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When humor crosses the line

Published: February 28, 2013
Section: Opinions


Like millions of other Americans, I watched the Academy Awards on Sunday night. Having been brought up in a family that placed “Entertainment Weekly” in the same magazine pile as “Time,” I grew up well-versed in movies and other popular culture along with the news of the day. Watching the Oscars is something of a holdover from my younger days, when I used to gather around with my entire family to cheer on the movies I liked. This time, I looked forward to doing the same with good friends and good takeout.

I knew that Seth Macfarlane was hosting and I was interested to see the mix of eccentricity, hilarity and outrageousness he would add to, what had been in prior years, a painfully boring show. My expectations centered around a mix between the outlandish humor of “Family Guy” and the more conventionally unobtrusive humor that had become the hallmark of the Academy Awards. I guessed that Seth Macfarlane would take the Jon Stewart approach, i.e. nothing that went too far. This impression lasted all of three minutes into the show, at which point, Macfarlane launched into a full out Broadway-ized ode to actresses’ buxom upper halves bared on the silver screen.

This initial foray struck me as juvenile, although not terribly offensive. I thought that here was the predictable “Family Guy” style of humor and that the rest of the show would run smoother. One could imagine my surprise, then, when this number turned out to be the tenor of Macfarlane’s performance. What followed were three and a half hours peppered with misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic jokes. After the Academy finally wrapped up the ceremony by atoning for its egregious snub of Ben Affleck for best director by awarding “Argo” best picture, I went to sleep rather disappointed by the ceremony.

This all led me to ponder where the bright line should stand in regard to humor: When should society condemn a joke? I personally grant a fair amount of leniency to comedians in regard to content. I believe that one of their most important functions in society is to push the boundaries of good taste in order to further societal discourse and test societal mores. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin all helped push the boundaries of acceptable dialogue in society. This change, overall, helped pave the way for a more progressive society. For example, George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” did more for free speech in America than most lawyers do during their entire lifetimes.

Often, these comedians used language and or ideas that would have been considered offensive at the time in order to make their points. In that context, I think that offensive language should be publicly tolerable. Additionally, in general, I am a large proponent of free speech. I feel that the police power of the state is a terrible weapon and ought to be used only when absolutely necessary to protect society or to protect others from direct harm. Yet, I do feel that the boundaries of good taste must be drawn somewhere.

It may be legal to make a blatantly homophobic joke on television in front of millions of people, but you probably should not try to do so unless you are making some sort of deeper point. Macfarlane’s problem was that he really was not making any deeper point or at least not one that I (or apparently any other critics) could readily identify. In the end, the jokes seemed tired, pointlessly offensive and, at times, just plain boring. Society as a whole is no better off for having to hear yet another joke about Jewish people in Hollywood. If anything, these jokes only serve to entrench stereotypes that should have disappeared long ago. Thus, insofar as these jokes are actively harmful in promoting these stereotypes and have no redeeming value, they merit condemnation.

The next day, I woke up to find that most of the world had taken a similar tack on Macfarlane’s performance. I don’t think that his performance was the most offensive thing that took place in the past week—that honor goes to “The Onion” for calling a nine-year-old a word that I cannot print (which, in all fairness, they dutifully apologized for)—but it struck me as the embers of a dying set of tropes. I would argue that the reaction to this event, including social networks and the media at large, shows that this form of tired, harmful humor is starting to peter out in terms of popularity.

This is an encouraging sign. There is no way to end these stereotypes but to actively reject them as a society. Otherwise, they will continue to perpetuate themselves. I think that comedians like Macfarlane are well-meaning and simply want to make people laugh. If society shows that it is not laughing, he and other comedians like him will move on from these archaic tropes. Hopefully, this reaction will help continue to spur society in the right direction.