Where is the line?: Thoughts on humor and satire

Tracy Wuster

In an odd coincidence, I had just finished reading the chapter “Scandinavia: Does humor have a dark side?” from McGraw and Warner’s The Humor Code when the Charlie Hedbo massacre took place in Paris on January 7, 2015.  Of course, humor has a dark and dangerous side, I thought, even if the authors’ globe-traipsing exploits had downplayed the seriousness of the issue of political cartoons, especially those depicting certain aspect of Islam, the threat of violence, and the serious questions that some humor raises, are no secret in humor studies.  The power of humor is obvious.  But so, too, should we ask questions of what this dark side might mean.  But those question are not always raised.

In concluding their chapter, McGraw and Warner had written:

We laugh loudest at the most arousing attempts, the stuff that’s laced with a bit of danger.  To come up with the best comedy, we have to skirt ever closer to the realm of tragedy, hurt, and pain.  For some people, the result will hit that perfect, hilarious sweet spot.  For others, it goes over the line. (147)

Going over the line.  That metaphor–especially evocative in relation to political cartooning–is something I, and many others have been giving thought to, in the wake of the Paris massacre.  See our collection of articles and images here.

McGraw and Warner hope to find in such dark humor “a spark of light” that can lead to “healthy camaraderie and innocent amusement,” but so too can crossing the line by making fun of another’s beliefs lead to anger and violence.

While much humor is innocent, amusing, and benign–to use the authors’ metaphor–there is much humor that is dangerous, dark, and disturbing, and we should not forget that humor can be offensive and, to counter McGraw and Warner’s metaphor, malignant.  Malignant not in the sense of cancerous, per se, but in the sense of meaning to cause distress or suffering.  Charlie Hedbo’s satire provides an example in which the goal is violation, not a benign violation meant to provoke laughter, but a violation wielding humor to accomplish something else.  The humor of Charlie Hedbo was not universal, or even sensical to most Americans.  The type of satire practiced in France seems to be much different than American traditions.

Some satire aims to cause a type of suffering that leads to beneficial healing, but might some satire cross a line? And judging from people’s reactions to humor, lines are crossed–and those lines are not easy to define and they are not the same for everyone.  But what happens when humor crosses lines–and Charlie Hedbo took as its purpose doing just that–is a crucial and sometimes uncomfortable topic for humor studies scholars to consider.  Some lines might be good to cross; others not so much.

But, obviously, shooting crosses each and every acceptable social line.  Almost everyone can agree on that.  Satire is, many would argue, crucial for a healthy society.  And free speech is an important tenant of many societies, even if that concept is a very complicated one in practice.  But let’s agree–if you don’t agree with me, or anyone else, please don’t resort to violence.  That’s not funny.

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2 responses

  1. […] *”Where is the line?: Thoughts on humor and satire” by Tracy Wuster […]

  2. […] prefer winging it on whatever subject seems topical to them (i.e. Brian Williams, Hal Holbrook, television shows, risky humor, or Charlie Hebdo…and here and here).  In the short term, we are looking for […]

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