What Sort of Humour is Off-Limits?

Congratulations! Someone is complaining on the Internet about how their freedom of speech is being restricted by the PC Brigade, and you’ve decided that it’s vitally necessary to the health of the body politic that you immediately offer your opinion. Before you click too quickly on your bookmark to the Wikipedia page of “List of Logical Fallacies”, here’s a how-to guide on how to talk about being funny, without coming across as the kind of person who cyber-bullies high schoolers.

What makes me qualified to write a guide on being funny? Nothing, really – the only thing more depressing than being a professional comedian is being an aspiring comedian. (Like those who describe their occupations as “Travellers” or “Students of the World”, you can file the direction my life has taken under “Reasons My Working Class Mother Doubts the Value of a University Education”). I make people laugh on the internet and in real-life, and I did a five minute comedy set at the O-Week Comedy Gala that was lauded as “not exactly terrible” and”‘wow I didn’t even feel embarrassed for you”.

Not only am I an aspiring comedian, I’m also an aspiring comedienne: a woman who makes jokes that are unapologetically feminist. So while it’s definitely true that I’m an uptight bitch on a crusade against dank memes, laughter and bros just bein’ bros, the thing about being “aspiring” is that I also spend a lot of my time thinking about what makes things funny.

On the internet, there’s a lot of complaining when people are called out on using humour in a way that degrades women or minorities. Arguments often swing between two key points: “nothing is sacred, we should be able to joke about anything” and “it’s just a joke, it doesn’t mean anything in real life”. A combination of these two points and heartfelt railings against restriction of free speech (“stop censoring me by not finding my jokes funny!!!!!!!”) form the basis of any trash Internet human’s argument against the 21st century bogeyman of ~~~Political Correctness~~~.

I find the “nothing is sacred” argument for making jokes about whatever you damn well please interesting, because in my own life, humour has always been a source of strength in coming to terms with the terrible things that have happened to me. The details are boring, but I have faced many incidents of sexual violence and harassment of the kind that all women face. My own “edgy” sense of humour is how some of my favourite comedians deal with the “taboo” issue of rape. Ever Mainard, a female comedian from Chicago, has a set where she details the sort of game show women might play to find out when and where they’re going to experience “their rape” – an event that every woman anticipates. It’s a dark set, and it’s also really fucking funny. Mainard’s style of comedy inspired my own five minutes at the O-Week Comedy Gala, where I made jokes about emotionally manipulative fuckboiz and unsolicited dick pics – and it went over well. But the reason it went over well was because the butt of each of my jokes was always the men who do bad things to women.

If you make a joke and the butt of your joke is a person who is often the victim of a crime based on who they are, I’m going to reserve my human right to not laugh at your joke. I was once at a comedy night where the male host, in an extended monologue about his dating escapades, described Tinder as an “app for women to get free meals”.

On the way back from the ER, after having my eyes surgically unrolled, my friend commented to me, “actually – being a woman on Tinder is a lot less like ‘oooh can I get a free meal out of this sucker’ and more like ‘are you the kind of guy who is gonna rape me and post it on Facebook?’”. Maybe that’s an unfair generalisation of all men on Tinder. Maybe you’ve never had to counsel a friend who was raped by a guy she met on Tinder. We all bring our own perspectives.

Men who use rape as a punchline often don’t understand the power of the weapon that they are wielding, and victims of sex crimes end up bearing the brunt of it. When they make jokes about a group that wields less power in society, their humour isn’t so much clever as it is bullying. And only those without a backbone of their own find bullies funny. The intelligent deployment of humour is a powerful tool for highlighting the hypocrisies of our society – use it wisely.