Huffing Over Holocaust Jokes? A Discussion About Joan River’s Point of View on The Function of Humor


On a post-Academy awards show the other night, Joan Rivers made what most would call an “off color” joke about model Heidi Klum’s dress that referred to the Holocaust.  And MAN did it tick people off.  So much so that it made the news on CNN!

As I listen to the debate as well as my gut, which wrenched a little bit when I heard the commentary in question, which you can listen to here:

I too took a minute to gather my thoughts and try and think objectively about the situation.  Then I listened to Joan River’s vehement and non-apologetic response and it made me think.

She talks about using humor to raise awareness and get people talking about this tough issue that actually affected her family quite significantly. It got me thinking about the sociological and anthropological role that humor plays in our human lives.  In essence, if you are a functionalist, you can say that humor allows us to address deviance in a way that mocks people into feeling shame and hopefully discourages deviant behavior and helps keep the wheels of society turning smoothly.   This is true for offenses large and small.

On an anthropological level, culture is typically created by the way we deal with the constraints inflicted upon us by everything from the environment to government to acts of violence. When there are things that seem out of control, we react to those things in ways we can control:  by expressing ourselves through our words and behavior – and those words and behaviors tend to spread creating a cultural trend that can impact any number of things and create waves that can create change.   Humor has  historically been one of those ways that we deal with our constraints.

From Shakespeare to Vaudeville to any number of modern-day stand up comics  and envelope pushers: think Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Izzard, Dave Chapelle, Lisa Lamponelli, Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher, John Stewart, Steven Colbert, etc., we have always dealt with tough issues like social inequality, politics racism, sexism and the transgressions of our “rich and famous” role models by attacking them with humor.

Why?  Because when we laugh we have something in common that unifies us in a dopamine-induced moment of lightness. When are moods are lighter we are more willing to have a dialogue.  And humor forces us to confront these tough topics and have a dialogue.   Especially when humor appears to go “too far”  – it reminds us that there is something we need to talk about.  And often, when history lets major problems get forgotten – they run the risk of happening again.  I’ll save you all the cliché quotes on that one but I think you get the point.

But that also puts limits on when humor is appropriate, right?  We’ve all been around someone who has made an off-color joke referring to something horrible when it was “too soon”.  Time does need to pass sometimes for us to deal with the raw emotions that come with trying times.   But lest too much time pass and we forget that we need to be mindful of the evil in the world or it will return, humor is there to get us talking again – for better or for worse reminding us to be aware.  I know I lost a number of relatives in the Holocaust and it’s not something we ever talk about in my family.  And we still see genocide happening in other parts of the world (Somalia?  Anyone?).  So, maybe somebody needs to get us laughing, or crying, to get us pissed enough to makes sure things like that don’t happen.

I think that was where Joan was leading us with her point on the matter.

She also pointed out that humor is just one of those things that, regardless of its function as a reminder and conversation starter, also helps us cope with the reality that life has it’s frustrating challenges that can bring us down if we let it.

In her words about why she embraces humor in the struggle to deal with the atrocities life throws at us without going insane: “That’s how you get through life.  You laugh, you can deal with it.  Done”

Amen, sister.

2 thoughts on “Huffing Over Holocaust Jokes? A Discussion About Joan River’s Point of View on The Function of Humor

  1. Isn’t the problem that the majority of these jokes are made by people other than comedians? Working in a bar during university, I heard this type of thing regularly, and often they were simply in bad taste.and worse offensive. Is it not the case that when Joan Rivers crags a gag it’s well crafted and relevant because she is a professional comedian? Maybe, but it tends to give legitimacy to idiots.

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