Penn State and Jokes That Won’t Quit Being Unfunny

Darth Emmert hands down Penn State’s reckoning.

Like most sports fans – and, I would bet, most of the U.S. – my attention on Monday morning was turned to State College, PA and the punishments doled out by the NCAA. A lot of us have spent time over these last eight months trying to figure out exactly where the blame falls in this moral and administrative quagmire? Who exactly gets punished? By what means? By whom? Chances are you’ve seen over the last few days how the bodies involved have elected to answer those questions.

That morning, however, it was all fresh. I checked ESPN.com and watched some news coverage and refreshed Twitter about a dozen times, searching for the most complete, up-to-date information and commentary I could find. It was on Twitter that I saw the first of a string of jokes that made me queasy just about instantly. It came from one of the moderators of kentuckysportsradio.com, an immensely popular site devoted to exactly what you’d imagine. KSR (full disclosure: I’ve been a frequent visitor to the site for more than four years) takes a notoriously light-hearted look at just about everything they cover (it’s a big part of their charm), and so it’s no surprise that they took a similar approach to the Penn State story. The tweet read: “Congratulations to the UK football team for winning the 1999 Outback Bowl this morning. #WeAreUK”

Kentucky played Penn State in the ’99 Outback Bowl, and since, as of yesterday morning, every Penn State win from 1998 until the end of last season has been vacated, there is no longer an official record of them winning that game. The joke wasn’t mean-spirited, and I have no doubt that 95% of the people who saw it did little more than give a half-smile and move on, so innocuous-seeming was the tweet. I saw a couple more very much like it, including one from an Ohio State fan (I suppose, anyway), that offered similar congratulations to the Buckeyes for retroactively winning the 2006 and 2008 Big Ten titles. KSR even posted the Outback Bowl joke to their site. In the comments on that post, a few people (myself included) voiced criticism of the flippant nature of the joke and the impulse to celebrate – even if doing so only facetiously – the result of Jerry Sandusky’s horrific crimes. Those same comments, it should be said, were filled with a great many more people urging those critical of the jokes to “lighten up.” One commenter asked, “Where’s the funeral?”

It’s hard to come up with an answer to that question that doesn’t sound sanctimonious, self-righteous, humorless, or all three at once.

The jokes struck me as another example in a long line of examples (if you need a recent one, google Daniel Tosh and read about his rape-joke controversy) where the bounds of humor are limitless, where literally anything is a fair jumping off point, as long as it gets a laugh. This ethos – nothing is off limits – probably has its roots in Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor, comics who openly courted controversy by broaching the subjects of race, religion, and sex in a (highly profane) way that no one had before them. I understand why they were revolutionaries in their professions, and, honestly, I think there’s something to be said for the kind of boundary-pushing those men were engaged in. However (and this is a big “However”), I think there’s a real philosophical break between Lenny Bruce, who famously explained that by using a derogatory word like “nigger” dozens of times in a set, he might take some of its power away by revealing it as “just a word,” rather than an instrument of torture, and the creators of South ParkFamily Guy, or a big-time comic like Tosh. The focus seems to have shifted from “pushing buttons to see how a culture responds to proof of its own repressive attitudes” to “making jokes at the expense of any target, no matter how powerless, as long as it gets me a laugh.” Within the second philosophy, there exists no air of the kind of social experimentation that Bruce, Pryor, and Carlin were famously engaged in. Instead, the dictum is simply to press the boundaries of taste as far as they’ll go, because even if the joke isn’t funny, the fact that we’ve dared press the boundaries will make us seem edgy and get laughs. That the source of those laughs isn’t actually how funny the joke is but how inappropriate it is doesn’t seem to matter.

Consider the following joke from Daniel Tosh (who, I can tell you first hand, is beloved by a great many high school males and whose influence I’ve seen first hand in the way they recklessly brandish humor):

Too much? There are a lot of comedians who would say no, if only because of the censorship problems that can arise when limitations of any kind are put on their routines. I would argue that the issue is not whether or not Daniel Tosh (or any other person who makes jokes in public or private) should be allowed to make that joke – he absolutely should. For the First Amendment to work, even things that a huge portion of the population find tasteless have to be protected. The bigger question is: why are they laughing? As I said, I think it has much to do with how shocking the statement is rather than how funny the joke actually is.

The tricky part of any dialogue on this topic comes in pretty much immediately. Any criticism of this type of joke-telling (I know that’s painting with broad strokes, but I think it’s clear what I mean, at least generally), is immediately met with two highly effective, if somewhat specious rebuttals. The first is the “It’s just a joke, so lighten up.” response, which is the perfect evolutionary answer for comics to deliver to a public, among whom seems always to be a portion who gets offended over one thing or another. When you’ve convinced yourself that anyone who gets offended by a joke is just “taking things too seriously,” or that they “can’t take a joke,” you have a built-in, automatic (and it should be said: blind) reply to anyone who has a problem – legitimate or not – with your jokes. This would not be unlike classifying everyone who recycles as some sort of tree-hugging nut-job who values the Snowy Tree Owl more above any human life so that when they suggested that you take up recycling, you could dismiss them wholesale without having to actually engage them. Clever, but wildly unfair.

The second rebuttal is more about the jokes’ alleged function. Shows like Family Guy – where you’ll routinely find jokes about AIDS, quadriplegia, abortion, rape, and incest – hide behind the powerful shield of satire. Satire’s purpose is always to mock or ridicule some perceived flaws in society’s individuals or institutions, but the element that really makes something satire is that it hints at some kind of reform for the problem. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the most notable current examples. When they lampoon something, they hope that their audience will be clued into the absurdity that exists everywhere in our news cycle and change the way they approach issues and public figures. I’m doubtful that the same thing can be said – at least consistently – of most shows that claim to be satirical in nature as a way to defend their sometimes shocking brand of humor. Claiming that you’re satirizing something imbues your cause with higher purpose, and since satirists are necessarily shocking (some of my students still think Jonathan Swift is a horrible person and he wrote “A Modest Proposal” in 1729), unless you really know what to look for, it’s a hard claim to refute.

With these built-in protections against criticisms, or, at least, with simple ways to diffuse the criticism and make it appear as though they’re being ganged up on by a self-serious culture, a relatively small group of contemporary comedians have created an insular world in which their jokes exist outside the bounds of the criteria normally used to judge whether or not someone is making an ass of themselves. The most regrettable effect of this insulation is the way in which it has seeped into the minds of people who don’t ever trouble themselves with pesky thoughts like, “Might I actually be hurting someone by making this joke?” I think that, for the most part, professional comedians understand that when they make a joke like Tosh’s, they are crossing a boundary. As I said, that’s most of the point. But I also think that they understand that, underlying every joke, is the implicit understanding that, because of what they do for a living, you should take everything they say with a shaker  grain of salt, and that in no way should their comedy be conflated with their personal beliefs. Daniel Tosh is not promoting rape as a positive thing. We get that. But, then again, when I say “we,” I mean discerning adults, and a huge portion of Tosh’s audience (as well as those of McFarlane, Parker and Stone, etc.) is decidedly less than discerning. They walk away thinking that the rape joke is funny because rape itself is funny in some way. Or AIDS. Or pedophelia.

I will readily admit that the “my team has now won game X because Paterno’s wins were vacated” jokes do not approach the tastelessness of much of what can be found other places. The concern I expressed upon hearing them had less to do with the jokes themselves – which I still maintain shouldn’t have been made – and much more to do with the prevailing attitudes revealed by their making. Namely, that anything is ripe for the picking, even for the smallest chuckle; nothing is sacred; and screw you if you can’t  take a joke.

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4 Comments on “Penn State and Jokes That Won’t Quit Being Unfunny”

  1. Anonymous
    July 28, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    Lighten up.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. You Favorite Posts In July | thethingaboutflying - July 31, 2012

    […] Penn State and Jokes That Won’t Quit Being Unfunny […]

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    […] For the original post click here. […]

  3. Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and Chip Kelly or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Not Believe Anything Anyone Says | thethingaboutflying - January 18, 2013

    […] the best/worst example of this idea is with the Penn State scandal. Joe Paterno, who by all accounts was a fantastic person, coach and humanitarian, was pretty deep […]

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