Why the Death of Humor Is No Laughing Matter @thejoelstein #joke #comedy #humor

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Sorry, but it’s time for another serious and long post.

I came across an article from the Stanford Graduate School of Business last week. It cites a study that demonstrates the importance of humor to the human psyche, which in turn correlates (and presumably is the cause of) health benefits. This doesn’t surprise me at all. The subject of this post is something that wasn’t the immediate concern of the author but is quite important and was lurking in his own text.

Scrolling down a bit, you’ll find a graphic containing four quadrants. I’ve recreated the graphic here using the advanced graphic techniques of MS Word.

This chart sums up the arguments of the author. It says a few things that are relevant. First, it claims that making jokes is a good thing even if you bomb. Everyone bombs, but people respect the effort. As I’ve stated before, I have no disagreement with this. You can and should bomb as long as you learn from the mistake. Second, it states that the degree to which you generate laughter is irrelevant if the joke itself is inappropriate. In theory, I agree with this, but I have a real problem with the direction Americans are going in labeling everything as offensive. Case and point:

Microsoft feels the need to warn you about naughty language.

Clearly, if your audience is a room full of Klansmen, then you can bring down the house and still be a villain as the chart states. However, most audiences aren’t 90% or better Klansmen, yet there’s a horrible trend towards labeling everything as offensive. To justify the position, the habitually-offended simply label anyone that laughs at anything they don’t like as a Klansman, Nazi, or anything else that allows them to mask their unreasonable offense as reasonable. This, of course, leads to real harm to people’s lives, but I’m not going to dive into that. I’m instead going to point out two other consequences that concern me: Killing comedy by limiting its subject matter, and a more general problem (beyond comedy) of reasonableness transforming from a community standard to an individual standard. As to the first issue, no where was this more apparent than the show, Brooklyn 99.

Limiting Subject Matter

After seeing tons of YouTube videos containing various characters’ best moments, I decided Brooklyn 99 was probably my kind of show, so it became the latest binge watch for me. It’s clear that the writers were very talented. There were funny jokes, many characters were endearing, and there were some recurring themes (e.g., the Halloween heists) and wonderful catchphrases that these writers wisely knew not to overdo (a common error among their colleagues).

Bing-pot! - Album on Imgur

That’s great, but after five seasons, Fox cancelled it. Many were incensed, but it was cancelled because the ratings were poor. After a Star Trek-esque fan campaign, it was then picked up by NBC, but the coming 8th season will be its last. This despite the network change inevitably drawing in at least some viewers that had never seen it when it was on Fox. Despite the vocal minority of diehard fans, the show clearly couldn’t keep anyone’s attention for long. Why not? Because, contrary to the assertion of the linked article (citing writer Michael Lewis), writing jokes today absolutely carries a risk, and the writers didn’t want to bear that risk. It was clear that they were going out of their way to walk the tightrope of avoiding outrage at the hands of this vocal, minority (some of whom wouldn’t necessarily be fans of the show), but ultimately that small audience can’t support the show. When the habitually-outraged tie the hands of comedy writers, we get a modified chart.

Very little is considered appropriate by the habitually-outraged, and that small sliver of acceptable comedy that’s left can’t maintain anyone’s interest for very long. I finished it only because I can’t help myself. Once I start a task, whether business or personal, I have to complete it, which is why I generally don’t binge-watch TV shows if I see they have that many seasons. I took a chance on this one and was ultimately disappointed in the last few seasons. Despite its several strengths, it became a chore to finish it, and not because it jumped the shark. It never reached such a height. Rather, it simply grew into a tedious retread of boring, unchallenging stories because the jokes had almost no chance of offending anyone. Even where it comes to non-comedic material, it was predictable. If you didn’t know “whodunnit?” as soon as the bad guy first hit the screen, you’re an idiot. The villains were all telegraphed because the formula was always the same. Moreover, I wanted to throw Charles, Hitchcock, and Scully out a window 30 stories up, though that started within a couple of seasons. They were frustrating characters.

But killing comedy is merely a symptom of an insidious disease.

The Standard of Reasonableness

Everyone is offended by something, and that’s fine, but too often I hear the line, “You have no right to tell me whether I’m offended.” The fact that people say that means they’re missing the point. Absolutely no one is doubting you taking offense. What we’re saying is that you’re being ridiculous for doing so. But even that isn’t the problem. It would be utterly ridiculous for you to be offended by me wearing a blue shirt simply because your dad died while wearing an orange shirt (the other end of the color wheel), but it’s okay if you are. You can’t help that. Humans are emotional creatures, and certain associations will always result in illogical reactions. However, you shouldn’t impose that offense on me by demanding I always wear an orange shirt for the rest of my life.

And that’s the crux of problem. Any one element that’s deemed offensive by the online mob is composed of a miniscule percentage of people (some of whom aren’t tied to the subject matter at hand), but everyone is afraid to incur the wrath of that mob. Moreover, because these internet tough guys aren’t content with just changing the channel, but rather insist everyone get in line with their sensibilities, far too much content is labeled taboo for everyone, and we’re left with the modified chart similar to the one above for all areas of life, not just comedy. If you disobey, you’re given a horrible label that, without being questions, can cause you to lose your job, friends, and even family. This isn’t imposing accountability; it’s imposing the insecurity-driven whims of the individual on all of us. Throughout history, vigilante mobs have always swept up more innocents than the guilty because there are no protections from false accusations.

This is a troubling trend that those currently on that side are blind to. Rather than “reasonableness” being defined by the community, it’s being defined by each person on an individual basis. Going back to my crass example, if Mary’s dad died wearing a blue shirt, and Mary gets to define for me what’s reasonable, then I always have to wear an orange shirt. However, Joe’s dad died while wearing an orange shirt, so Joe demands I always wear a blue shirt. Then there’s Sally, who’s dad died while trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records record for wearing the most shirts at once (it’s 260, and as far as I know, Ted is fine), and she demands I wear no shirt at all. Finally, there’s Aloysius, and he demands I always wear a shirt with both blue and orange in it because of some other insanity I’m too lazy to invent. So, no matter what choice I make, I’m always going to offend three (a majority) of these four people, even though the majority (three) of all five of us aren’t offended by whatever choice I make. This places me in an impossible position, even though I’m not addressing the demands of 7.5 billion humans, 325 million Americans, 8.5 million Virginians, 1.1 million . . . Fairfax Countyans(?), or even 47,000 McLeananites (copyright 2021, me [not really]). Use any of those numbers, and seemingly ordinary actions or words will result in the same sort of no-win scenario. This is precisely why reasonableness must remain a community standard. We, not a few habitually-outraged, internet tough guys, should set that standard.

As bad as tyranny by the majority is, tyranny by the minority is much, much worse. We strike that balance legally by having a Constitutional democracy where a supermajority (still democratic!) creates fundamental rights that supersede the passing whims of the cops or even the legislature, protecting the individual, but still ultimately subjecting us all to the broader strokes of the majority. Your right to impose your insecurities upon the rest of us by suppressing speech is not the sort of fundamental right that’s necessary to preserve your individual dignity. Or at least it shouldn’t be, because it in fact suppresses an actual fundamental right in the internet age, where Town Square is now in the hands of the private sector. But if we can’t enjoy even jokes, there’s no hope for finding compromise on more difficult issues.

If you were looking for a miracle cure for what ails us, you’ve come to the wrong blog, but apparently our lives depend on it.

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc
Follow Joel Stein @thejoelstein

English Spelling #language #pita

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If you know me personally, you know I’m a language freak. Before you assume that I, a lawyer, thinks that language is a crime (as many often inappropriately accuse language freaks of being), I can assure you my view is a bit more reasonable than that.

Reasonable, but still kind of a dick. It goes with the territory.

When I was in high school, I thought I was pretty clever. Of course, I was, but my successes aren’t important right now. I had heard about the word, “ghoti,” attributed inaccurately to George Bernard Shaw. To summarize, when you take the way “gh,” “o,” and “ti” are pronounced in other words, you can justify pronouncing ghoti the same as you would pronounce the word, “fish” (click through for an explanation). Here’s where my cleverness comes in. Whenever someone as smug as I told this story, I told them that Shaw and they weren’t thorough in their spelling. The correct spelling of “fish” was actually “ghotib.” The ‘b’ on the end is silent, like in dumb.

Get it? See? I always outdid those wannabes that were taking other people’s work and peddling at their own. I at least added to the work. I told you I was clever. But not as clever as this.

Shit.

Fortunately, I’m no longer in contact with any of the people that could throw this in my face.

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I’m like this, but not as good-looking.

Ruining the #Joke

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Well, time for my second mean post in about a month.

I unfriended someone on Facebook last weekend. He kept coming onto my posts and ruining jokes by asking dumb questions, explaining the joke, or trying to change the joke’s premise so he could leapfrog off my sense of humor. That’s literally the only thing for which I have no tolerance. I don’t care if you make differing, or even objectively stupid, sociopolitical statements. People are doing the best they can in a complex world with little time on their hands to properly research. Talking with each other helps us learn (if we’re open to it). But there’s no excuse for ruining a joke. We’re all just trying to have fun, and ruining a joke kills that fun. There’s a science to comedy, but this is intended to be a short, simple, and one-sided analysis, focusing on common audience errors. Let’s start with a very basic, if antiquated, joke.

The Joke: A horse walks into a bar. Bartender asks, “Why the long face?”

Asking Dumb Questions

Do not respond: “How did the horse fit through the front door? Why didn’t they throw it out? Why did the bartender try to speak with a horse? Horses don’t speak.”

None of these questions are relevant. You shouldn’t care how we got to this point. Just roll with the joke.

Explaining the Joke

Do not respond: “That’s because horses have long faces, but having a long face is a way of saying someone is sad, and so the bartender thinks the horse is sad, but it’s really just a pun, and ….”

Explaining the joke is just your insecure way of telling everyone you were clever enough to get the joke. No one’s impressed, but they’re usually disappointed. Explaining a joke ruins it. Everyone stops in their tracks and doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

Subverting the Premise

Do not respond: “But the horse didn’t have a long face. He had a short face, which is funny because horses don’t have short faces.”

It’s okay to continue the joke with a chain of responses that build on it. That can be very useful because the initial telling of the joke shouldn’t ramble on too much. Sometimes the original joke must leave out some funny stuff because you don’t want to say too much, especially if it results in internal conflict within the joke. However, what this response does is completely changes the premise, which invalidates everything that came before it in the chain. Even if the chain at that point consists of only the original joke, invalidating it removes the humor, making your task of replacing that humor insurmountable. In other words, whatever you say will probably fail anyway because you’ve killed the vibe. If you don’t like the premise of the joke or legitimately think you can do better with your own, walk away and post your own joke on your wall. However, if you don’t understand why your redirection is going to running the original joke, don’t be surprised if what you think is funny turns out not to be.

None of these responses make you funny, and all of them ruin the joke. I know you want to be a part of something, but sometimes you’re just a spectator. Try to be satisfied by the fact that you got a good laugh. Even remarkably funny people know when to sit one out.

Bonus Point #1: The Geneva Convention

Much like the “horse in a bar” joke above, it’s never funny to say, “That line was so horrible it’s a violation of the Geneva Convention.” Some lines, even if they’re still somehow relevant decades after their creation, have worn themselves out. Unfortunately, that’s something you sometimes must learn through trial and error. It’s okay to bomb, but don’t go running in circles through known minefields.

Bonus Point #2: In-person Jokes

I was with some friends before the pandemic. I told them two of my favorite jokes, but one of them required a set up. I asked a friend a question, but because he knew he was about to be the butt of the joke, he refused to answer, bringing the entire joke to a standstill. Because everyone knew the joke was coming, it was already going to be a tough sell, but by refusing to answer and forcing me to turn to a less insecure friend and repeat the question made it even tougher to get a good laugh.

Don’t do that either. For Shatner’s sake, just roll with it.

I am a comedy god!

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Cat (People) >> Dog (People) #caturday #rovember #cat #dog

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Sundays are now lazy days for me. Going forward, I’m just going to re-post other people’s work or just do something silly. Today it’s just a ridiculous observation.

How is “rovember” not a thing among dog lovers? The only two references I can find are 1) some video game shit I couldn’t decipher; and 2) a lawn mower company in Australia that makes “rovers.” Even Range Rovers don’t seem to take advantage of the obvious hashtag. Cat people are smart enough to take over a whole day of the week with Caturday.

Someone should hire me.

Cats win again!

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Reactive Centrifugal Force (Actually, Language [Actually, Me Being a Pain in the Ass]) #physics #science #language #pita

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Here’s a random memory triggered by an unrelated Facebook post I read.

When I was a physics major, one of my professors, referencing a carnival ride, actually said, “Centrifugal force doesn’t exist. What you’re experiencing is centripetal force pushing you in.”

I responded, “But if centripetal force exists, doesn’t Newton’s Third Law of Motion demand that centrifugal force also exist? Wouldn’t that be the force your body exerts back on the wall?”

Boy, was he pissed. Of course he knew that the “reactive centrifugal force” existed. This is the force that you exert on the wall in reaction to the wall pushing you towards the center. It’s a very real force. However, even back then, I was killing people for linguistic imprecision. I couldn’t help it. It was a legitimate question brought on by a quirk in how physicists label these topics.

“Centrifugal force” is used differently from “reactive centrifugal force,” which is stupid. All forces have a reactive counterforce, so why qualify it as “reactive”? Unfortunately, that’s the linguistic convention, but when you say “centrifugal force doesn’t exist,” it misleads people who otherwise have a grasp on what you’re teaching. Physics professors should make it clear that there is an outward force, but we experience a misperception that this outward force is acting on us. In fact, the outward force is acting on the wall (or whatever is forcing you to take a curved path). Without “reactive” modifying it, “centrifugal force” refers to the misperception rather than the very real force.

If you want more details on the physics, here’s a relatively short lecture on this topic (about 12-1/2 minutes), though it doesn’t discuss the issue I’m raising here. In fact, it makes the same mistake. I originally provided a paragraph explaining some concepts the lecture takes for granted, but that paragraph would probably have made things worse. 🙂

You may have expected this to be about science, or language, but it was really about me being a pain in the ass.

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