The Rules of Comedy

There’s a debate on the internet right now that goes something like this:

“Real/good satire always punches up. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”


“Nothing is sacred, the only rule of comedy is to be funny.”

And let me tell you something that might shock a lot of people: I agree with the second sentiment. The thing is, though, that most of the people bandying it about are also completely in the wrong. They’re shouting something that is both true and completely irrelevant to the argument being made.

The rules of crossing a crowded subway station don’t say anything about not punching people in the face as you slide between them. I’ve never been to dental school, but I’m pretty sure there’s not a required course requiring not taking the dental tools and jamming them in patient’s ears.  And yes, there is no such thing as a rule of comedy that requires you to be a fundamentally decent human being while you’re doing it, but comedy is not special. We don’t need special rules of decency that only apply when comedy is done because the normal rules are not in abeyance.

“But comedy is about transgressing! Comedy is about pushing boundaries!”

Really? Really? You told me a minute ago that comedy is about being funny. Some of the greatest comedians in memory pushed boundaries, and yes, that’s part of how they became both great and memorable: because they managed to do something new, because they said something that someone else wouldn’t.

But they also had to be funny.

And just because someone said something no one else would and it was funny, this doesn’t make the act of saying something no one else would funny. Or to put it another way: the winner of a marathon is the first person across a particular line. This doesn’t mean you can pick any line, step across it, and declare yourself a marathon winner. It’s not the line-crossing that makes it a marathon; it’s the 26 miles and change in front of that line that makes it a marathon. No marathon, no winner.

Note that you also can’t win a marathon by following on the heels of the person who crossed the line in front of you. That race is already won.

So crossing lines isn’t in itself funny.

“There are no sacred cows” was no excuse for The Onion to “humorously” ask if Quvenzhané Wallis was “kind of a c***” when she, at the age of all of nine years old, was up for her first Oscar. It was not against the rules of comedy to talk about a child like that; it was against the rules of decency. Whether the joke was really about skewering the journalists covering the fashion/media and how we treat female celebrities and whether the joke worked better when directed at the most adorable and innocent person on the red carpet, as at least one self-described feminist claimed, doesn’t matter.

I’ll cede both those points. All they prove is that the comedians in question saw it as acceptable to use Quvenzhané’s innocence as a blunt instrument to bludgeon their chosen target, heedless of the harm done to her in the process.

Again, the problem isn’t that a rule of comedy was breached. It’s that a rule of decency—and what should be a rule of engagement for all media, satirical or otherwise—was breached. And the people who pointed out racism have a point. No, there wasn’t some white nine-year-old darling on the red carpet who was passed over so they could hit her, but still: would they have been so blasé about using a white girl in that way?

Of course, it’s not this two year old incident that prompted this post. I started with an older anecdote in order to show a pattern.

Recently, Difficult People, a show produced for Hulu by Amy Poehler, used Blue Ivy Carter (daughter of Beyoncé and Jay Z) as the prop for a punchline. I’m not going to repeat the joke. The defense of it that goes beyond “COMEDY: NO RULES, JUST RIGHT” runs that the character who makes it is supposed to be “hard to like” and the show shows people responding to it appropriately.

But none of that changes the fact that they—the real life people responsible for the show—made it.

They actually did use a real three-year-old girl for a joke about pedophilia and fetishes.

“What were they supposed to do? They needed a tasteless, awful joke.”

So? Even if your point is to show horrible people being horrible, invoking a real three-year-old person is not fictional horribleness. They could have made someone up. They could have altered the joke to be generic. If the point was just that the joke was too horrible to be defended, they could have simply not told the audience what the joke was that was so horrible. There aren’t a lot of rules for comedy, but if the point of the “joke” was actually to horrify the audience, we shouldn’t be asking about rules of comedy but rules of horror, and here’s one straight from Stephen King: no horror lurking unseen behind a door can be as horrible as what we imagine when the door is closed .

Cut away. Show people’s reactions. Let the real life audience try to imagine what could be so terrible.

The only reason to let the real-life audience hear the joke is if you want them to laugh at it, and at that point it’s no longer a “fictitious” joke but an actual joke, which you have performed for the amusement of others.

I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but if there was a way to have an impartial all-knowing entity adjudicate it without relying on people’s recollections and alibis, I’d bet $5 or $10 someone wrote the joke, thought it was hilarious/clever but impossible to use, and then looked for an excuse to put it in something anyway just to get it out there.

Because that’s the only reason to actually put an actual joke out there instead of leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination: because you want it to be heard. Some humor does have a point beyond itself, which is what the “punching up” people are talking about. But the world did not need to hear this joke as much as someone needed it to be heard.

As for the response? Well, in the show, the line in question appears as a tweet the main character makes, which sets off a social media backlash. So everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing. They wrote a joke that they knew to be the sort of thing that people have a hard time living down, and they put it out there, and now they’re having a hard time living it down.

Who’s fault is this, exactly?

The same people going around saying “There’s no rule of comedy that says they can’t.” like to tell people to “Grow up!” You know what grown-ups do? They accept the consequences of their actions. Thinking “I WAS JOKING IT WAS A JOKE LIGHTEN UP!” eliminates the action is not a mature reaction.

I’m not speaking much to the racial element of this because that’s not my wheelhouse. Other people have done that better and are continuing to do it.

But I know a thing or two about funny.

And I can tell you that no, there’s not a “rule of comedy” that says it’s wrong to tell jokes about sexual predation on real-life toddlers.

There doesn’t need to be.

It’s wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with funny.