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?
As I watched last night’s Family Guy, my local Chicago station’s news teaser informed me of an unfolding tragedy to our West. Tornadoes were hitting parts of the Midwest and they were heading our way. As the second episode began, one character, Stewie, requested that they watch The Weather Channel because, “there are tornadoes in the Midwest and I like watching poor people scramble to save what little they have.” For those who didn’t initially notice it, the presence of an onscreen weather warning made the juxtaposition explicit.
This was not the first instance of Family Guy inadvertently finding extra sickness as their jokes took on new substance in relation to current events. The March 17 episode, “Turban Cowboy,” showed a character, Peter, drunk-driving his way through a crowd of runners to win the Boston Marathon. Later in the same episode, Peter unwittingly becomes involved with a terrorist organization, which leads to a gag in which he repeatedly, albeit accidentally, detonates bombs with his cell phone. After the attacks at the Boston Marathon less than a month later, these clips gained a lot of traction on the internet and Fox pulled the episode from its official internet sites and, at least for now, from future airing as reruns.
Over at Splitsider, Joshua Kurp lists similar situations in response to 9/11 with episodes of The Simpsons, Rocko’s Modern Life, Sex and the City, Friends, Married. . .With Children, and Spongebob Squarepants.
In these cases, where jokes get cut or entire episodes disappear from reruns, we witness a fascinating indicator of humor and television’s temporality in relation to more serious events in the “real world.” The inadvertent nature of these juxtapositions create a kind of dramatic irony that adds an extra element of humor to these episodes. But they also indicate interesting changes in what is considered to be acceptable discourse. Kurp’s article claims – and DVD commentary by writers backs him up – that many syndication markets pulled the 1997 Simpsons episode in which Homer visits New York and has a particularly hard time in the shadows of the Twin Towers. Even after its return, at least one joke remains edited for the sake of sensitivity. One man informs Homer that, “They put all the jerks in Tower One.” Entirely inoffensive in its original context, the concept that any “jerks” (aside from the hijackers) might have died on 9/11 has apparently become unfathomable. Of course, to say it out loud makes that idea sound ludicrous, but the construct that dichotomizes cowards and heroes in the wake of such events is a powerful tool of both psychological comfort and ideological reinforcement. That a joke made to the contrary – even one made in 1997 – cannot question that logic is apparently too radical for syndication.
For humor and media scholars, these prove especially interesting cases for thinking about the temporality of both. While often theorized as an essentially live medium, television in these cases seems to straddle a line between past-ness and present-ness as it shows documents from the past, but edits appear to deny their status as historical documents. The same might be argued of racist, sexist, or any other troubling -ist humor in other texts, but these are not judgments based on universal ethical or moral values. Instead, they reflect a fundamentally ahistorical reading of television comedy in relation to privileged instances of ideology.
(c) 2103, Phil Scepanski