Screwtape loved the lulz

Screwtape loved the lulz September 2, 2019

I recently read the umpteenth iteration of some comedian defending his “edgy” routine after being called out for punching down, for saying something crudely cruel, and/or for generally not being funny given that the stuff he thinks is “edgy” is the same stale “edginess” that thousands of dudes have been edgily saying thousands of edgy times, year after edgy year.

The defense of this shtick is often phrased as something like “You should be able to joke about anything.” The problem there is the pronoun. Who is “you”? That matters. It matters who is making the joke, and it matters who the audience for that joke is. I’ll generally agree, in the abstract, that everything is potentially fodder for jokes, but not everybody gets to joke about everything. (And, also, they’d better be good jokes.)

In practice, what “You should be able to joke about anything” tends to mean is something more like “I should be able to say whatever I want, whether or not it’s actually funny.” And that’s a rather different proposition.

This perennial cycle — an “edgy” comic attempting to offend, succeeding at offending, then taking offense that others took offense — has me going back to one of my favorite bits from C.S. Lewis’ amusingly moralistic little classic The Screwtape Letters.

The premise of Lewis’ book is elegantly simple: An experienced infernal tempter is writing to his nephew, a neophyte demon, to advise him on how best to lead his assigned human target astray. The conceit is so devilishly effective for Lewis that dozens of others have been tempted to imitate it in books and columns of their own — almost always unsuccessfully. (Don’t do this. Really. Don’t.)

In one “letter,” the elder demon warns his young protégé not to bother wasting time trying to tempt his subject with dirty jokes:

Indecent or bawdy humor, which, though much relied upon by second-rate tempters, is often disappointing in its results. The truth is that humans are pretty clearly divided on this matter into two classes. There are some to whom “no passion is as serious as lust” and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for talking about sex. If your man is of the first type, bawdy humor will not help you — I shall never forget the hours which I wasted (hours to me of unbearable tedium) with one of my early patients in bars and smoking-rooms before I learned this rule. Find out which group the patient belongs to — and see that he does not find out.

I think Screwtape’s earlier failures were worse than he realized. It wasn’t merely that his “patient” joked about sex and therefore was impervious to being tempted by “bawdy humor,” but that the patient’s joking actually made him more resistant to the lustful temptations with which Screwtape hoped to ensnare him. All those jokes about lust and sex and such served to diminish their power for the patient. He had learned to laugh at them, to understand the ways in which they were ridiculous, and he was thus made less likely to fall into their trap.

But the general distinction between “two classes” here is insightful and instructive. Some people enjoy dirty jokes because they’re funny while others enjoy them because they’re dirty. Some view them as a chance to laugh, others view them as an excuse for titillation.

The same distinction also holds true for those making or hearing jokes about all the subjects that preoccupy so-called “edgy” comics. “There are some to whom … a misogynist story ceases to produce misogyny precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and misogyny are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about misogyny because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for indulging in misogyny.”

Likewise for ethnic chauvinism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the other subjects that “edgy” comics endlessly rehash and revisit ad nauseum. Some people like telling or hearing such jokes because they recognize that all these forms of bigotry are fundamentally “incongruous” — absurd and ridiculous and ripe for mockery. Others enjoy telling or hearing such jokes because they are an easy pretext for indulging in those very same absurd sins, because they allow those participating to repeat and reinforce such bigotries while still claiming innocence because they’re “just joking.”

The tell — the big clue as to which category of comic or audience you’re dealing with — goes back to what Molly Ivins described as “punching up” versus “punching down.” Jokes that punch up are funny jokes; jokes that punch down are not.

Please note that this is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not an attempt to create rules for comedy, merely the identification of a law that governs how it actually works. We’re not saying “we mandate that jokes ought to punch up rather than punch down” any more than Isaac Newton was saying “I hereby command that every action ought to have an equal and opposite reaction.” He didn’t make that rule, he just identified that it exists, whether we like it or not.

Lewis and Screwtape provide us with another big clue as to which category a purportedly “edgy” comic or audience falls into. This comes a bit later, where Screwtape advises his nephew to cultivate “flippancy”:

Flippancy is the best of all. … Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

Lewis begrudgingly includes such flippancy among the “sources of laughter,” but I don’t think it belongs there because it never actually produces laughter. The joke it assumes has been made doesn’t actually exist and thus cannot actually be funny. Flippancy is not so much a source of laughter as a cue for others to perform a semblance of laughter. By knowing when to perform this “laughter” in response to the unspoken, unformed “joke,” those in the audience are able to reassure themselves that they, like the comic, are knowing and clever and “edgy.” This reassurance of one’s own alleged cleverness offers certain emotional rewards, but not the same catharsis or satisfaction that genuine laughter does.

There’s an echo of Screwtape’s “the Joke is always assumed to have been made” in the standard mockery of bad “edgy” comics: “Hoo-boy, political correctness, amirite?” Asking “am I right?” is not a punchline. Nor is it really a question. It is, rather, an assertion and a bargain between the flippant “comedian” and his flippant audience: “You tell me I’m right and I’ll tell you that you are.” We may all experience some kind of pleasant endorphin rush from sitting there smugly confident in our mutual rightness, but it’s nothing to laugh at.

That bit ain’t edgy — it’s as ancient and hackneyed and trite as the sin of pride. And it’s not funny either.


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