If humor is a reflection of our society, it is hardly surprising that it also seems marbled with lines of fracture: can we no longer laugh at anything? Should we really laugh at everything? This week, these questions stirred the editors of the Time, after the publication of a parody video deemed sassy and funny for some, hurtful, even transphobic for others.
Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia … How are the boundaries of laughter redrawn through the ages, and under the influence of which socio-political currents? For Time, the Quebecer Emmanuel Choquette *, member of the Observatory of humor, discusses the issues of laughter over time.
Le Temps: How is humor constructed, and how is it linked to societal changes?
Emmanuel Choquette: There are several factors, which must be considered in their historical context. Humor works on the basis of references. The humorous authors will work to target this referent: what can make people react, but can be collectively acceptable, at the time of the joke? This line is fine and varies a lot over time: it depends, on the one hand, on the comedians themselves, who start from their own reality. Their point of view is situated and they must be aware of it. They then confront the second element: the perception of this humor in the public space. Which groups rely on which referents to receive the joke? Finally, the third element, more global still: where is the company, whose contours are themselves shifting? What asymmetry of power between different groups is highlighted from a societal point of view? Anti-Semitic or racist jokes did not shock many people yesterday, they shock today. Which ones will seem inconceivable tomorrow?
How to explain this gap in reading the world, reference and therefore what is “funny” or not?
Certain questions, without being new, have in recent years become very visible in the public space, in particular thanks to the diversity of points of view offered by access to social networks – for example questions of racism, sexism, transphobia or homophobia. The sensitivity is such in relation to these questions that making it an object of laughter can obviously cause polarization. But more interesting still: at the heart of this incomprehension is for me the very place that our society gives to humor. The expression “it’s just a joke” is questioned. We question the notion of the scope of humor: we begin to take humor seriously and to judge it political.
When do you think humor got “more serious”?
The advent of digital media and platforms in the 2000s was probably a turning point. From there, we were confronted with several types of humorous speeches, as well as a greater diversity, vector of awareness, all this being accompanied by instantaneous and increasingly strong reactions. Obviously, the jokes you can make bother the ones you didn’t hear before …
Do the younger generations seem more easily “offended” to you?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. We cannot explain or justify reactions only with this generational reading grid, it is also a risk to consider generations as a homogeneous group. I think, on the other hand, that societies have become more complex. Today there is a questioning, a greater understanding of our complexity as social beings, to which “young people”, or let’s say some young people, are perhaps more sensitive.
How has this translated into the humorous field in recent decades?
We begin to analyze the fact that words and speeches participate in the construction of what we are. The fights for equality are a good example: for much of the twentieth century, we made jokes about women, and today we have come to admit that these jokes participate in the construction of what is a woman in public space. This is what is changing. We evolve, we question ourselves and we see that the words and the remarks, the way of defining people through humor offer a reading grid that builds our reality. Same thing about homosexuality: there was a taboo, it was badly perceived, and as we accept these realities in the public space, we admit that making fun of it contributes to oppression. The new generations are perhaps reflecting more on these questions, whereas this was understood in a more binary way in the past.
The risk that “we can no longer laugh at anything” seems real to some. What do you think?
First, we laugh at a lot of things today, actually. There have never been so many comedians, the diversity is growing, we read a lot more forums, video clips on the internet… It’s like that everywhere. Deuzio, we always question the subjects that are discussed and the way in which we can approach them: the debate takes place. Of course, the oppositions are strong, because they are made more audible by the networks. But approval via the support provided by the networks also exists.
What is the unifying humor due to, which would neither be bland nor censored, and would help to “make society”?
The question of censorship is an interesting one. The frequent reaction of contested comedians is to say: “If we can no longer laugh at this, we are no longer free.” However, in my opinion, the point is exaggerated. The fact of no longer being able to make sexist or homophobic jokes does not call into question freedom of expression. The times present an interesting challenge for comedians: how to make fun of questions as delicate as those which emerge on gender, sexual orientation, etc.? This is the “benign violation” theory in humor: I’m going to slash what is socially acceptable, and trust me, you’ll laugh at it. It is a vector of living together, but it requires immense finesse …
* Author of “Humor et Politique” (PUL, 2015)