Every joke has a target

I hear a lot of jokes about homeless people. And I always think to myself, "Wow, you really showed them!" Because what the hell is the point of going after someone who has already been kicked around plenty?

Every joke has a victim. Someone is the target. (Well, maybe not in absurdist stuff. But anyway...) So, in a way, jokes are weapons. Use them to attack the powerful/majority/deserving and you're Robin Hood. (Huzzah!) Use them to attack the helpless/weak/undeserving and you're a bully. (Jerk!)

Paul F. Tompkins talks about his "personal comedy code" and wrestling with how mean to be in Judging ‘Idol,’ a look at his American Idol recaps.

Early on, I took swipes at Tyler’s appearance; I made jokes about a chubby 16-year-old’s chubbiness. A friend reviewed one of these early recaps thusly: “Hilariously mean!” That struck me. I realized I was headed down a bad road. I long ago vowed, as Batman did before me, never to make fun of stuff that people couldn’t help. Because it’s (1) easy and (2) not fair. There are plenty of things that people have complete control over that are worthy of ridicule. So I concentrated on what people wore, how they mangled common phrases and idioms, and how they treated each other...

So from then on, I considered what I was writing more carefully, soon realizing that the hardest thing to do is make fun of contestants without being nasty. I eventually figured out the way in: Most of the contestants believed that they were excellent singers. Therefore, if they weren’t, I could totally make fun of them! Fantastic! I felt within my rights taking shots at people who crave the validation of strangers, since I’m a stranger-validation craver myself! (Take my very low opinion of recently ousted James Durbin’s parenting skills: His sob story included having no money for food and diapers—was entering a singing contest really the most responsible solution?)

That approach worked with everyone except the youngest contestants. Too young! Why did I get dealt the season where they let essentially children enter, to be judged by an entire nation? What is this, Charles Dickens tymes? I am a gentleman of the old school, and I consider it unsporting to ridicule children unless it’s in private and with good friends. How do I criticize them without being a bully? By turning on a more appropriate target (which, in my personal comedy code, is always the most powerful): the glorified sweatshop owners exploiting the dreams of these kids, the producers of this bloated cash cow. So as the weeks wore on, my jokes became less about the performances and more about the situation in which the contestants were placed.

It's neat to see this level of self-examination from PFT. And a good reminder to every comic to think about whom you're attacking and how much they truly deserve it.


Josh Homer said...

"Hyperfocus! That sounds great. I didn't know ADD folks actually had a superpower. It's like you were exposed to radiation at a nuclear factory as a kid and now you get to yell things like "Quick, to the Ritalin Cave! It's time to hyperfocus!""

Who's the target in this sentence/joke? Just curious.

Matt Ruby said...

Josh: On a small scale, the target is people who disingenuously claim to have a "disease" that allows them to hyperfocus on certain things while leaving them incapable of paying attention to anything else.

On a bigger scale, it's 1) the pharmaceutical industrial complex that encourages and profits from this kind of disease inflation and 2) our society that has enabled this victim mentality and lets us avoid having to take responsibility for our choices and actions.

Hope this satisfies your curiosity.

Josh Homer said...

Interesting, when you address the people as "ADD folks" I could have sworn you were talking to and about "ADD folks". I guess the normal rules of subject/predicate do not apply to this sentence.

Matt Ruby said...

Josh, I'm not sure what you're getting at. I was responding to the folks who commented that "people with ADD can 'hyperfocus'" (from the paragraph immediately preceding the one you excerpted). I think the rest of the essay is pretty clear about who I'm going after and why I think they're deserving. If you disagree, that's your prerogative.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I mentioned this story somewhere recently, but it applies here too: one night at Lucky Jack's I heard there was a (presumably) homeless guy who sometimes stopped by for the free pizza toward the end of the show. A guy wandered in at the end and sat and watched, so I figured it might be the guy I heard about. Watching him listen to (and not laugh at) the material about the homeless made me more mindful of the targets of my jokes. Another thing that makes me mindful is the fact that I'm an angel sent from heaven.

Jason said...

I used to have many undeserving targets in my act. Retarded people, fat people... blah... Now mostly the target is me and that feels WAY better.

Matt Ruby said...

Good point, Jason. It's why self-effacing humor works so well. When the target is you, everyone gets to breathe a sigh of relief since clearly you're on board for the self-attack.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I predict a trend in self-deprecating stand-up for men and confident, assertive humor for women.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Still waiting for Myq to say, "Every joke has a target, but not every joke has a Target, even though every Target is a joke. Unless you take it seriously, because you're an avid shopper. Avidly shopping for archery supplies. What's the target in a joke about Target targets?"



Flattery that gets you socially rejected.

in my mouth

myq said...

See Abbi? You don't have to wait for me. It was inside you the whole time.

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