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Comedy is a funny old thing. Literally. NO, I’m not joking. But what is it that makes things funny, and does funny necessitate a victim? Let’s find out.

Ed, at SBs, has made a fine blog post about God and how he just ain’t funny. It’s not that we’re a tough crowd, it’s just that his sense of humour is really warped. And the jokes are on us. We are the victims. On the other hand, and in the real world recently, and not for the first time, Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle cracked some gags at the expense of the Paralympics and paralympians, specifically the Saudi team (the comedian called the Saudi Arabian team “mainly thieves”, referring to criminals having their hands removed). Boyle is known in the UK for his quick mind, dark and acerbic wit and for taking his comedy to the edge of acceptability. Could Boyle be just as funny with more benign humour?

In my opinion, (stand-up) comedy can be split into broadly two categories: situational comedy and out-group comedy (needing a victim). The first type of comedy can be hilarious – you only have to see someone like Eddie Izzard in “The Definite Article” or other such accomplished comedians who can make the everyday very funny.

The second type of funny, out-group comedy, seems to rely on separating a victim of the comedy out from the audience and the comedian. Sometimes, with self-deprecating humour, this victim is the comedian themselves, and this can be a useful tool.

In-group / out-group psychology is prevalent in all aspects of life. We categorise ourselves into groups and we afford those in the same groups as us camaraderie, trust and goodwill. Those in out-groups are treated as “others”, with distrust and competition. As Wikipedia states of in-group favouritism:

In-group favoritism, otherwise known as in-group–out-group biasin-group bias, or intergroup bias, refers to a preference and affinity for one’s in-group over the out-group, or anyone viewed as outside the in-group. This can be expressed in evaluation of others, linking, allocation of resources and many other ways.[1] This interaction has been researched by many psychologists and linked to many theories related to group conflict and prejudice. The phenomenon is primarily viewed from a social psychology standpoint rather than apersonality psychology perspective. Thus, the phenomenon centers around the perception of others in relation to oneself, rather than individual differences in cognition. There are several theories that relate to this overarching phenomenon. Experiments using minimal group paradigm have found that even arbitrary and virtually meaningless distinctions between groups (e.g. the colour of their shirts) can trigger a tendency to favour one’s own group at the expense of others. The realistic conflict theory proposes that intergroup conflict arises when two groups engage in competition over limited resources.

And this is precisely what much comedy feeds off – the differences between “us” and “them”; making the audience feel a part of a group with the comedian and pointing and poking the finger of fun at some “other”, bringing the audience into a clique collective with the comedian. Not only does it make the audience laugh, but it reinforces their own superiority over the “other(s)”.

It certainly doesn’t need to be. As mentioned, there are other types of humour. But comedians, especially cutting edge comedians, often rely on pushing the boundaries. Taboo subjects are ripe territory for their shock value. There is only so much humour that can be derived from situational ideas. At some point, taking the piss out of people for who they are and what they represent becomes game.

That is all good and well when it is someone who is universally in the out group (at least in public) such as, say, Hitler and racist fascists; but the problem lies in who one can describe as fair game. Humour at the expense of others revolves entirely around poling fun at the others: in some way belittling them or oppressing them with humour. We may almost all be able to accept laughing at Hitler, but what about Muslims? Christians? Atheists? Black people? Where do we draw the line?

I find it interesting that if we take the mickey out of a Pakistani accent, it is often seen as borderline racist, but the Liverpudlian, Scottish or Canadian accent is fair game. This smacks of double standard. Obviously, it is hard to define intent as to what is really underlying the mockery, but at the end of the day, it is really only about each of those groups being different.

>We all recognise that mocking black people for essentially just being different on account of their appearance, if one takes away the historical-cultural context, can be argued to being no different to taking the piss out of someone for being ginger and having glasses (yes that was me as a youth). We can, in this case, call on the cultural context of slavery and oppression to bolster the defence of the former being more seriously racist and bigoted; however, in a very similar prima facie sense, the latter is a form of racism itself – an accepted and acceptable racism, it seems.

I remember watching a British comedian who I find very funny, on TV once. I was staggered by his double standards. In his routine, he divulged stories about his youth and the people around him coming to terms with his (overt) homosexuality, and the challenges and prejudice he faced. Incredibly, the next section started with him picking a bloke in the front row who was ginger, and ripping into him publicly, taking the mickey out of an inherent appearance characteristic. It was bizarre.

We return to the Sorites paradox – how do we assign acceptability and taboo to subjects? What is fair game? Is it OK to mock people for their appearances? Does it depend on intention? How much should be made of context? If there is a sliding scale, how can the delineation be anything more than arbitrary?

The flipside is, if we don’t allow anyone to be “victim” of humour then we are straight-jacketing comedians, and creating a comedy culture which is impotent, dull and over-constrained.

What do we do? Do we let the comedian decide who is fair game or do we impose a big-brother ruling over what and who can be mocked? Is it all subjective, and is it not defined by whichever moral philosophy you adopt?

[This is a repost from way back when]

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...