Reorienting the Energy of A Joke

In class on Friday, Alex touched upon very briefly about reorienting the energy of a joke. He discussed how sometimes you can joke about a certain topic, but the result of making such a joke is different than you’d expect. He used an example of making a rape joke, but instead of having the joke literally being about rape, the punchline was a complaint about how cheap the alcohol tasted. In a somewhat roundabout way, this reminded me of an idea I am been toying with for a while.

Something very interesting to me is how malleable jokes can be in their meaning. Not only is humor incredibly subjective to taste, as we’ve been discussing, but the meaning of some jokes can be widely interpreted. This is where I see a connection back to what Alex said about reorienting the energy of a joke. In other words,  you are reorienting how you react and feel about the joke.  A joke about genocide could be seen in bad taste. However, it could also been seen some sort of social commentary.

If you are familiar, considering some of Louis CK’s standup. Louis’s misanthropic comedy leaves little room for political correctness. At a simple glance, one may find many of his bits to be “problematic”. I would argue, however, that Louis’s somewhat vulgar comedy aims at doing something much more than trying to offend. The butt is his jokes is not the victim but rather himself or society for having such views. He brings up fantastic social commentary that makes you consider your own views. His lack of political correctness is not thrown in to be edgy or raunchy, but rather to highlight the strangeness of our own society.

In the wake of controversy last year regarding multiple rape jokes Daniel Tosh, Jezebel published a fairly interesting article about “how to make a rape joke”. The article mentions this example from Louis CK: “I’m not condoning rape, obviously—you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” So let’s look at this joke a little bit. It’s a joke about rape. Based on societal standards, we’ve been taught to believe that this is not exactly PC (which is another topic entirely and a difficult one at that). But the butt of the joke is not the victim but rather the rapist. Louis is highlighting how flawed the logical of rapists can be. This is where the humor comes from. At first glance, any joke about rape is, in fact, a “rape joke”. But this joke is not making light of rape but instead shedding light on rape. Louis CK is reorienting the energy of a “rape joke”. You do not have to like this joke. You still may be offended and still may think rape is always a topic you cannot joke about. That brings us back to that malleable quality of meaning. To you, this joke could mean Louis CK is triggering any potential victims in the audience, he is trying too hard to be edgy, etc. But to me, Louis CK is doing something he is a master at: using comedy to make you consider why you are laughing in the first place.

Although I could pontificate about Louis CK and rape joke policing, that was not the original intention of this post. I actually wanted to make this post to bring to your attention two fantastic podcast interviews with Bo Burnham which discuss a little about reorienting energy in jokes. Bo Burnham is best known for his internet-fueled rise to stardom and his quick wordplay in his musical comedy, but these podcasts were, in my opinion, very enlightening about Burnham’s own personal intentions with his comedy. Burnham discusses his childhood, fitting in in high school, and pressures he feels in the comedy community for being a young star who didn’t quite pay his dues. But most interestingly, in both interviews, Burnham brings up his thoughts about sexuality. Burnham’s sexuality is often questioned. Although he is a distinctly straight male, Burnham says that part of his stage persona includes leaving his sexuality up to question. He makes many jokes about sucking dicks and enjoying being fucked with strap-ons on stage. Often, he is just generally flamboyant. Although many might interpret these jokes as homophobic, in the podcasts Bo argues the opposite. Rather, he is trying to enforce the idea that it does not matter if he is gay or straight, just that he is a good comedian. His jokes about homosexuality bring homosexuality into public discussion in a way that is not hostile. Burnham explains that he hopes that in his own attempts to bring a more effeminate attitude towards his act, he is showing others that it is okay to be gay or effeminate, especially in the comedy world.

These jokes can be read at homophobic, for sure. But to me it is very interesting what Burnham’s intention is. This just reinforces what I mentioned before, about how so much of the meaning of the joke can lay in why you are laughing. One may laugh at Burnham’s gay jokes because of their own homophobic feelings. That is, they are laughing AT Bo. I know this is a very difficult subject and many would argue that Burnham is actually just enforcing bullying and stereotyping, but I think it’s really worth listening to what he has to say on his reasoning for such jokes. To me, Burnham’s claims sound a lot like what Alex mentioned: Burnham is trying to reorient the energy around such jokes.  I’d be interesting in hearing other people’s thoughts on this, as comments I’ve read on the podcasts seemed very mixed.

Burnham also mentions guilty he has regarding offensive jokes he has made. Being such a young comedian, he wrote some of his material with a sort of cruel, teenage boy humor. One of his much older songs entitled “The Perfect Woman” is about Helen Keller and is just a serious of deaf jokes. Burnham remarks that this sort of comedy is the type that is hurtful. It encourages you to laugh at deaf people. Burnham has expressed guilt multiple times over this song, explaining that it hurts him to know that someone could use such a song to bully a deaf girl at school or otherwise. This admission is important because it does show the somewhat hostile nature of comedy. Burnham admits to being a kid who was just trying to be edgy. This song, like Louis CK’s material, is far from politically correct but in a much different way than Louis’s. Louis’s comedy does not aim at hostility or mocking.

On one podcast, Burnham specifically mentions a joke he makes on stage. Although I cannot remember the exact joke, it had something to do with strap-ons. Burnham explains how following this joke, he always calls out the guys in the audience (with their girlfriends) who do not laugh and said “you blew it”. He then explains to them that if the boyfriend was comfortable with homosexuality, he would have laughed at the joke. Instead, the boy outted himself as homophobic by seeming uncomfortable by the joke and not laughing. This brings up an interesting point…is it our laughter (or lack thereof) that gives the joke its true power? Are Louis CK’s jokes meaningful and influential to me because I laugh at them? Are they hurtful to someone else because someone else does not? Laughter fuels the joke, of course, and in doing so also fuels its meaning.

I apologize if this post got a little tangential at points.  If you are interested in learning more about this, check out the attached episode of The Nerdist’s “You Made It Weird” with Pete Holmes and Bo Burnham. The episode of WTF With Marc Maron on featuring Bo Burnham is also fantastic, although I think it’s only available if you purchase the episode on iTunes. Burnham also spends a great deal of both podcasts discussing the current gender gap in comedy, something brought up on the first day of class when the syllabus included mostly male comedians. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

Also attached is the previously mentioned Jeezel article “How to Make a Rape Joke” and one of Burnham’s songs Words, Words, Words which includes some delightful wordplay reminiscent of some jokes forms Freud discusses.


You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes and Bo Burnham:

WTF with Marc Marcon featuring Bo Burnham (unfortunately it is for premium users only, which I would recommend because WTF will change your life, maybe)

Jezebel Article:

Words Words Words:


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