Can anything be funny, or are some things off limits?
Years ago comedian David Brenner commented that humor trumps everything. As much as I like Brenner’s work, he is wrong. You have to know your audience. Some things are funny, thought-provoking, and honest to some people while causing tears, anger, and embarrassment to others.
Recently I posted a story about how I handled an episode in my life when I was accused of using an ethnic epithet. My accusers were wrong. Their motive was clearly to make an issue where there was none. I referred to them as “Amos and Andy” to their faces. Amos and Andy were two black characters from a radio and TV program by the same name who were always scheming mischief.
A reader was offended. I defended myself. In one sense there was a serious side to my remark, in another sense there was a humorous side to my remark, and yet in another there was an offensive sense to my remark.
Certainly you can’t please everyone, nevertheless if someone is offended there should be some sort of acknowledgment and an apology for causing offense. (That was an apology.) Does that mean such a reference should never be used again? Certainly not. You merely acknowledge and move on. You don’t stop dancing because just one person in the room doesn’t like the way you dance.
Recently there is a big hubbub about a clown at a rodeo wearing a mask of President Obama. Some have taken offense. They fired the clown. That’s humorous in itself; who fires a clown?
Have we not heard of political cartoonists? Saturday Night Live has the highest ratings when they poke fun at the President. George Bush (the elder) invited Dana Carvey to the White House, because he liked his imitations of him. No one found them offensive.
The clown in a rodeo is the hero. He saves the lives of contestants from Brahma bulls and bucking mustangs. What is a more fitting symbol than the President to save lives?
Gilbert Gottfried loses his gig as the AFLAC duck’s voice because of a remark he thought was funny. Alec Baldwin makes offensive remarks about homosexuals in earnest that might end the career of some and life goes on for him.
I recall asking a black man why a black man can tell black jokes and black people laugh, but when a white person tells the same joke black people are offended. My answer to the question was that it is what is in the mind of the one telling the joke, it is what the audience feels he is thinking. His answer surprised me; “If you are proud of who you are no one can offend you.”
There are clearly areas that are simply not funny and inappropriate. Much depends on the context, audience, and intent. It is an area where there are no set rules, you just kind of know it when you hear it or say it. I always say people would hardly recognize me without my foot in my mouth.