Pop Culture, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Off-Limits: Are Some Subjects Too Sensitive To Joke About?

 ***As grown-ups who still live within reasonable driving distance of their parents are wont to do, I try to visit my parents on Sundays as often as I can. (Why? Well, my parents are my ace boon coons, and I genuinely enjoy spending time with them. Plus, they always make a ton of food for dinner, it’s always a great way to launch a new week, and, um, did I mention the free food already?) The following is a paraphrased summary of a conversation I had with my mom yesterday evening after dinner.***

Champ’s mom (CM): “Did you see SNL last night?”

Champ: “No maam.”

***Feel free to insert a joke about my parents and I being three of the remaining 17 Black people on the planet who still watch SNL on a regular basis.***

CM: “So you didn’t see the skit about Piers Morgan and George Zimmerman?”

Champ: “Nah. What happened?”

CM: “It had Piers Morgan interviewing a bunch of celebrites for their takes on George Zimmerman’s arrest.”

Champ: “Was it funny?”

CM: “I stopped watching a minute or so into it.”

Champ: “Why?”

CM: “What do you mean “Why?” Of all the things to write a skit about, why choose the Trayvon Martin case? Some subjects are too sensitive to joke about. I was honestly surprised and disappointed that SNL went there.”

***I’ve embedded the skit below. In case you can’t see it, Morgan interviews Ice-T, Kayne, Kim Kardashian, and others, and they each offer their increasingly ridiculous takes on this case and the legal system in general¹***

Champ: “Hmm.”

CM: “What?”

Champ: “I don’t know if I agree with you, Mom. Maybe the skit itself wasn’t executed properly, but I don’t think there are any off-limits subjects. I mean, I agree that the skit may have been in bad taste. But, in order to get the types of laughs comedians depend on, sometimes you have to broach uncomfortable topics. Sometimes the joke works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I just don’t think we should be able to tell people “This subject is too serious to be joked about in any manner.”

CM: “You’re talking about censorship. I’m talking about common sense. Common sense should tell you that a situation as emotionally and politically charged as the Trayvon Martin case should be off limits. I love that you always try to be so pragmatic and practical, but sometimes being that way gives you some serious blind spots.”

***She’s definitely right about the blind spots. There have been times, both online and off, where my instistence on being “sober” or “irrelevant” or “delibrate” made people upset because they assumed I was being intentionally insensitive. In each situation, I ended up hurting feelings because I just didn’t recognize the possibility that feelings could be hurt. Ironicially, I consider myself to be extremely, almost painstakingly, considerate of others. But, I’ve come to realize that this consideration usually only extends to things that would greatly upset me as well.***

Champ: “I do agree that it’s probably too soon to talk about the Trayvon Martin case in that manner. I still think you can find humor in pretty much every subject, though. Sometimes the humor doesn’t have to be “Haha,” but more just recognizing the absurdity of a situation.”

CM: “Pedophila can be funny?”

Champ: “Every Black person in America has either laughed at or told a joke about R. Kelly — jokes specifically related to the fact that he’s the world’s most famous known pedophile. “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” — a line from “What’s Love Got to Do with It” —  has become one of Black culture’s most popular catchphrases. We use it in a tongue-in-cheek/snarky manner, which makes light of the depiction of prolonged domestic violence and sexual abuse the line comes from.”

CM: “Hmm. Two of your nieces were shot a few months ago. One almost died. Where’s the “funny” in that?”

Champ: “Um, well…um…”

CM: “Exactly.”

***As you can see, my mom has a way of shutting me up.*** 

¹I watched the skit on Hulu a half hour or so after our conversation. The verdict? I agree that SNL probably should have picked a different subject. But, I thought it was…funny.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”) 
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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Keisha

    I get the ‘being too soon’ piece, BUT funny is funny…even though most of the time I will feel a tad bit guilty for laughing afterwards.

  • Yoles

    I’M @ work so i can’t type long I got lives to save!

    On R Kelly being a pedophile (a person sexually attracted to PRE PUBESCENT children) doesn’t seem to be true based on the evidence… Now a hebophile (a person sexually attracted to POST PUBESCENT adolescents) seems to fit better. After yrs of working w/kids who’s lives and physical bodies were destroyed due to sick adults the distinction is one of my many pet peeves. I’ll be back

  • I’ll be very honest, when something is funny no matter how deathly the subject is, I will laugh, and then get on my knees and ask the man upstairs to forgive me for not being able to suppress the laughter. However, I do agree with your mom certain subject matter should be avoided like the plague, RAPE being one of them.

    Aside: I hate when folks are sensitive about BULLSHID! That drives me nuts——->Over on another site, I was being given a police ticket for joking about the Illuminati?! WHAT THE FUGGERS. Some people need to grow humor balls! -WOOSA!!

    *Hey Jay*

  • Well first off Fred Armisen as Ice-T and Kim K as a zero-threat. *DEAD*

    But I can agree with both sides. I say there are some things that are hard to joke about, or rather listen to jokes about too soon. A friend of mine tweeted a joke about the Trayvon Martin case a few weeks ago and it was hilarious, but I couldn’t laugh about it cuz, well I felt guilty. I mean, we all enjoy a good laugh; comedy keeps us alive. I think the reason we get into the “too soon” argument is because we ourselves feel some sort of guilt for actually finding it funny. Aside from personal tragedies, I don’t think we really are so sensitive that we can’t laugh at a joke about almost anything. We just feel bad about it, so we throw out the “too soon” card to feel better about ourselves. Which is the goal in about 99.9% of things we do every day.

  • well…the kimk/kanye part of the sketch was funnyish. and some of ice-t’s lines were chuckle-worthy.

    I think how you make the joke and the angle you’re going for dictates whether or not its “too soon” or something you shouldn’t ever joke about. This skit is a little bit more about ditzy celebrities than it is about the actual case. So while it really wasn’t funny, it wasn’t really offensive (to me at least) either.

  • “I’m a zero threat.” lol. That part was funny. The skit in its entirety, not so much.

    But yeah, your mom is right. Some people deal with stress, disappointment, anger, etc, with comedy. Honestly, those people should keep their jokes to themselves, especially if they know it won’t be received well. Sometimes, you don’t have to say anything. I know that’s weird in this day and age of social media, where gaining attention by any means is the utmost goal. But, sometimes, if the only thing you know how to do is make a joke, don’t and just be quiet. And if you can’t help yourself, know your audience. Take it to the people you know will appreciate the humor of the situation.

  • Free my comment, I’m not a villain
    I’m just craaaaazy about Jay Locks
    Contact word press
    and tell them to stop this BS

    *sang to the tune of THE best SANGER-Kenny Roger’s -If You Want to Find Love!

  • DQ

    The skit was merely marginally funny (even the non-Trayvon Martin ones) which is part of the reason (I think) so few black people make it a point to watch Saturday Night Live. They’re just too hit and miss with their humor.

    If you exist on Twitter, you saw what happened to your boy Toure’ trying to make a joke using Trayvon… it was not pretty. You ever watch army ants swarm and kill larger insects? And how they just keep coming, wave after wave? Yeah, like that…

    Regarding subjects too sensitive to joke about, I think the thing to remember is that we are ALL logical creatures but also empathetic creatures. And we tend to view the world through both lenses simultaneously. When we get in trouble is when we view the world exclusively through just one.

    Logically speaking you should be able to make jokes about anything at anytime, empathetic-ally speaking you should know that you can’t. (And it goes both ways, there are things that you might feel compelled to do emotionally, that logical tells you NOT to do). It’s a lesson most of us usually learn the hard way (if we fail also to know our audience).

  • That Ugly Kid

    I don’t think there’s anything we can’t joke about. As long as it’s funny, I don’t think think it should matter. I saw a few people offended by Childish Gambino’s new song “Eat Your Vegetables” where he says, “Man I’d die for my hood, TRAYVOOON.” But luckily, most of the comments on Youtube were reasonable and didn’t say he “went too far.” Not to mention it’s a pretty good song (he even pokes fun a the recent J.Cole/Diggy “beef”).

    But that’s me. As I said before, I’m an azz. I’m the same guy who, after his homie found out his gf was cheating on him (and my homie not dumping her), walked right up to her the next day, homie present and said, “I heard we giving out blowj0bs, where’s the sign up sheet?” Hell, just the other day near the daycare center where I work, I overhead some African kids talking about what they should do for the weekend. I told them to go see The Hunger Games.

    So yea, maybe it is just me…

  • The answer to this question depends on whether your compass for the sensitivity of issues is absolute or relative. Most people don’t follow absolutes so context and time ends up being the more decisive factor.

    I’d say there is no subject too sensitive to joke about. However, as the cartoon illustrates, the question is really more a matter of context and time. Your son getting senselessly killed – there may never be a context or enough time for a joke about that exact situation to be ok for you. Most of us reading this – probably enough time has past that we are fine with the context being “the justice system is flawed”, “racism still exists”, “florida has problems” but not fine with a joke whose context involved black teens wearing random outfits being randomly killed in different situations by a white character. That one may require a few more months.

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