As I was starting to craft this article, “The Oscars Slap” occurred and drew viewership and astounding media buzz. Humor gave way to violence, as well as long conversations about what constitutes “funny” these days.
Taking the Topic out of Hollywood
I recently made what I thought was a snarky New York quip but I deeply offended the person I was joking about. That simply proves the point that you really have to know your audience and make sure that humor doesn’t creep into nastiness.
Like beauty, funny is in the eyes of the beholder.
Recently on LinkedIn, I randomly met Richie Redding, a humorist and self-proclaimed corporate comedy consultant who runs a business called Funnier Than You. When I talked to him about the fine line between humor and verbal abuse, he explained that there’s a key difference between joking at someone’s expense versus about a shared experience. I wish it were that simple!
Knowing what to joke about, when to do it and how to react when your humor falls flat is no laughing matter. I’m especially focused these days on “ageist humor.”
Making Fun of Age Is Usually Not OK
As a woman (well) over 50, I have found myself deluged by (and hypersensitive about) ads and memes about aging, which are intended to be funny but usually reinforce stereotypes about older people. We are slow, we don’t know how to use tech, and we have trouble hearing, seeing and walking. Sadly, many of these ads are developed by younger creative teams because older people have become increasingly rejected by many major ad agencies.
Humor can be reflective of common sentiments and can also reinforce biases and generalizations. I feel the same way about jokes and skits that poke fun at Gen Z. It is because these quips are at someone’s expense—in this case, the expense of a huge demographic group that has no control over the aging process.
That’s not to say that jokes about generational differences can’t be great. The HBO Max streaming series Hacks is a terrific example. Two women with wildly different experiences, personalities and values start out at war with each other, hurling funny yet abusive barbs. But they ultimately find a common ground. Ironically, that common ground is comedy.
I’m doing my first “stand-up routine” this month (May 2022) and it revolves around gendered ageism. Even though I’m in the demographic, I’m cautious about walking that fine line between comedy and hurtful words and generalizations. It’s not easy.
I’ve found some of the best ways to gauge whether you’re being funny or just being crude and mean is to:
• Know your audience well. That includes being aware of what your friends and family may be going through. For example, if someone just lost a loved one, jokes about death and dying may fall flat. On the flip side, some people deal with distress by joking. When in doubt, pay close attention to body language and facial expressions when you’re spewing out your comedic jabs.
• Ask yourself: Who may feel marginalized or offended by my words?
• Try out your material with people you trust and represent the population you’re addressing.
• Choose your words carefully in one-on-one or small group situations. If you find out after the fact that you upset someone, don’t say something like, “I was just joking.” It doesn’t matter to the person you hurt.
• When in doubt, avoid poking fun at things that people can’t help (e.g., aging, disabilities, sexual orientation, etc.).
How Will Humor Evolve?
Scientists have been studying the origins of humor — both historically and throughout a human’s life. Apparently, nine different types of humor exist. Often, what we find is that even our close friends may have radically different tastes in jokes than we do.
What we laugh at and find funny has been informed by our families, friends and peers. When someone says, “I don’t find that funny,” it doesn’t mean that they lack a sense of humor. It may just mean that they don’t really get the joke, have different tastes in jokes or that it may be crossing over to offensive territory.
Although you don’t need to slap the comedian or send a nasty text to the creator of a meme or GIF, you should never be ashamed to express your feelings. Laughing out loud is wonderful. However, not laughing out loud and having a tough and honest conversation is sometimes OK, too.