That's Not Funny!

Joe tells a disparaging joke, and a few people laugh. Candace replies “That's not funny!” Joe counters, “Yes it is. Look, someone laughed at it.”

Joe may be technically correct. The joke was well-crafted and made people laugh. But that's not what Candace meant. What really happened here?

Really, Candace just wants people not to say disparaging things. In some other world, the conversation might go like this: Candace says “Don't say that. It's disparaging.” Then Joe says “What? It's just a joke!”

Many people believe that something can be “just a joke”, making it less bad. But a disparaging joke is actually worse than a disparaging statement. First, a joke is enjoyable, encouraging people to repeat it. Someone might go to all their friends, saying “I just heard this great joke!”, but it's much less common for someone to run around saying “I just heard this great disparaging statement!”. Second, the joke makes people let down their guard. People may simply laugh and absorb the joke, without stopping to think whether it's right or wrong. For both these reasons, the better a joke is (in technical joke-craft), the more damage it can do from a moral perspective.

I'll put it this way: the funnier a joke is, the more joke power it has. Other things can also affect joke power. The more people are heard laughing at a joke, the more powerful it becomes. (That's why a lot of comedy shows have laugh tracks.) And the more popular the person telling the joke is, the more powerful it is. Like all forms of power, joke power can be used either for good or for evil.

When Candace said “That's not funny!”, it wasn't wrong, because it wasn't a statement of fact. It didn't mean “That joke does not cause anyone to be amused.” Instead, it was a statement of what should be: “Let's all refuse to laugh at that joke.” By refusing to laugh, we can reduce the power of the joke and discourage the joker from telling that kind of joke in the future.

“That's not funny” isn't the only technique for this, of course. Maybe you say “That's not okay” or “That's not cool”. Maybe you calmly ask the joker to explain the joke, which can make them uncomfortable by forcing them to think about the actual meaning of the joke. Maybe you have some authority you can use: “Hey. No telling racist jokes in my club.” Different strategies work in different circumstances.

But in any case, don't think, “That joke was disparaging, but it was funny.” Think instead, “That joke was disparaging, and worse, it was funny – so it's extra important to strike back against it.”

– Eli

Approximate readability: 4.75 (1973 characters, 453 words, 40 sentences, 4.36 characters per word, 11.32 words per sentence)