

As one final example, I’d like to look at stand up comedian Ralphie May, a white, heavyset man who dares to joke about black people, disasters, and cultural icons—and does so successfully. In his HBO Special (also available on DVD), Girth of a Nation (2006), he highlights what may be one of the ways in which a comic can negotiate risk and still reap the rewards.


He opens the show by talking about himself in almost all of his stand up acts; thus, his audience first laughs at his own expense—the jokes center around his being overweight, Southern, and white. He then launches into a dialog about the entertainment value of seeing films in theaters in primarily black neighborhoods. During several pans of the audience it becomes clear that his audience is diverse: Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, and whites make up the audience. It is also clear that whites in the audience are uncomfortable when his jokes mention minorities, while minority audience members are laughing hysterically at his characterizations. In part, this dialog works because he is in constant communication with his audience (“That’s right…I said it”) throughout the monologue, and counters possible objections proactively. In part, it works because the audience has been allowed to laugh at the comedian first. But my own opinion is that it works because he has given a great deal of thought to audience response as he plans his stand up act.

Near the end of the show, he begins by saying something like this: “I’m going to tell you a joke that you won’t want to laugh at, but you will anyway.” He then launches into a monologue about his having bet the over and under on the Tsunami, and what the death count would be. An admittedly risky joke about a disaster. The audience does laugh, and those watching on television or DVD can see that the laughter is uneasy. After he finishes this segment he looks out at the audience and says something like: “OK, in that one, too many people died. In this one, only one person dies.” Before the audience can breathe a collective sigh of relief, he says: ”When the Pope died…”. While I would only be guessing about the purpose of the joke, my assessment is that as a comedian, he is setting his audience up to show them that no matter how offensive a joke may seem, someone will laugh at it, and such laughter is ok—not only ok, but sometimes even necessary to relieve the tension and stress that occurs when cultures clash.

One person’s joke is another person’s offensive statement—a truism since the first cave man slipped on a banana peel or fell down chasing a mastodon. So, when is a risk acceptable? It is entirely possible that ANY joke will offend someone. It seems clear that insiders can joke about themselves. Chris Rock proves that when he takes up the question of when a white person is allowed to use the word nigger. If the author/speaker has some connection to the group in question or can use the words of an actual insider, the odds of the risk reaping a reward get better. If the treatment of two opposing sides are balanced with equal turns at being the joked-about, audiences seem more willing to laugh at a joke containing elements or risk. And if the audience is permitted to laugh at the expense of the person telling the joke, riskier jokes seem like fair game. Has the question of who can joke at what been answered? Not really. The debate rolls on, and I’d like to hear from you. What do you think about the elements of risk involved in humor?

(c) 2015, Jan McIntire-Strasburg

3 responses

  1. Humor is risky ..and has even had deadly consequences as the world witnessed in the “Je Suis Charlie” chapter. Each person has to assess the risk vs reward and decide what works. With humor , its all in the timing, in many senses than one.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, and it gives me lots to think about. I am someone who tries very hard to be respectful and to treat people as they would like to be treated – and part of this is recognizing that that’s not necessarily the same as how I would like to be treated. But humor changes that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and it can completely change the parameters of what is and isn’t “okay.” Sometimes it walks a very fine line, and different people will feel differently about whether or not that line has been crossed. Clearly, context is *hugely* important. Thanks for writing this. I think I need to mull this over awhile.

  3. Timing does have a great deal to do with when or how an audience will “accept” a risky move from a humorist. The element of respect also seems a part of this equation. Humor can fall flat for me if it seems exploitative (as some of the 9/11 jokes on slay.me hit me). For me I think the most important elements are context and (what I perceive) as intent. If you have not seen Chris Rock’s “discussion” of when a white person can use the word “nigger”, that skit gives me a good idea of context and intention, while he still retains the use of that word for the race to which it refers.

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