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March 02, 2012

Limbaugh's Slut Joke: Politics, Humor, Provocation, & Taste

When David Letterman caught hell for making some crude joke about one of Palin's underraged daughters, he said something that I thought was pretty true. Paraphrased, he said something like, "These are jokes. I can't defend any of them."

What he meant was that most jokes -- certain all jokes at someone's expense -- are inherently three things: unfair, unwarranted, and untrue. Jokes like this are about hyperbole. Jokes conjure up, briefly, an alternate-reality world in which it is posited that absurd facts we know to be false in this world are actually true.

When David Letterman said whatever nasty thing he did about Bristol, or Willow -- I forget who -- of course none of it was actually true. The true facts of anything would not be the joke. The joke is always the departure from the facts.

All the late-night comedians' monlogues follow the same pattern every night: Brief digest of a news item, in one sentence. This digest is more or less true (if incomplete). The next part is the Fake Thing, the Made-Up Thing, the departure from reality. This is false, and, typically, it's mean.

If anyone thought that you weren't joking here -- if it were possible that your joke was interpreted to be a true account of the facts -- you could easily be hit by a defamation lawsuit, and you could very easily lose.

After all, you'd said something untrue and nasty. Without the special category of "joke" surrounding it, it would be libel.

So that's what Letterman said, and while I do not find him funny, I actually, to this day, find him somewhat self-reflective and admirably self-examining about things like this. He's lost his funny, long ago, and now makes mechanical jokes without humor or talent, but when you trap him on something like this he tends to say something reasonably smart.

He's right. You cannot defend any of these. You can't defend them as you could defend a straight statement. The straight statement you intended to be true. You probably think it is true. You probably also think it's fair.

But a joke? If someone asks you to "defend" it, you can't defend it in the same way -- except to the extent you say, "Look, it was just a joke."

In addition, there's a sneaky little cruelty in humor that it's not the fairest and most defensible jokes that are the funniest. Usually it's the nastiest, most indefensible stuff. Not always, of course. Some jokes just cross the line or lose the room.

But most of the time an absolutely safe, inoffensive-to-everyone joke is not going to get laughs.

Most of the time, if someone, somewhere, isn't upset by it -- or we could imagine they would be upset with it, if they heard it -- it's not going to be funny.

It might be cute. It might merit a smile. It might get a grinning nod of approval.

But the biggest laughs usually come, unfortunately, when you're being unfair and a little mean.

That's the nature of it. You can't defend any of these.

Regarding Rush's joke about Sondra Fluke being a slut: This joke didn't work for me and I wouldn't have told it. It's not funny. The emphasis of it really just seems to be finding a way to name-call her in the thin garbings of a "joke."

It's also in the "not worth it" category because you just know that whenever you touch the Holy Trinity of Race, Sex, or Religion your enemies are going to demagogue it to the ends of the earth.

That said, I tell a lot of jokes myself. Most of them are, in some way, unfair. Many of them do not land. Some of them are Not Worth It.

They say in medicine you're not a doctor until you kill your first patient. And you're not a humorist unless you've told not one but dozens of bad jokes that get crickets.

Just because a joke fails to land, or isn't worth it, or isn't much of a joke, you haven't committed a moral outrage. You haven't proven yourself a bad person or a callous person or a hateful person.

You are guilty of exactly what you're guilty of -- of telling a bad joke that doesn't land. And that's it.

It's not a hanging offense. Some jokes don't work. There is no way to tell jokes off the cuff, just riffing right off the foam of your outer brain, without telling a bad joke or going too far or whatever.

Well, there is a way: Don't tell jokes.

And many people don't joke around, especially not when being broadcast, so they never have to worry about that.

But if you are joking around a lot, you're going to do it. Probably pretty frequently.

There are two problems here: The first is the left's typical He Said A Dirty Word faux-outrage. Ridiculous. Grow the hell up, idiots.

You have Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a "c*nt" (no joke at all, except for the shock value of the word) and no one's getting on him for apologies. And when the right got on him for it, he doubled down, defended it, and did it some more. Plus, snarked at us for being so dumb.

And Rush can't call this girl adult woman a slut?

Grow up. The Never Ending Tantrum act is tedious.

I don't think the right way to defend this is to insist it's right or noble or proper to call this girl a slut. That just doesn't sound right to me.

I think the proper thing to say is "It's a joke, sometimes they're a little mean, sometimes they don't land, no one really gets hurt."

It's a joke. A bad joke? I think so. But so what? The difference between a good joke and a bad joke is not moral intent or the character of the joke-teller or his status as "enlightened" or a "hater."

The difference between a bad joke and a good joke is not whether it's mean or not.

Most jokes are mean-- including most of the good ones, too.

The difference between a good joke and a bad joke is merely something with no moral or character component at all -- craft. Whether you figured out the exact right way to frame the gag for maximum humor and maximum defensibility.

That's not a moral or a character issue. That's just an issue of joke construction and editing.

People make fun of the infamous opening, "It was a dark and stormy night," for being melodramatic and cliched. (Why? That has always struck me as a rather good opening sentence.)

But that sentence is never faulted for being immoral, or hateful, or displaying a low character.

The fault in that sentence (again, I sort of don't see the problem myself) is simply an intellectual sort of problem, of craft and composition and few other things which are entirely removed from considerations of morality or character altogether.

"Polishing" and "punching up" a sentence or gag are not questions of the heart. They are questions of craft, only, with no moral implications whatsoever.

I didn't like Rush Limbaugh's joke. So what? What we could say is that "He didn't spend enough time polishing that joke and getting it ready for the public." Fine, he should have spent some time working the joke.

But that doesn't mean he's a bad guy.

Here's the thing: I don't see how yet, but I know this to be true.

I know, if I think about it, and bother trying, I can write a series of jokes -- maybe a fake essay written by Sandra Fluke -- which will be far, far worse than merely calling her a "slut," and it will actually be funny.

So the problem is not calling her a slut. It can be done. I don't know how yet, but I know if I set to mind to it I will call her the most acrobatic, schwanz-slinging gutterslut the world has ever known and it will be funny.

And it will be funnier precisely because it is so terribly unfair and nasty.

Yes, cruelty is an inherent component of humor. A lot of people who don't sling jokes don't know this, or won't accept it, but anyone who spends a lot of time writing jokes knows that cruelty is, unfortunately, a basic widget in the humor toolbox.

The question is not about morality or character. It's about how many hours I'm willing to put into this to make the joke work.

Could I "defend" it? No, as Letterman said, you can't "defend" any of these things.

You can only say what comedians say when they've hurt someone: Look, I'm sorry, these are just jokes.

The Unstated Assumption That The Liberals Press and That Rush Won't Concede.

Some people you're "allowed" to be nasty about -- Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, etc.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out that if someone is on the right, the liberal media considers them fair game for nasty jokes.

Including Craig Kilborne's "Snipers Wanted" joke about Bush.

But certainly people don't usually make fun of heroes. I could, I guess, sling jokes at Lance Armstrong and his cancer, but most people would say: Uh, I don't get it. What are you trying to say? What's Lance Armstrong done to deserve this?

And this the thing: The left is conferring "hero" status on Sondra Fluke, and that means, like Lance Armstrong, she is just too much the Moral Wonder to joke about.

Barack Obama was similarly decreed off-limits by leftist comedians. In that case, they were saying "He's such a hero, I just can't think of any jokes I can tell about him."

What Rush is doing here -- which I do support -- is denying this assumption.

She's not a hero, nor does she get the special protective bubble of a hero.

I can think of funny things about her. She's kind of fat and her face looks like an unappealing shoe I wouldn't want to wear, for example.

But no, I don't concede she's Off-Limits, and neither should Rush.

She's not a hero. She's just a Chubster looking for some camera time. She also makes things up left and right. She's a bit of distaff Baron Munchausen.

As you can see, I really haven't spent much time myself thinking of the right jokes to tell about her.

But yes, when the right ones are thought of, damnit, they're going to get told, and repeated, and passed around.



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posted by Ace at 02:42 PM

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