No, I Don't Think Your Joke Is Funny
A Comment on Allowing Ourselves to Laugh at Mental Illness
The Millennial Generation is known as the generation that is offended by everything. We are told constantly that we take things too seriously, we’re too sensitive, and too self-righteous; we’re seen as a generation that needs to “grow up and stop whining” (Proud). Yet, as the micro, and not so micro, aggressions of our time continue to roar, I think it’s safe to say we have to question what the millennials are offended for. In the case of comedy, we come in contact with jokes which harness sexism, racism, and ableism for their own purposes. This is why I, an over-sensitive, too self-righteous, and concerned millennial, do not think your joke is funny.
What is classified as “Amoral Humor,” is humor which is “neither moral nor immoral,” and lies “outside the sphere to which moral judgments apply” (Merriam-Webster). In Noel Carroll’s guide, Humour: A Very Short Introduction, he explains the concept of morality in humor. He suggests “we defend ourselves from those who take moral offense at our humor by claiming, ‘I was only joking’—which means, in effect, ‘I am not morally accountable; I am not speaking seriously’” (Carroll, 87). Although this is the way in which humor often functions in our current time, I strongly dispute the concept of humor as being amoral. Rather, humor, when used in an immoral way, can perpetuate social inequality and oppression potentially without even the joker’s realization.
Carroll does address how this humor acts when it is about oppressed or “powerless” groups. He suggests we may be more sympathetic to this type of humor perpetuating insensitivity or mistreatment when it is using those without privilege or power for its purpose as opposed to using those with privilege and power, such as in the case of lawyer jokes. However, he also states that the amoralist’s argument against this type of moral judgment is the fact that those who are a part of these oppressed groups use this type of stereotypical humor themselves. Carroll exemplifies this when he states, “The Irish… tell jokes about their excessive drinking… Jewish jokes emphasize cunning, especially in matters of financial. African American jokes frequently return to the theme of voracious sexual appetite” (Carroll, 88). Yet, due to the way in which oppression is internalized, this cannot be an excuse for defending immoral humor which perpetuates oppression and inequality.
For example, in the same way that men in our hegemonically masculine society are socialized to understand sexist gender roles and expectations, women are taught the same ideologies. Yet, when women internalize sexist ideals, they are not only projecting these expectations, judgements, and often times harassment on other women but also on to themselves. The organization Cultural Bridges to Justices defines internalized sexism as “the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes, and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society are true” (Cultural Bridges to Justice). Therefore, due to the perpetuation of this socialized oppression “women and girls are taught to act out the lie and stereotypes,” resulting in them “doubting themselves and other females” (Cultural Bridges to Justice). Therefore, the ways in which we are taught to speak about women, and to joke about women, are all social cues which we have internalized; yet they are still misogynistic and they still perpetuate sexism. Therefore, when women makes jokes at the expense of other women, typically using female stereotypes, it is not amoral, but in fact a perpetuation of internalized oppression. The oppressed or disadvantaged groups which take part in this type of humor may not even be aware of the ways in which their socialized language has contributed to their internalization of oppression. Therefore, the woman who jokes about “dumb blondes,” may not be aware of the ways in which this language perpetuates sexist ideas of women, because she is only engaging in language as she has been socialized to. In a society which is unequal, comedy surrounding oppressed groups cannot be seen as amoral; yet, this practice continues to slip into our daily lives. Often times, these jokes may be less overt, less direct, and less alarming than, for example, dumb blonde jokes, but none the less they are harmful. These jokes are often showing themselves through black humor, not only in our social media, but in our high arts, our literature, and our schools as well.
Black comedy is firmly planted in television, books, and personal interactions. All mediums are overflowing with black comedy, yet often times we don’t realize we are laughing at the morbid, the unjust, or the obscene; in order to understand black comedy and recognize it in our media and interactions we must ask “why is black comedy so successful and prevalent?”
Black comedy, also known as black humor or dark comedy, is a sub-genre of comedy and satire where topics and events that are usually treated seriously (death, murder, mass murder, suicide… insanity, handicaps, environmental disasters, famine, fear, child abuse, drug abuse, rape, castration, war, terrorism, racism, sexism…etc.) are treated in a satirical manner. (tvtropes.org).
Essentially, black comedy gravitates toward the subject matter which is supposed to be the least funny. It catapults its successes off the backs of the dark, taboo, and therefore unexpected. Dark humor permeates the serious and sacred and creates space for hilarity without removing the negative, and seemingly futile, realities of life.
Psychologically, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado suggests an “explanation of humor called the ‘benign-violation theory,” which is “grounded in the idea that people are amused by moral violations—threats to their normal worldviews, for instance, or disparaging statements—but only so long as those violations are harmless “(Jaffe). Therefore, black comedy allows us to laugh at real problems, while remaining a safe distance from the reality of them. Noel Carroll suggests that one of the main factors of black humor’s success is this distance. He states, “Like all jokes, these specimens are framed as jokes, thereby invoking comic distance” (Carroll, 32). When an onlooker is given the opportunity to understand something which is framed as a joke, they can distance themselves from the potential of bad happenings which would not be funny in real life; they are afforded the ability to laugh at death, disease, mental illness, etc. because they are distant from the reality of those circumstances.
Yet, when we take black humor and use it to discuss sexist, racist, or ableist ideals, we not only create distance between the audience and the joke at hand, but we also create distance between the audience and their investment in the problems as they exist in the real world. We make distance between real people. I argue that the use of dark humor in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan further perpetuate the idea that symptoms of mental illness are something which are able to be laughed at due to the comic space provided. Furthermore, I argue that due to this space between audience and laughable character, we further perpetuate stigma in the real-world, resulting in negative outcomes for those who are suffering from a mental illness.
To begin, it is important to realize the prevalence of mental illness in the United States. One in four adults in the United States suffer from a mental disorder that is diagnosable (The Kim Foundation). Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a mental illness. Moreover, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States (NAMI). With the prevalence of mental illness in our society, we cannot afford to turn our backs on this group of people, regardless of our intentions or awareness in doing so. We cannot separate ourselves from an at-risk population because we think it’s funny; we can no longer continue to laugh at the “crazy.”
To begin, Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, is the character an audience loves to hate. He is loud, he is vulgar, and he is overwhelmingly unkempt and repulsive. Yet, we never ask ourselves why Ignatius acts the way he does. We never look into the reasons Ignatius is acting absurd because we have created space from his character. We have removed ourselves from the possibility of him, and his problems, being real, and we allow ourselves to laugh at his absurdity. However, Ignatius Reilly shows symptoms of suffering from Schizotypal Personality Disorder. Schizotypal Personality disorder is defined as a “pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behavior” (DSM-IV-TR). Ignatius exhibits symptoms of this disorder throughout the novel, including ideas of reference, odd beliefs or magical thinking, and suspicious or paranoid ideation. All of these symptoms, and the examples to follow, are situations in which Ignatius is meant to be seen as an excuse for comedy.
Firstly, ideas of reference refer to “incorrect interpretations of casual incidents and external events as having a particular and unusual meaning specifically for the person” (DSM-IV-TR). Many of Ignatius’ moments of seemingly “overreacting,” are in fact in line with the definition of ideas of reference. For example, after Ignatius’ first day of work, he is absolutely outraged that his mother will be going bowling, and he takes this event as an act against him. Ignatius screamed at his mother for leaving, saying “You can’t go bowling… this is the most absurd thing that you have ever done” (Toole, 90). He interpreted a casual incident as an absurd act that was being performed against him. Moreover, Ignatius misinterprets his encounter with a group of tourists in a way which focuses on his own imagined meaning in the scenario's context. In one of Ignatius’ letters he details a time in which tourists “begged [him] to pose for a photograph” (Toole, 242). Ignatius responded as follows, “Pleased by their gracious attentions, I acquiesced. For minutes they snapped away as I obliged them with several artful poses” (Toole, 242). Yet, it is later made clear that Ignatius did not interpret this event properly as one of the tourists, while discussing giving him compensation, stated, “He would only go out and spend it on more liquor” (Toole, 243). These tourists thought Igantius’ act was due to his drunkenness, when in fact his seemingly drunkenness, that was taken advantage of as a stage show by the tourists, was his incorrect interpretation of a casual incident which he believed was focused on him personally.
Moreover, and one of the most prevalent symptoms, Ignatius partakes in odd beliefs and magical thinking. For example, Ignatius believes he has a “valve,” which to him is a body part that acts up and makes it difficult for him to partake in daily tasks. When confronted by his mother about the valve being a figment of his imagination which no one else has, Ignatius responds, “Everyone has a valve!... Mine is simply more developed. I am trying to open a passage which you have succeeded in blocking. It may be permanently closed for all I know” (Toole, 60). Within this belief, Ignatius manages to justify his valve, even when his mother states she doesn’t have one, and he keeps his beliefs on the valve consistent. For instance, he continues to reference his valve throughout the novel; when told he looked like he was dying and asked what was wrong, his response was, “My valve closed on the streetcar” (Toole, 70). Ignatius’ discussion of his fictional valve is so consistent throughout the novel, and his belief so convincing, that it can be seen as an odd belief rather than artistry whose creation was intended for personal use. He believes in the reality of his valve, regardless of the lack of evidence to support this body part.
Additionally, Ignatius partakes in suspicious or paranoid ideations. For instance, when Ignatius learns about Timmy, dressed as a sailor, is actually not a member of the armed forces at all but is simply impersonating one his reaction goes beyond the outrage that may be typical in such a situation. He begins to hypothesize: “Every soldier and sailor that we see could simply be some mad decadent in disguise. My God! We may all be trapped in some horrible conspiracy. I knew that something like this was going to happen. The United States is probably totally defenseless!” (Toole, 262). Ignatius makes an extremely broad and irrational claim based on the actions of one individuals. Furthermore, this claim indicates that Ignatius has been paranoid that “something like this was going to happen,” and due to this paranoia is suspicious of those in uniform, believing them to be in a disguise.
In each of these scenarios, we are enticed to laugh at Ignatius’ actions as being overdramatic, or just absurd. We laugh at his inability to properly gauge a situation, and to gauge the importance of his role within the situation; we laugh at his bullheaded belief in his valve, and we laugh as he expresses his paranoid assumptions yet we never question why these acts are the case with Ignatius Reilly. Regardless of these patterns of symptomatic behavior occurring throughout the novel, we never ponder why he is “overreacting.” We are too far separated from the comic character of Ignatius to further pursue the idea that this character may need help—that we are laughing at the representation of someone who may need help.
Likewise, in Anita Loos’ novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the audience finds itself laughing at the main character Lorelei Lee who begins to keep a journal. Throughout, we come into Lorelei’s thoughts, most of which are misspelled, and her accounts of scenarios happening in her life. Yet, we are made aware by Lorelei that her diary does not tell us the full story as she tells us on more than one occasion that she talked to another character about “things that [she] really would not even put in my diary” (Loos, 11). Yet, even without this information, assumedly information which is morally worse than the information actually written about in the diary, we can see instances in which Lorelei shows symptoms of suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder, better known as sociopathy. Antisocial Personality Disorder is defined as “a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others” (Mayo Clinic). Although Lorelei adheres to many of the symptoms of sociopathy, three of the most prevalent are her patterns of lying and deceit to exploit others, her use of charm to manipulate others for personal gain and pleasure, and her lack of empathy for others and remorse for harming others.
Throughout the novel, Lorelei’s lie and deceit are not only mentioned in her diary, but she also seems to be quite proud of her creations. For example, Lorelei tells CooCoo that she “could not luncheon with him today, because [her] brother was in town on business and had the mumps, so [she] could not leave him alone” (Loos, 6). However, it is not only the lie which is alarming, but Lorelei’s own pride in it. She states, “I sometimes almost have to smile at my own imagination, because of course I have not got any brother and I have not even thought of the mumps for years. I mean it is no wonder that I can write” (Loos, 6). In this case, it is clear that Lorelei does not see the difference between creating a story for fiction and creating a story to lie to another human being; she does not recognize the harm that can come about when lying to another person.
Further, Lorelei uses her charm extensively for personal gain without regard for those she is manipulating. She makes this mindset clear when discussing the ways in which American men are better than French men; she states, “American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and sapphire bracelet lasts forever” (Loos, 55). This statement indicates that Lorelei’s personal relationships are centered on her own advancement and gains rather than an emotional connection with another person. Lorelei’s ability to get men on her hook revolves around her charm, which she then exploits to get the things she desires without regard for the man she is supposed to be in a caring relationship with. This is shown when Lorelei exploits Henry as she “decided [she] would get to New York and… go to Cartiers and run up quite a large size bill on Henry’s credit” (Loos, 112), while simultaneously trying to get rid of him.
Finally, Lorelei Lee has a complete lack of empathy for others and a lack of remorse for those she has harmed. Not only does she disregard the men she comes in contact with throughout the novel, as previously discussed, but she also kills a man without remorse or blame. When detailing the past encounter she states, “So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of hysterics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings” (Loos, 25). Lorelei manages to neglect all blame for the murder by blaming it on the revolver; she shows no empathy for the man she killed, nor remorse for her actions. Rather, she is most concerned about the District Attorney which is on the same boat as her who was “really quite harsh at the trial and… called [her] names that I would not even put in my diary” (Loos, 25). In this case, Lorelei is concerned with the District Attorney’s treatment of her, because he did not fall for her charm and fulfill her personal wants. He was the only one who tried to prosecute her in the trial, which she felt was unjust. Yet, throughout her narration of the murder and the trial, Lorelei continues to talk about herself throughout the situation, rather than any of the effects on Mr. Jennings or his family. She shows more concern for the ways in which the murder affected her than for the ways in which she harmed another person.
Regardless of the severity of Lorelei’s symptoms, we continue to laugh at the seeming absurdity of her character. We laugh at her inability to spell, we laugh at the ways in which she manipulates the men around her and cares only about monetary and superficial gains, and we laugh at her when she suggests the revolver killed Mr. Jennings. All of these offenses affect and harm other characters, yet because it is a fictional character and we are afforded comic distance, we can laugh without fear. However, when an individual acts as Lorelei does in real life, their trials make the nightly news. We call them “insane” and suggest they are a danger to themselves and society, yet when we see these actions in a comic frame we continue to laugh at them without regard for their place in reality.
Finally, in the film Manhattan, Woody Allen plays Isaac Mortimer Davis who shows signs of suffering from an anxiety disorder. Although there are many different types of anxiety disorders with a wide array of symptoms, one can see the ways in which Isaac’s anxious nature greatly impacts his life. Woody Allen’s anxious character is in good company when it comes to presenting “nebbish” Jewish individuals with some anxious ticks as something which is to be comedic. Small in stature and riddled with insecurities, these characters fulfill the “anxious Jewish,” stereotype on the comic scene. Dr. Rachel Klein, professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine states “there is Jewish humor that jokes about anxiety, but not necessarily a legitimate, group-specific form of anxiety disorder classified as Jewish” (Margolin), and this is exactly what we see in Allen’s films. In a study performed by Andrew S. Dibner, he found speech characteristics which were seen when interviewing individuals with situational anxiety. First off, he found that interrupted thoughts within sentences was a sign of anxiety. Within these circumstances, the thought is interrupted but the sentence is eventually completed “in much the same manner as it was begun” (Dibner, 475). He also found that the repeating of words or phrases within a close sequence, as well as stuttering, or repeating parts of words or leaving a word unfinished, were cues of anxiety (Dibner, 475).
All of these cues are seen in the closing scene of Manhattan as Isaac and Tracy discuss her leaving for six months, to which Isaac’s response is:
Six months, you know you're gonna be, you'll be in, in, in, in the th - working in a theater there, you'll be with actors and directors, you know you're, you know, you go to rehearsal, and you, you hang out with those people, you have lunch a lot, and, and, before you even know it attachments form and, and, you know, I mean, you, you don't want to be get into that kind a, I mean, you, you'll change (Manhattan).
In this brief speech, Isaac’s thoughts are continually interrupted as he tries to determine the best way to coordinate his speech. Additionally, he repeats words or phrases and stutters throughout indicating anxiety.
Furthermore, Isaac takes part in other cues which Dibner deems as indicative of anxiety. He is often found “blocking,” defined as “when there is [a] groping for the proper expression, indicating unusual hesitation” (Dibner, 476). This can be seen as Isaac ponders the questions “why is life worth living.” He states, “Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony” (Manhattan). Moreover, although Isaac is answering the question in accordance with what makes life worth living for him, and it is entirely opinion-based, he still shows signs of being unsure of his choices, such as his continued reference to his own opinion. He states, “for me,” and “I would say,” in order to further verify that this is his opinion and it should not be contested; he is self-conscious of his statements and acts as though he fears they will be rejected.
Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan fulfills the role of the “nebbish, anxious Jew,” which has become a trope in modern television. However, our ability to laugh at his character results in our distance from the character. Even more compelling is the fact that Woody Allen, in real life, suffers from anxiety and depression and is playing his role as Isaac honestly, yet due to the role of Isaac as a fictional, comedic character we are still able to separate ourselves from the reality of anxiety as a mental illness long enough to laugh at it.
The issue of the comedy I have discussed is the fact that we are treating comedy as if it is amoral. Comedy is often seen as a safe space in which anything goes, because it is “only a joke.” Consequently, black comedy plays its part in perpetuating this ideal by making light of the most serious and taboo aspects of society, and we are able to laugh at it because we separate ourselves from the characters we are laughing at. As one of the most fundamental tricks of the trade, comic distance makes black comedy possible. As Chris McGuire states, “the fundamental mechanic of comedy is comic distance, the ability to separate ourselves from an event in order to laugh at it,” and “breaking comic distance can help create instant identification with a character, we can feel their pain, and thus identify and root for the character on their journey” (McGuire). As seen in this explanation, comic distance allows us the privilege not to identify with the characters we are laughing at. Therefore, we feel no commitment to Ignatius Reilly’s Schizotypal symptoms, Lorelei Lee’s sociopathy symptoms, or Isaac Mortimer Davis’ anxiety. Rather, they are a skeptical which we can laugh at without any type of moral regard.
However, as I previously argued, comedy is not amoral, and the use of black humor to laugh at mental illness, even if the audience doesn’t realize that is in fact what they are doing, still perpetuates oppression. As the audience finds themselves laughing at the characters in their books and on their television screens, and find humor in their symptoms they begin to understand these actions as humorous. They begin to trivialize the severity and importance of these symptoms when they happen to real people in the real world. We then begin to create comic distance, not only between ourselves and fictional characters, but between ourselves and other people. The distance created between those who are watching symptoms of mental illnesses and those who are suffering from them is stigma, or “an attempt to label a particular group of people as less worthy of respect than others,” and “a mark of shame, disgrace, or disapproval that results in discrimination” (NAMI). Therefore, not only does humor of this kind perpetuate the idea that symptoms of mental illness are laughable, but it also perpetuates stigma among those who distance themselves from those who are suffering.
The results of stigma on those who are a part of the mental health community and those who suffer from mental illness are astounding. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stigma leads to “inadequate insurance coverage for mental health services, fear, mistrust, and violence against people living with mental illness, family and friends turning their back on people with mental illness, [and] prejudice and discrimination” (NAMI). Furthermore, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment.
In conclusion, in a survey administered by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 2007, “57 percent of adults believe that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.” Yet, “only 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness” (CDC). Therefore, we must change the ways we talk about, and laugh at, mental illness. We need to be caring and sympathetic toward those with mental illnesses and to those who show symptoms of mental illness. We cannot continue to laugh at an at-risk group without moral regard. We cannot continue to separate ourselves from them and push our stigma on them as they move farther and farther away from getting the help they need. Ignatius Reilly’s paranoid behavior, Lorelei Lee’s lack of empathy and remorse, and Isaac Mortimer Davis’ anxiety are not to be laughed at because they represent the symptoms that individuals in real life are suffering from. Mental illness is not “just a joke,” and no, I don’t think your joke is funny.
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