The psychological danger of laughing at offensive jokes

Poking fun or punching down.
Poking fun or punching down.
Image: REUTERS/Paul Drinkwater/NBC Universal/Handout
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When Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes ceremony for the third time on Sunday (Jan. 10), the British comedian—known for his biting, off-color sense of humor—was up to his old tricks. Amidst gags about equal pay and hand jobs, Gervais managed to include multiple jokes aimed specifically at transgender individuals.

In the opening monologue, Gervais “deadnamed” Caitlyn Jenner (the practice of calling a person by a name they’ve disowned). He then immediately transitioning into an introduction of Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor that included a graphic description of his genitals. Later in the evening, Gervais feigned surprise—“It’s a dude?”—when introducing Eddie Redmayne, a male actor who plays a trans woman in the film, The Danish Girl.

Apparently anticipating potential blowback, Gervais took to Twitter before his performance to issue a warning of sorts: “Better get dressed and offend some humourless c**ts I suppose.” But are critics of Gervais really humorless? Are we, as has been suggested previously, just being too sensitive? Or is offense in this case warranted—possibly even required?

The short answer is: It’s complicated. Some responses to Gervais’ performance suggest it is never OK to make jokes about the transgender community. This point of view implies that there are certain topics that are too serious to joke about.

It’s a position supported in some ways by academic literature on humor. In particular, the “superiority thesis” suggests that humor is inherently malicious—that in order to find something funny, we’re necessarily laughing at the expense of some individual or group to whom we feel superior. The idea that cruelty lies at the heart of every joke is cynical, to say the least. But if we believe it to be true, it would be reasonable to consider jokes about vulnerable or disenfranchised groups forbidden.

However, we ought to resist the idea that some topics are strictly off-limits when it comes to funny business. There is a real risk involved in setting sensitive topics aside. Humor can provide us with opportunities to talk about topics that might otherwise be too uncomfortable to confront. Think of Tig Notaro on cancer, George Carlin on religion, and Chris Rock on race. While some of these contributions may be controversial, they certainly represent subversive attempts to jump-start a larger discussion about sensitive issues.

On balance, Gervais’ jokes were morally problematic–but not simply because he chose to poke fun at transgender issues. We should not declare trans humor off-limits; that would be both regressive and, potentially, a hindrance to progress.

However, the jokes told by Gervais serve no progressive or subversive function. They do not challenge the status quo. They do not attempt to create a space for thoughtful reflection. Instead, they merely repeat tired tropes. They are, in effect, the laziest kind of joke.

Perhaps Gervais’ biggest sin is that his humor broke the cardinal rule of comedy—don’t be boring. In the absence of any interesting commentary or insight, we’re forced to ask why it is that Gervais thought this topic was worth joking about. It seems the only answer is that he thinks being transgender is funny.

Gervais’ comedic failure has multiple consequences. Besides making the Golden Globes less enjoyable from an entertainment perspective, trotting out old tropes and stereotypes has a potentially insidious effect. While we would likely prefer to think of ourselves as critical thinkers, research shows the reality is less noble. Indeed, multiple studies suggest (pdf) we believe much of what we hear or read by default (pdf).

This means that when someone asserts a stereotype, we may passively believe what they said to be true. Rejecting what we hear requires more effort and concentration than simply accepting it as truth. What’s more, lazy jokes actually increase the danger that their audiences will form and hang onto passive beliefs. When jokes are challenging, there is a better chance they will engage our critical faculties.

The magic of comedy is its ability to surface and discuss serious topics in a more casual environment. Jokes relating to transgender issues have the potential to spark dialogue, highlight injustice, and challenge dated beliefs. We shouldn’t hastily endorse the idea that transgender humor is entirely off-limits. But we should expect more from comedians who choose to take it on.