112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Finding and Minding the Line: What's Permitted and What's Taboo in Satire and Humor

Craig Sirles, DePaul University

In this paper I examine the line that separates publicly acceptable from unacceptable satire and humor by examining numerous online forums and publications. I look at some well-known cases where the joke sank the jokester, and  I also report on interviews I conducted with owners or managers of three Chicago comedy clubs about the allowable and the taboo on the comedy stage. I conclude that what’s above board and what’s below the belt in satire and humor is more a rhetorical issue than a matter of content.

Proposal: 

When Michael Richards, the Cosmo Kramer character from television’s sitcom “Seinfeld,” hurled racial epithets at black hecklers in a Los Angeles comedy club back in 2006, it was no laughing matter. What went wrong here? Obviously, who is telling the joke can be as important as what the comedy material is, because Chris Rock has license to go where Michael Richards could not, but the race of the teller isn’t the only issue in race-connected comedy. After all, Sarah Silverman regularly crosses the line with impunity.

So what is permitted and what is taboo in humor and satire, and how does one locate this line? Tastelessness, for example, is not a criterion for exclusion or condemnation, nor is cruelty or meanness.  The venue or medium has a great effect on what’s allowable: The Onion could write a spoof on Sen. Jesse Helms’s first gay dalliance simply because anyone reading the story knew it was humor, but Hustler magazine, a publication not known for satire, was sued by Rev. Jerry Falwell for publishing essentially the same thing.  Topics that feed on gender and ethnic stereotypes are surprisingly safe, much safer, in fact, than race-based humor, but humor that demeans the powerless is almost always off limits.

In this paper I attempt to locate the line that separates the acceptable and the unacceptable by examining numerous online forums and publications.  I look at some well-known cases where the joke sank the joke teller, such as the firing of radio shock jock Don Imus over his comments about members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, or the firing of a governor’s press secretary for cracking a tsunami joke following the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster. I look at areas of comedy and humor where the joke’s very success lies in negative stereotypes. I also report on interviews I conducted with owners or managers of three Chicago comedy clubs about the allowable and the taboo on the comedy stage.  I conclude that what’s above board and what’s below the belt in satire and humor is more a rhetorical issue than a matter of content.

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