Some years ago I met a guy who works as a comedian, and I got to see his act, which I liked a lot—I’m a snob when it comes to stand-up, so it pleased me that he was good. He had some excellent bits (“I ain’t gay. Anyone who thinks I’m gay can suck my…wait a minute”). Also, he liked my books, and played poker. We hung out some, and at various times he would give me funny looks I couldn’t parse. Later, after he’d returned to California, it hit me that those looks came when I told jokes, and they were the same looks I give people when they find out I’m a writer and start telling me the plot of the book they might write someday—it was the, “You aren’t impressing me, you’re just embarrassing yourself” look.
What’s weird about that is that there really is no connection between telling jokes and doing stand-up. I’d have told him those same jokes if he were a chef or a truck driver. He thought I was trying to impress him, I thought I was establishing community. Because that’s the difference. Stand-up, at its best, is about the same thing fiction is, at its best: helping people see the world in a new way, exposing what is hidden, revealing absurdities and contradictions that we often miss—as witness the line of his I quoted above. Comedians use laughter where we use catharsis and suspense and so on.
Jokes serve a different social purpose. Jokes are about saying, “I invite you into my circle, into my tribe,” or maybe asking, “Are you part of my circle, my tribe?” I mean, we enjoy making people laugh, but the social function is to bring us closer to each other, to create and solidify community.
“Whom.” We’re grammar nerds.
“…but now it’s MY fault.” We are familiar with IT and business management.
“What is this, a joke?” We appreciate the self-referential.
“You can’t have mass without me.” We know at least a little about physics.
“It’s called a lamp.” We have some familiarity with theater.
“Two to hold down the author.” We get publishing.
“About a hundred yards further than last year.” We think it’s okay to be disrespectful about Americans.
“A pilot, you fucking racist.” We think racism is contemptible.
Religious jokes, in this regard, are weird, because they range all the way from, “We are both familiar enough with this faith or this subculture to feel like members,” to inviting contempt for a specific article of faith, to inviting contempt for those who subscribe to it, or any of several other things. Is this Jewish joke perpetuating a stereotype that dehumanizes Jews, or is it an invitation, one Jew to another, to chuckle at the peculiarities of a shared culture?
With this in mind, when someone tells you, for example, a racist joke, what circle are you being asked to join? Yeah. And at some level we’re aware of that; it’s why those jokes make us feel kind of unclean, even if (especially if) surprise pulls an unwilling laugh out of us.
And, of course, society changes, culture changes, and it does so unevenly, and so the meaning of the same joke can change, and maybe someone telling it doesn’t see the invitation to join the same group you do: are you being invited to join the group of those who think domestic abuse is okay, or the group of those who “think this PC stuff has gone too far,” or those who are so tightly knit, and so certain of each other’s attitudes, that it is safe to be transgressive with each other? When I tell you, “Bam, the Greek disappears,” am I inviting you to share in stereotyping Greeks, to share in a distaste for homosexual acts, or to share in the pleasure of subverting Antisemitism? When I tell that joke, it is the latter; yet I have to be aware that people might take it to be either of the others, and be careful of the context in which I tell it. When someone tells the, “That’s the spirit!” joke, is it saying that rape is a laughing matter, or recognizing a shared interest in an alternative subculture? Context is everything.
My point is not that you ought to “call out” Aunt Edna for her racist joke, or Uncle Frank for his blonde joke; that’s up to you—my own opinion is that doing so accomplishes nothing except to ruin Thanksgiving dinner. I’m simply suggesting that it is useful to be a little bit aware of what in-group someone is inviting you to join.