Sarah Silverman: joked about rape

Can jokes in terrible taste ever be funny?

Wisecracks is clearly the work of an academic philosopher adept at teasing out fine distinctions between “offenses” and “harms”


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It might sound depressing to write “a book about humor whilst living through a cancer diagnosis, major surgery and a global pandemic”. Yet David Shoemaker calls it “the most joyful experience of my academic life”. Wisecracks is clearly the work of an academic philosopher adept at teasing out fine distinctions between “offenses” and “harms” or between “radical subjectivist, intersubjectivist and objectivist theories of the funny”. Fortunately, it is also lively, provocative and often very amusing in its determination to challenge many contemporary pieties. 

Shoemaker focuses not on jokes but on “the banter, teasing, mockery, prankery, taking the piss, leg-pulling, joshing and quippery” which enliven so many families and friendship groups. Since pranks, for example, involve deliberate deception, such humour undoubtedly raises moral issues, so he describes the book as an unusual “kind of anger management training course”, which “counsel[s] people … to see some moral violations as worthy of more amusement than they are ordinarily disposed to feel. In particular, people should be less angered and more amused than they may otherwise be by funny wisecracks involving … deception, mockery and stereotyping.” 

Whilst mockery can be culpably cruel and often deserves to be condemned, Shoemaker notes, it can also “serve to bond those who engage in it”, work as “a kind of initiation rite and act as “a genuine expression of affection amongst people who otherwise have trouble expressing affection”. This leads him to some uncomfortable questions about whether declaring a group such as the disabled “beyond mockery” can’t itself act as a form of exclusion. 

He also wrestles with the fact that “many psychologists have suggested that [Donald] Trump himself might have a psychological disorder, malignant narcissism, which they consider to be a disability”. Surely we should still be allowed to laugh at him? 

Wisecracks: Humor and Morality in Everyday Life, David Shoemaker (University of Chicago Press, £20)

The book mounts a similar argument about humour drawing on racial and sexual stereotypes. This always runs the risk of confirming bigots in their prejudices, Shoemaker admits, but it can also remind the rest of us about “the idiocy of racism and sexism — by exposing and caricaturing what dumb or bad people occasionally believe about their fellows — and so keep us vigilant ourselves in not buying into those stereotypes”. 

More generally, he contests the now common but “priggish” (or “politically correct”) notion that humour which raises moral concerns is, by definition, not funny. After all, he points out, the obvious corollary that “praiseworthy morality always enhances the funniness of a joke” is certainly not true: “Adding a denunciation of climate change to a joke about cow farts won’t make it any funnier (just odder).”

Arguments against forms of humour which “punch down”, Shoemaker claims, are fundamentally incoherent, since “there’s just no clear ideology-free way of determining who’s ‘up’ and who’s ‘down’”. Evangelical Christians have a pretty low status within many universities; does this mean that an academic making fun of them is offensively “punching down”? Does the fact that Neo-Nazis are widely “despised and marginalized” mean they should be spared our mockery?

In humour, nothing should be off limits. Responding to the “oft-heard saying” that there is “nothing funny about rape”, Shoemaker cites Sarah Silverman’s joke “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl”, Joan Rivers’ story about the “would-be rapist” who “asked her if they could just be friends” — and even a comedy musical revue called Rape Victims Are Horny Too, devised by rape survivors as a salutary reminder that they were not just “wilted flowers” or “sad, suffering, victims all the time”. 

It is crucial to his case that Shoemaker himself should practise what he preaches. When he was “diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer”, he recalls, he found he could cope with “a wee bit of sympathetic concern”, but what he really wanted were “emotionally detached wisecracks” from close friends on the lines of “C’mon out for a drink, you’re not dead yet.” 

When he chose to treat his suffering as a joke, the last thing he needed were “empathetic” friends saying “Oh, you poor thing, that’s horrible! How can you laugh at that?” Genuine “emotional empathy in such circumstances requires, ironically, that I emotionally detach from your pain or trauma along with you”.

Indeed, although we rightly condemn people who lack all empathy for the suffering of others, Shoemaker is convinced that there is “significant underappreciated value in our sometimes empathising less with, and being more amused by, pain, suffering and misfortune. It is a powerfully effective way to cope with life’s curveballs, and it’s often the most appropriate way of responding to life’s ultimate absurdity.” 

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