I was recently reminded of an email I received at work a few years ago. It was very controversial, a laundry list of "politically incorrect" jokes and one-liners. (No examples included herein, lest I send the wrong message.) A coworker had sent it from his company email account, and it nearly got him fired. It even caused problems for the recipients, necessitating a conversation with our managers about "appropriate use of company resources," as if we had any control over what people sent to us.
As someone who loves a good laugh, this question has always fascinated me: What really makes a joke OK for some people to tell, but not others?
For the record, I've made more than a few off-color jokes in my day. I've probably told jokes about every ethnic group, religion, lifestyle, nationality, and hair color you can think of. I've justified this, when compelled to do so, by expressing my honest belief that these jokes are about stereotypes, not people. I mean, how many blonds do you know who really fit the stereotype in blond jokes? In fact, those jokes aren't really about blond people at all; they're about people who don't readily grasp the obvious. But, we use blonds as the vehicle because it's easy, it's convenient, and because no one wants to start a joke by saying, "OK, three vapid, unobservant, clueless people walk into a bar..."
Having said that, I do understand that not every joke can be told by everyone, and sometimes the way a joke is told is more important than the punchline. Sure, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle can get away with "the 'n' word" in their stand-up routines, but I'm pretty sure Michael Richards will tell you that not everyone can. Furthermore, even Rock and Chappelle may have to restrain themselves in certain situations, and many people believe they shouldn't use that word, either. (This is me raising my hand.)
Still other jokes are just plain contemptible by virtue of their subject matter. As a Jew, I do not mind the jokes about why my ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years, or how copper wire was invented, or how we differ from canoes. (Eventually, you know the canoe will tip. Funny!) However, if you start to tell me the difference between a Jew and a pizza, I will inform you that you'd best not finish that one in my presence.
From a purely logical perspective, it stands to reason that any joke which might be offensive should simply not be told at all. But, how many brilliant comedians would never have had a chance if everyone followed this rule? Pryor, Carlin, Radner, Bruce, Izzard, Lopez, Mason, - so many legendary stand-up philosophers have made us think and laugh by creating brilliant material which poked fun at all sorts of stereotypes, and refused to apologize for it. (By the way, if you know where I got the term "stand-up philosopher," I hereby DEFY you to deny that you've laughed out loud at stereotypical, controversial, provocative humor!)
At the end of the day, we aren't really talking about comedy, per se. Underneath it all, this is really about language and the amazing, boundless power of words. I've personally watched someone fell a budding friendship in a split second, just by making an untimely, off-color joke. I've also seen people who are otherwise kind and forgiving write someone off completely because of a single, poorly-chosen attempt at humor. On the other hand, as we all know, a few heartfelt, simple words can help to ease the deepest suffering, if only for a little while. Words are amazing.
We all have our "hot buttons," subjects about which we cannot or will not laugh; but who among us has not said something they later regretted, something that sounded witty and sharp in their head, but died gasping on the floor once it escaped into the world?
For people like me who love to dissect and analyze words, it is just too easy to pick apart a joke or a quip that was probably benign to begin with, and find fault with it. It can also be difficult to avoid assigning a negative value judgment to the person who said it which they may not fully deserve. I try not to do this, but know I fail all too often.
Here's what I hope to teach my children as they grow up: When you put words out there, written or spoken, be careful what they say about you. Once you set them free, "how you meant them" becomes irrelevant. You forever own them in whatever context they are taken. It's scary, it's unfair, but it's true. More importantly, though, you must never allow this harsh reality to prevent you from creating words - beautiful, eloquent, controversial, meaningful words. They will never fail you, so long as you treat them with the respect and reverence that they deserve.
Of course, the other side of that coin is not to judge others too harshly or too quickly for their own words.