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.