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What a hoot! The politics of making ‘em laugh

Have you ever played the dozens? In the game, two competitors take turns improvising comedic insults and trash talk, cracking jokes about each other until one of them has no comeback. And although this form of play is mostly good natured, it has been known to start as many fist fights as fits of laughter.  Which begs the question, is one person’s wound another’s guffaw?

Aundre M. Herron of writes: "Put to its highest and best use, comedy has the power to transform by pushing us to the edge of our comfort zones and beyond. It helps us to face ourselves squarely-our fears, our failings, our prejudices and lapses of character, decency, and common sense. "

American comedians have a long history of pushing boundaries, using edgy humor to fight the status quo and promote progressive issues.  Pioneer comedian Moms Mabley challenged conventional ideas of race and gender and, before it was canceled in 1969, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was one of the most influential and controversial American television shows of its time. The show paid homage to the growing counter-culture movements springing up around the country and also derided the Vietnam War.

Stand-up comedians Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor became famous for using obscene language that found humor in the pains of urban reality; their jokes often provided relief to audience members experiencing similar challenges. In 1959, columnist Herb Caen, an early supporter of Bruce, wrote: "They call Lenny Bruce a sick comic, and sick he is. Sick of all the pretentious phoniness of a generation that makes his vicious humor meaningful. He is a rebel, but not without a cause, for there sure are shirts that need un-stuffing, egos that need deflating."

While many would argue that Bruce and Pryor’s humor was reflective of the times and even politically progressive as they challenged conventional ideas about race and conformity head on, others wonder if the same can be said of today’s comic royalty.  In a world increasingly saturated with snark and satire, where do we draw the line at humor and distaste? And who decides what’s funny?

In 2008, the film Tropic Thunder created a stir for repeatedly using the word "reta**" to describe one of the film’s characters. Developmental disabilities activists and their allies protested the film, calling on Ben Stiller (the film’s creator and star) to apologize. But other’s defended Stiller and understood the reference to be more reflective of the ineptitude of Hollywood than about people living with developmental disabilities.

Recently, comedian Wanda Sykes faced overwhelming criticism for comparing the Republican pundit Rush Limbaugh to a terrorist. While many conservatives saw her remarks as offensive, plenty of liberals and progressives found her comparison hilarious. And many defended the openly gay, African-American comedian. Political pundits Tucker Carlson and Ana Marie Cox wrote: "What’s all the fuss about? Isn’t the comedian hired for the correspondents’ dinner supposed to be controversial? When did all these conservatives become such whiners?"

Research has shown laughter to be a primitive, unconscious vocalization that produces some of the same positive effects as exercise. Steve Wilson, psychologist and laugh therapist said, "I believe that if people can get more laughter in their lives, they are a lot better off, and they might be healthier, too."  And no one would dispute that relief from life stressors are especially important in times of economic crisis. But just as many failed to find the humor in Tropic Thunder, when Michael Richards repeatedly said  ni***  in 2006 at California’s Laugh Factory his audience was searching for relief when they found themselves the butt of the joke.

Is humor really just a matter of vantage point? Can comedy be divisive, or can we use it to create and sustain community? Is it a violation of comedian’s first amendment rights when their words are censored? Do some comedians go too far? Is there a double-standard for women comics who push boundaries? How is comedy cathartic? Are today’s comedians any more provocative than the comedians that came before them? Do comedians really influence the way we see ourselves and each other? Have you found something humorous that someone else found offensive? Is there a difference when someone tells offensive jokes about a marginalized group versus when someone from a marginalized group tells a joke about someone who holds a position of power?

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