Monday, August 22, 2011

Dropping the Baby: Edgy Humor and Elephant Journal

This is a thought about "non-P.C. humor," secondary to a kerfluffle that has taken place at Elephant Journal's website. (Full disclosure: I have had two articles posted there, without pay.)

Elephant Journal publishes articles on yoga, meditation, and ecological living, seeking to integrate these things into pop culture, especially internet culture. A lot of the articles seem, to me anyway, to be designed to pull traffic to the website: provocative titles ("My wife told me to edit this -- I didn't") and a lot of "How To's." This is how they serve their advertisers and make money. A great many of their articles are sex-related. It's a peculiar mix of sincere material about yoga, meditation, and ecological living along with scatological and political humor. And some of it is exuberantly transgressive, impolite, what some would call "non-P.C." or "edgy" humor.

So here is what happened. The editorial staff chose to share a video from Funny or Die entitled Yoga for Black People. It is not my cup of tea. In this video, an Asian-American woman teaches a yoga lesson supposedly tailored for African-Americans. This joke is hammered hard and ruthlessly, and to tell you the truth I make it about 45 seconds -- truly, all of 45 seconds -- before I feel too uncomfortable to enjoy any of it. You can watch it yourself here. What do you think? Comments are welcome.

The video drew critics and defenders. Among the critics was an African-American yoga teacher based in Atlanta, Chelsea Jackson. (Here's something positive: I would likely not have discovered this woman's blog except for this incident.) Her response to the video touched a nerve, and EJ's editor in chief responded with this most unfortunate post, the so-called "map designed to be offensive to everyone on the planet." A defensive and reactionary bomb of a joke.

So we return to the matter of "non-P.C." humor, dangerous humor, transgressive humor, humor that plays on race and other sensitive aspects of human identity. I am reminded of that old rule of thumb, that Jewish jokes are safest in the hands of Jews, Italian jokes safest among Italians, and so forth. Who has not heard someone say, "I can say this because I'm ------," thus giving the listener permission to find the statement funny? Why does humor about race work in some contexts and not others?

I've heard reasonable theories about this. (We showbiz people joke about "the science of humor," but it's only half a joke -- there are theories about humor works.) What makes all the difference for me is locating the joke-teller's "heart." Where are they coming from? One reason an Italian joke might feel better when it is told by a wop like me (see? I can say "wop" because I'm a wop! ) is because the topic of my humor is "my neighborhood," so to speak, for which I clearly hold some affection. I can make fun of the accents, the food, the clothing choices, the family structures, and other aspects of Rhode Island's Italian-American culture, with obvious affection. This is not necessarily limited to my own ethnic background. My home town was heavily Portuguese and for much my childhood I played in the homes of Portuguese and African-American families. So there are places I can go because I know the neighborhood somewhat and I can establish a safe connection with an audience.

A safe connection with the audience is crucial. "Edgy" humor plays around with that safety, and that can be a lot of fun. "Edgy humor" is like pretending to drop the baby, only to catch her and release laughter. If you just drop the baby, it's not a joke anymore -- people just get hurt.

In my personal opinion, this video drops the baby. It is a bit painful to watch. The joke fails spectacularly.

At Elephant Journal, the unfortunate response to criticism was to drop the baby again, even harder.

From the perspective of Buddhist practice, there is an interesting area of inquiry here: the interaction of "right speech" and humor, which so often by its very nature transgresses social boundaries and expectations.


Ji Hyang said...

thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post.

Debby said...

I believe that when humor 'targets' a person, or a group of people, it's not humor. If we want peace, we will not achieve it by breaking people down into groups and poking fun at them, no matter how 'gently' we believe that we are doing this.

Jo Ann said...

I pity those who thought that was funny.