Here’s a little something The National Times asked me to write this week, about the outrage directed to certain columnists over their comments on Twitter:
Legendary comedian Mel Brooks once said, “tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die”.
Brooksy had a point. Comedy is incredibly subjective.
Not everyone will find a particular joke funny. Some may find it offensive. It’s a good thing that in this country being offensive isn’t illegal, otherwise I’d be doing some serious time.
Bubba: “What you in for?”
Me: “Made jokes that really upset 250 readers of the Herald Sun”
Bubba: “You’re so insensitive, now swallow . . . and . . .”
Me: “No teeth”
Outrage is a double-edged sword for a comedia
n. It delivers a bigger audience for your joke, but then kills it under the weight of analysis.
I’m no stranger to manufactured outrage. And having been the centre of an indignation hurricane a few times in my fledgling career, I’m in a position to break the experience down.
Let’s imagine Mel Brooks tweeted that famous quote on Logies night. Next morning, the mainstream print media picks it up and takes it across town to get a comment from the Widows Of Waste Servicemen Association. The WOWSA comment is then published alongside the original offending tweet, showing what an insensitive soul alleged comedian Mel Brooks is. By encouraging readers to comment, to agree with their assertion that Brooks overstepped the mark, the outrage bubble grows.
The next day, producers for radio and TV rifle the morning papers and websites for inspiration. They jump on board Tweetgate (anything can be made bad with the suffix “–gate”), and ride the outrage for all it’s worth. Was it offensive? Was it funny? Was it racist? Was it Taoist? And just in case anyone missed the original tweet, the joke will be endlessly repeated, with audiences directed to the media outlet’s own websites to stare at videos of it and be offended over and over again. Thus a joke made to a small audience finds itself in front of a baying crowd with pitchforks.
The beauty of the internet is that it provides a home for niche comedians to find niche audiences for their comedy, but also, as it turns out, it’s for the mainstream to complain about jokes that they wouldn’t normally get to see.
This secondary audience has only been around since the internet went mainstream. For news media, it’s an easy way to stimulate the audience in a slow news week. Nearly everyone has a sense of humour. And if not, everyone at least has an opinion on humour.
Around the fifth or sixth day of outrage, if there’s no escalation to the story, someone getting the sack, having their show suspended, or having to remove a pun from the title of a critically acclaimed musical, then the outrage bubble will burst, and the audience will move on to whatever they’re told to be offended about next.
For the record, making jokes about people who have died while falling into an open sewer is tasteless. And insensitive. No one one should make jokes about them. Especially Jews.
(That was a joke.)
(So was that.)
(Or was it?)