When Is a Joke not a Joke?

Laurie and Debbie say:

(Cross-posted on Feministe)

Our internet neighborhoods are buzzing over a particular piece of April fool nastiness, in which a movie reviewer, whose April Fool’s pseudonym is the rather descriptive L. Ron Creepweans, for Locus Magazine (the most prominent news magazine in the science fiction/fantasy world) thought he could be funny by posting a satirical little piece about WisCon (the world’s first and largest feminist science fiction convention, which both of us go to and love). We’ve written about WisCon before.

To tell the end of the story first, Locus staff immediately apologized and took down the article and has since pulled Mr. Creepweans’ posting privileges. As a reviewer, he had the ability to go onto the site and post material no one else had seen. He’s trying to riff off an incident a few years ago in which an invited guest of honor said some Islamophobic things on her blog (not, as our joker says, “in the mildest possible terms”), deleted the comments when people showed their anger, and was disinvited as a guest. His April Fools’ “story” relates how WisCon’s “ruling committee” was going to force all attendees to wear burqas “in sizes small to 5X” to keep from offending Muslims by the “by the amount of sinful and wanton flesh” on display at WisCon, and also to “eliminate ‘rampant looksism.”

To ice the cake, he used the name “Belle Gunness” for the WisCon chair. Unknown to most folks, the real Belle Gunness was a serial killer at the end of the 19th century.

Since the story was pulled, Mr. Creepweans is feeling very good about himself. Traffic to his own blog spiked, and we’re sure he’s getting a lot of adulatory fan mail, along with the angry letters and comments from WisCon members and supporters. And he gets to feel all censored and attacked since the piece was taken down so quickly, but lives on in Internet screen captures.

It’s almost impossible to read this story and not think about last week’s Internet storm around Adria Richards, who decided to take some pix of the guys at the tech conference telling “big dongle” and “fork” jokes while sitting behind her, and tweeted the pix to the world at large. She has since been fired for this incident. She has also joined the legion of women bloggers who have received volumes of nasty rape and and death threats when they speak out.

But, hey, it was April Fool’s Day! But, hey, those guys were just sitting in the audience talking to each other! But, hey, you’re just perpetuating the stereotype that feminists have no sense of humor!

(If you believe feminists have no sense of humor, come to WisCon sometime and check out Ellen Klages, Tiptree award auctioneer. But we digress.)

What makes a joke funny is a combination of the actual wit and humor used and the context. It’s really easy to get laughs about groups or stereotypes (or individuals) that you and your audience both hate or despise. The right audience will love whatever you say about “those people.”

When your audience is diverse, then you have to be genuinely funny. On an Internet news site, whether it’s a specialty news site like Locus or a general news site like CNN, it’s impossible to keep your jokes from finding the “wrong” audience, the one that doesn’t appreciate how you trash their culture.

Creepweans took everything he’s ever heard–and hates–about WisCon: Feminists go there! They were mean to a potential guest who was just telling the truth about Islam! Lots of them are fat! They get angry easily! They claim to be welcoming! He then tried to wrap his stereotypes up into one finger-pointing, body-shaming, misogynistic anecdote. It is extremely difficult to be mean-spirited and funny at the same time. Creepweans isn’t.

4 thoughts on “When Is a Joke not a Joke?

  1. I had a lengthy post written mostly in my head; and then I realized that it could be summed up quite neatly:

    I agree.

    I find it bitterly amusing, I admit, that some of these same people, who tell people to “get a sense of humor” are the ones who argue ‘Oh, but mass media is so female-centric, look at all the stereotypical dumb guys on TV, that’s not fair to men to make them all look that stupid.”

  2. FWIW, Creepweans attended WisCon, once, back in the early ’90s (not sure which one, exactly). I didn’t interact with him, though we had a mutual friend, as he mostly seemed to spend the weekend with the friends he traveled with. His loss.

  3. What I keep thinking as someone with no connection to any of these events reading this, tracking down all the links, is what broad span of human behavior falls under the category of humor–successful and un.

    Success is simple–did anyone laugh? Yet complicated–playground bullies get laughs from their fellow bullies by attacking victims and mocking their distress. I adore Jane Austen yet I recently heard from someone who dislikes her because she is mean to Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, and I can’t argue with that. Austen could be majorly caustic, and one guesses that’s why her beloved sister, Cassandra, burned so many of her letters.

    And yet humor is one of the few tools available to release some of the pain for people trapped in long-term horrible conditions and to puncture the hot air balloons of the arrogant.

    And yet humor is very often used among those in power to reinforce stereotypes, foster ruling class solidarity by ridiculing the powerless and keep them (us?) down.

    Some jokes are funny after thousands of years, e.g. Lysistrata–“Is that a spear under your cloak, or are you just thinking about giving in to the women who are going on strike?”–I know, Aristophanes didn’t paraphrase Mae West, but it’s there. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysistrata

    Obviously, I’ll never figure out what I really think of all this, too many thoughts, too little comment space. It brings out my obsession with humor, jokes. I could write a book about that, so…screw it, I’m just going to go do that instead.

  4. Whether or not something is a joke really has nothing to do with whether or not it’s offensive. There are all sorts of offensive, cruel, disgusting, aggressive jokes. Jokes are just another way of expressing what you’re thinking about. They can be funny, and also deeply wrong.

    In other words “I was joking” is an irrelevant defense.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.