What’chu laughing at?

by Pari

Years ago when I worked in health care marketing, our corporation considered opening an incontinence clinic. The job of writing the mock promo brochure fell to me. I dutifully delineated all the advantages a customer (patient) would find if he or she wanted to pay our organization for the privilege of looking into the wonders of urethras, kidneys etc etc. But then — I guess because writing the rest of the brochure bored me — I came up with this title: You’re in Control.

Great, huh?

They didn’t use it.

That’s when I found out that there are certain subjects a person just shouldn’t mess with. And when it comes to health care, believe me, most of it isn’t allowed to be funny.

Now I work in a university department of psychiatry and mental illness isn’t a joke either . . . or is it?

Enter David Granirer and Stand Up for Mental Health. Here’s a guy who suffers from Depression — notice the capital D? — who is also a counselor and comic. He has created a way for people with mental illness to do stand-up comedy around a subject that often is so taboo, so dripping with stigma, families  — and individuals — will do anything in their power to avoid even skirting the topic.

Last Tuesday night NAMI-ABQ brought in Granirer to perform. What’s special about this is that six locals with mental illnesses ranging from bipolar disorder to outright schizophrenia had gone through weeks of training too. They stood up one-by-one and gave us a show. Just as in an ordinary line up of comedians, some were great and some were closer to okay. But what astounded me was how incredibly interesting their material was. We in the audience got a glimpse into “madness” and it was fascinating. The comics joked about their delusions, OCD and mania and we went along for the ride. Our willingness to go on that journey may have started with curiosity, but we stayed because it was entertaining and fun.

For me it was a glimpse into a very different way of seeing the world. I feel richer for it, grateful for the opportunity. And since the show, I’ve thought a lot about how difficult subjects can be turned into good, funny and authentic material.

So today, my questions are:

Is there anything that should be off limits when it comes to comedy?
And does that change depending on who delivers the punch line?
Are there things we should joke about that no one is tackling?

(I’m home today, so I hope to be able to finally post some responses!)

20 thoughts on “What’chu laughing at?

  1. Karen, NZ

    Mmmm – reading your post (thanks for sharing it, wish I could have been there) makes me think of a Kiwi comedian Billy T. James and the things he could joke about (his own culture, that people from that culture would not have been able to do as easily/well with acceptance), and then there's Aussie comic Steady Eddie (who has Cerebral Palsy, and he does joke about it)…. I think it's easier to laugh with someone who is talking from experience, in contrast to being in a position of laughing at (at such).

    That being said, I admire those who get to the level of acceptance to be able to construct jokes about it – whatever they may be dealing with…. it speaks of being able to address it, talk about it, bring it to awareness….
    rather than feeling shame, or perhaps being unable to articulate or context it. I think humour (black, wry or otherwise) can be a vehicle to touch on difficult subjects, though I personally would prefer it be from someone with lived experience.
    (I daren't comment on what could be joked about ) *wry smile*

  2. JD Rhoades

    Recently, comedian Daniel Tosh caused a major controversy with some offhand jokes about rape he made at a live show. There were a lot of people asserting that "rape is never something you can joke about." Apparently, however, this doesn't apply to male on male prison rape, because any time anyone is ever sentenced to prison, at least half a dozen anonymous online "wits" chime in with a HILARIOUS discussion about how many times he'll be violently sexually assaulted in jail.

    Hey! There's WORMS in this can!

  3. Pari Noskin

    I think the authenticity — the "lived experience" to which you refer — is key to the audience experience as well. I know that I was tremendously moved when a couple of the comics became serious for a moment as they thanked their family members for being at the event. It put things in perspective in a way that went straight to my heart. I also knew going in that these people were going to talk about mental illness, so I expected that authenticity as well.

    (Great to see you here!)
    You're right about rape and women. I think it's one of the true taboo areas. I've never heard anyone successfully do anything funny with it with women as the victims. Your point about men and prison rape is even more interesting though; I've never heard a comedian go there, but I've seen it referred to again and again on television shows as a threat in prison and have rarely seen it referred to for women in the same context.

    I think you're right about that double standard in our acceptance of broaching that subject.

    My question is why is it okay in any context for men to be brutalized sexually?

  4. JD Rhoades

    " Your point about men and prison rape is even more interesting though; I've never heard a comedian go there,"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMnv3dN8u6I Defintiely NSFW, but check out around 2:25.

    I admit, I laughed.

    "have rarely seen it referred to for women in the same context."

    I know…at first I was thinking "well, maybe because making fun of victims is more cruel than funny, and inmates are more likely to be perpetrators," but then I wondered, would making jokes about, say Mary Kay Latourneau or one of the other teachers who went to jail for having sex with male students being raped in prison be considered out of bounds? I think so.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, Dusty, I think you'll find it's MEN making jokes about prison rape. I've never met a woman who thought male on male rape was funny. Although we do think it's karmic justice, in some cases.

  6. Debbie

    I think it comes down to both the person delivering the content, and the recipient. As long as there is no malice intended or perceived, then humour is a great approach to disseminating information. I expect that your brochure would have reached the audience that doesn't want a clinical pamphlet. I expect that a lack of capital rather than the perception of sensitivity is the issue.

    Another great way to dispell myths and disseminate information imo, is to involve children. They ask the difficult questions, do so bluntly, and nobody is offended. We can learn so much just being around them when they are learning.

  7. Fran

    Idaho author Joan Opyr is up-front about being bi-polar, and she's funny too. She's helped a lot of people get a little more used to the idea that mental illness is not as "other" as it has always been perceived. Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess, does the same thing with depression, and she's opened up a lot of discussions and helped a lot of folks find support in numbers. There are a lot of folks who believed they were the only ones.

    More and more we're talking about mental illness, and with conversation and education comes a reduction in fear. Humor is a great way to open a dialogue, I think.

  8. Sarah W

    Once upon a long time ago, Whoopi Goldberg recorded a sketch in which she played a woman with cerebral palsy. It was funny, but poignant, too, and treated the entire topic with dignity as well as humor. There was self-mockery, but no self-hatred.

    I think that might be my personal humor line. Self-hatred and cruelty. Mockery for general behavior, maybe ("Here's your sign!"). but I've never liked insult comics and I've never liked shock jock humor.

    And mocking victims? No.

  9. Lisa Alber

    Comedy is often on the cutting edge — when a taboo topic makes the comedy rounds, you know that topic will cease to be so taboo. Good comedy can open the dialogue, make certain topics like mental illness a little less scary. But, of course, it's all in the delivery. Bad comedy is still bad comedy.

  10. Reine

    Hi Pari,

    "Now I work in a university department of psychiatry and mental illness isn’t a joke either . . . or is it?"

    I watched the video. Granirer does a good job, but he isn't really joking about mental illness. The focus of the joke is the people who are afraid of people with mental illness. That seems to be much more acceptable to the public and always a topic of humor in groups of people who are discriminated against. This is very common in the disability community.

    Our wheelie jokes often fall flat on people who are not part of the disabilities community. Sometimes they are reacted to with great offense and hostility. My favorite jokes in the community are the ones that center on people who think we do not work, feel entitled, do not pay taxes, and – my fave – are secretly rich from all the extra advantages we get from the government and hard-working taxpayers.

    Or… true jokes about disabilities in the healthcare system. Just last week a nurse asked me to leave my power wheelchair in the hall, because the examining room was too small for wheelchairs. Really. She really said that. Then she became annoyed at me when I just stared at her. True joke. Too common. And I have plenty more.

  11. lil Gluckstern

    It seems to me that "regular" people are very uncomfortable and have many mixed feelings about those who identify their weaknesses. Most folks lives in a comfortable haze of denial. As far as the nurse is concerned, Reine, she was an idiot!

  12. Pari Noskin

    I'll look at that link when I feel up to that kind of humor. A person needs to be in the "right" mood.

    You might have a point there. And I do admit I've never heard a joke about rape that I thought was funny.

    A beautiful insight about children. I think you're right on that one. Kids do ask straight questions without malice and we'd do well to answer them honestly and well.

  13. Sarah W

    I re-read my comment and think I inadvertently put my foot in my mouth–it's a talent of mine.

    I didn't mean to imply that people with mental illness or conditions like cerebral palsy are victims–only that I don't care for 'humor' in which human beings are portrayed as lesser because of these and other conditions, or 'humor' in which people treat themselves as lesser. Frankly, I wouldn't mind if I never heard another fat joke of any type as long as I live.

    I also left some words out of my last sentence: by 'victim' I meant 'victim of violent crime.'

    Sheesh, sorry . . .

  14. Pari Noskin

    Thanks for the references; I'll check them out. Also, I totally agree about talking about mental illness. When you think it directly affects 1 in 4 adults in this country, you'd think that everyone would be talking about it since it touches us all.

    I'm curious about Whoopi. I kind of got turned off when she said some really anti-Semitic things a few years back. I see if I can find a vid. with that routine.
    I do agree about insult comics and shock jocks . . . not my cuppa tea.
    BTW: Don't worry about your comment. I didn't take it any other way than what it was meant to be.

    I think your comment is probably right, but would love an example if you can come up with one easily.

    On David's website, there are several videos of people who are directly talking about their mental illnesses (if you're interested). The humor that mattered most to me the other night was the stuff of true experience — not cleaned up at all. There was a lot of drug humor, stories about delusions that were funny and painful at the same time . . .

    As to that nurse, well, what lil said. Just stupid.

  15. Pari Noskin

    De-Nile is one helluva powerful river, isn't it?

    I agree that weakness does make us very uncomfortable. I think it must be because it reminds us of our own foibles and lacks.

  16. Lisa Alber

    HI Pari,

    Oh, I remember hearing a comedian riffing on the horrors of raising children. It was hilarious but, at the same time, right on the edge because it used to be taboo to talk about how effing hard it is and that maybe, possibly, there are days you simply want to throw them out the window you get so frustrated (or overtired)…

    Seems like people are pretty honest about this nowadays.

  17. PD Martin

    I think it's hard to know where to draw the line. And I think the line is different for people, too, of course. One person might find a joke hilarious, another offensive. In one Modern Family episode there was a joke when Cam said something like "We're buying American, this time" referring to their second adoption. A lot of people in the adoption community were outraged by that. There were also many (including me) who thought it was just a joke. And I seriously doubt it would have offended anyone NOT in the adoption community.

    I do think comedians have a tough job…for many reasons! And finding the balance in humour is one of the many challenges.

  18. Reine

    Hi Phillipa,
    Well put.

    Hi Pari,
    I think it's a hard topic to tackle. I like that you did it, but I disagree with the idea of self-deprecating humor as an agent for healing – not because I am against it in theory, and I am not – but because it often backfires, either from within or at revisiting from someone else in a position of authority.

  19. Pari Noskin

    Good point. Not all of the humor was self-deprecating, some was revelatory. But I do take your point and think it's a tremendously complex subject.

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