Probably a year or so ago, I was in a company-wide meeting at Soyokaze where the CEO made a joke about how management screws up and it’s the employees that have to work late and put it all back together ha ha ha. It was intended as self-deprecating humor though it didn’t get the laughter that he was looking for. I don’t even remember the precise joke, but I remember writing a little note on my pad and passing it to my coworker Pat that read:

“Sharp humor is less funny to those doing the bleeding.”

What I meant by that was that if a joke is being made about something that is intrinsically unfunny to you it doesn’t matter if you’re not the intended target of the joke (if the joke is made by someone that isn’t bleeding).

I was thinking about this the other day when I was watching a movie. The film was a harrowing drama about a character being stalked and terrorized by an obsessive ex-lover wherein he flees for his life with his life in peril at every step. Well, okay, it actually wasn’t a drama, it was a comedy. The movie was My Super Ex-Girlfriend. And it was quite funny.

Nonetheless, the thought occurred to me as Uma Thurmon dropped a shark in Luke Wilson’s living room that it shouldn’t be funny to have a guy being terrorized by a vindictive ex and that if the genders were reversed the movie never would have been made. Well, maybe as a Lifetime Movie or something starring Julia Roberts, but not as a comedy. It wouldn’t be the slightest bit funny.

Then of course I asked myself “Why not?” After all, it makes no real pretense of realism. No one would watch the movie and think “Gosh, I wonder if everyone will make it out of this okay!” It’s a light comedy and obviously so from the outset. But the comedy only works if the victim is male and the opposite’s redemption at the end could only take place with a female character. In any other case, it would be lambasted as making light of the serious issue of domestic violence.

That’s what reminded me of my little note at the Soyokaze meeting. That kind of humor only works at an emotional distance. Only if you feel safe and it doesn’t bring to mind some traumatic experience. Men don’t generally have a whole lot to fear from violent women, so we can laugh. Women can laugh too because the victim in the movie is male. So it works.

It reminds me of a thread on Bobvis about a rape joke. Dizzy’s reaction to the joke and to anyone that would forward the joke (or find it funny) was fierce. My position was that you can’t help what you find funny, but you can help what tasteless jokes you pass along. Anyway, Dizzy made what I thought was a strange comment about how men wouldn’t laugh at a rape joke if involved a man getting raped in prison.

In fact, many such jokes are told. At least two comedians I know of (Chris Rock and Ron White) have routines that involve prison rape and “federal-pound-me-in-the-ass prison” was an ongoing joke in Office Space. So I commented that prison rape isn’t nearly as off-limits generally because there is this (misguided) sense that the victims have it coming. But Spungen made what I thought was a much better point:

Guys would think [a joke about prison rape or a man getting raped by many women] was hilarious, because it never happens. Or at least, seldom enough that they never worry about it. Guys will even joke about homosexual rape, because they just don’t worry about it.

Guys can afford to keep a distance from the subject material because it’s something that we so seldom have to worry about. I actually did have a possibly dangerous ex-girlfriend at one point and even feared for my (and Evangeline’s and later Clancy’s) safety at least a little, but it was this weird freak thing (or this thing with this weird freak) and so once that passed that was the last I would ever have to think about it. Don’t have to worry about my friends, either. May have to worry about my female friends, though, which is why a My Super Ex-Boyfriend movie would be less funny even to me.

Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

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4 Responses to Bleeding Humor

  1. Webmaster says:

    1: Spungen’s wrong about her “it never happens” crack about men being raped by women. It does indeed happen. The problem is managing to report it in a society that’s been told that rape “always” has a man as the aggressor.

    2: Being a current target of harassment by a (female) ex, and having multiple friends who’ve been targeted as well and who have advised me that her behavior is showing itself more and more unstable and that they fear she could indeed get violent (which would get even more awkward should I have to defend myself, given that I’ve got 6 inches of height and probably 80 pounds more muscle than she does, and would have to manage to incapacitate her without bruising in order to avoid charges that I attacked her instead)… that’s probably one of the reasons I’ve never watched the movie you mention.

  2. Peter says:

    Even aside from rape jokes, it’s always been my impression that women don’t much like laughing at themselves. Self-depricating humor is largely a male thing.

  3. David Alexander says:

    In an earlier time, I used to make various references to rape and prison for comedic purposes, but I stopped doing so once my older brother went to prison several years ago…

  4. trumwill says:

    Web correct that men are raped, but Spungen is correct that it is rare enough that it’s not something that men generally have to worry about. Not remotely to the extent that women do, anyway.

    I’m not sure how correct Peter is about women’s inability to laugh at themselves. I think that it depends on the nature of the joke as much as anything. I might be able to agree that they don’t ham it up like men do, but I think that men are generally speaking under fewer social constraints so there’s less of the awkwardness.

    I have made or participated in a lot of jokes that are in extremely poor taste. I suspect that the closer I was to the types of tragedies I’ve exploited for humor, the less funny I’d consider them.

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