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No Makeup Challenge

I just took a picture of myself making a really funny face, and I was going to post it with a joke about the “no makeup challenge” going around Facebook. 

But I didn’t.

I would hate for the people taking part in this, people who feel pressure to NEVER be seen without make-up, to feel like I’m making fun of them. Especially because I’m lucky enough not to feel pressure to look makeup-level great whenever I go out in public, just because I’m a man, born into a world where social structures and sexist institutions of power and privilege give me an easy ride.

So instead I’m going to say I feel glad and lucky that the world at large doesn’t feel like I owe it to them to make myself look good at all times, and will call me lazy and question my level of self-respect or character if I don’t. I’m lucky that the pressure to look great whenever I go out is orders of magnitude lower for me, and the bar of minimum acceptability I have to clear is way lower as well, just because I’m a man. And I hope a time comes soon when everybody can go out looking however they want, without feeling judged or being shamed, mocked or mistreated.

Maybe men should answer the no-makeup challenge by posting a photo of themselves IN makeup.

So here’s a photo of me in make-up, for a play I was in during my fourth year of university. Even without the grey hair, I’m glad/lucky I don’t have to (or at least feel pressured to) do this every morning.

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On pain in humour. Here you go, Smudgem

Given that they’re on the same topic, I’m going to guess that the Chris who left this comment on my blawrg

What’s funny about kicking someone when they are down?

You really need to watch some British comedy, almost every comedy show is all about kicking people when they are down. Think Fawlty Towers, One Foot in the Grave, Only Fools and Horses, the Office, Blackadder, etc. I think Stephen Fry mentioned this in an interview once that in the US comedy is about the wise-cracking, likable joker and UK comedy is more about laughing at people’s failures and misfortunes.

Is the same Chris who writes this blawrg post. Now, generally, I think Shannon has thoroughly out-classed him with her response, and even when directly called out by Burndog, he’s been side-stepping. Sadly. [Update: Oh look he answered it. Burndog explains why the answer is unsatisfactory. Game. Set. Match.]

Also, some commenters have left really excellent responses on his blog. I doubt they will change Smudgem’s mind, but I doubt anybody reading the comments under his post with an open mind will come away agreeing with the author.

Lauri Lee (here and here) and Anonymous (here.. and for the record, fucking wow!) have also made really excellent comments there. Attastrangersontheinternet!

But the topic is pain in humor. Maybe I’m wrong that the comment and the blog post are by the same person, but I’ll still discuss both here. Not on the main blog, because reasons.

"What’s funny about kicking someone when they’re down?" said I.

"Lots of comedy laughs at people in a low place." Said Chris.

So let’s unpack this.

First: watch “Talking Funny” - an HBO panel-format show where they got Ricky Gervais (who’s been criticized before for going over”the line”) Jerry Seinfeld (who keeps his act famously clean), Chris Rock (whose most famous act might be the VERY controversial “I Hate N*****s”) and Louis CK (who tells rape jokes from time to time- and yet generally isn’t called an asshole for it)

They talk about the “N” word around the 15-18 minute point. Two of the comedians (Chris Rock and Louis CK) have, or do, use it in their routines.

At 41 minutes, they start a conversation about what’s over the line, and Chris says, about telling jokes about black people, “I always say talk about what they do, not what they are.” (42:15 or so)

Another principle mentioned by the author of Ask a Korean, on Facebook, was this:

Punch up, not down. - a phrase that turned up in interviews with comedians here and here and here. Stephen Colbert doesn’t punch down. Because if you’re punching up - at the people in power - it’s funny, and everyone likes to see the bigwigs taken down a notch. Craig Ferguson’s monologue about addiction, and Britney Spears, touched us, but the revelation of it was: When you made Britney jokes at that time, you were no longer punching up, but down. That he had the wisdom to realize that earned him my respect forever.

So why do we still have comedy about people in low situations?

Charlie Chaplin (who was British)’s “Little Tramp” character is a homeless guy. Why are we allowed to laugh at him? I saw a Laurel and Hardy skit where they were out of work and going door to door for food during the depression. What’s funny about that? Well… we’re laughing at what they do, not what they are. (Thanks, Chris Rock)

The pain of being homeless, or orphaned, or a transnational adoptee, isn’t funny. The pain is the motivation for some action… and that action (what they DO) can be funny. Sometimes, the pain intrinsic in the situation even creates a contrast that draws the comedy of the action into sharp relief, or irony, which is surprising and either touching, or hilarious. The homeless guy who insists that he is the King of San Francisco, and crooks his pinky while ruffling through garbage for food. Ruffling through garbage isn’t funny, but crooking his pinky is. And maybe we haven’t been homeless ourselves, but we know someone who’s acted pretentious that way. And it can remind us that we are not THAT different from that homeless fellow. Maybe only a handful of decisions and a few turns of luck. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp’s plans and schemes to get food, or dodge the police, are funny. Being targeted by police, or hungry, aren’t. We’re laughing at a response to a bad situation, or something coming out of the situation. Not the pain itself. 

We also laugh at unexpected things. Including unexpected violence. But comedy filmmakers will tell you that physical violence requires a distance shot, or a camera cut and a reaction shot, because a close-up, with the audience actually seeing blood makes the joke uncomfortable. The surprise is funny. The pain isn’t. We also laugh at incongruity. WHen the guy in Life Of Brian sings about looking on the bright side of life… while hanging on a fucking cross that’s hilarious. Not because crucifixion is hilarious, but because of what he DOES while being crucified. That’s a hilarious response to a bad situation. The scene in The Host that had me crying with laughter was the funeral scene. Not because it was funny that the family lost their daughter/niece, but because they grieved by working out every one of their family’s long-standing grievances in front of everyone. Three seconds of thought about what we’re actually laughing at, is all it takes to see Smudgem’s examples of things we’re “not supposed to laugh at” are a laughable string of straw men.

TO break down a specific clip you mentioned, where you thought the backlash was too much: When Warwick Davis fell in a toilet because he was trapped in a bathroom because he was a little person, unable to reach the bathroom door handle, Ricky Gervais was criticized for stepping over a line, because we were laughing (or at least being told to laugh) at the condition of being a little person, rather than laughing (as we were earlier in the scene) at his phoney hot-shot act, slowly falling to pieces through poor execution. Without the short joke, it would have been a beautiful scene. With the short joke, we’re laughing at a situation the character can’t help, rather than one he got himself into through his own pride and pretension. Big big difference.

[Update: Smudgem mentioned this Principal Skinner scene from the simpsons: I’ll defer to PTSD sufferers for my final judgment, but the Simpsons often pokes at Skinner, not because he’s a PTSD sufferer, but because he’s a school principal. School Principals are respected community members… not punching down. Maybe a PTSD joke is funny when it brings a school principal down a notch. Maybe it isn’t. The PTSD Association might have some words. But a PTSD joke is DEFINITELY not funny if it is at the expense of a homeless PTSD sufferer (did you know 45% of homeless veterans suffer from PTSD related mental illness?). Simpsons leaves those PTSD sufferers alone, because that would be punching down. Removing ALL veterans, or PTSD sufferers (or little people, or wheelchair-bound people, etc.) from popular media makes them invisible, which is a different problem, but also a problem.  Update over]

You can agree or disagree that Gervais or The Simpsons went over the line in that scene. South Park has built their mansion on that line… but it’s good to have a conversation about it. The negotiation of where the line of good taste is will never end, and that’s good, too, because every time that conversation happens, everyone who’s party to it thinks about whether we are being considerate of the situations people find themselves in, which they can’t help, like being poor, having a body with a different appearance or abilities than others, or struggling with a mental illness or a misunderstood disease, or being taken away from your birth family and home culture before you’re old enough to have a say in it. That develops empathy. Unless you’re the type who thinks all outrage is just a posture, and only gets in the way of you laughing at jokes that others can reasonably call cruel.

You’re entitled to that opinion, if you hold it. But I am entitled to the opinion that being so inconsiderate of others’ concerns makes you an asshole, and vigorously defending such a position makes you an unrepentant asshole. And vigorously promoting that position publicly will cause you to be publicly called an asshole. Asshole.

Because, as I said before, this isn’t a conversation about censorship. Censorship is when the people with power try to shut you up. The government. A wealthy corporation. Major media companies. If you punch up, and somebody silences you, that’s censorship. If you punch down and people (naturally) call you an asshole (because you’re being one), that’s not censorship. Because they don’t have the power to censor you. That’s a conversation about how not to be an asshole, and a lesson in empathy. Some people need some instruction in that, and it’s healthy for them to be engaged in those conversations, on the off chance they’ll adjust their behaviour. This is just as true of a comedian trying to find an audience for their jokes, as for an individual trying to muster enough friends for a crew on his next night out.

This is why, though people like to take shots at the “PC movement” and the “PC thought police,” my summary of the political correctness movement is this: the politically correct movement is the process, through conversation and public debate, of more people learning not to be assholes toward a greater variety of people, than ever before. If you are unable to understand that, or at least get where I’m coming from, I doubt we’ll ever see eye to eye on the topic. And good luck with your life.

Humor’s not scientific. There are lots of cases where it’s open to debate whether someone crossed a line, or where it seems like we’re laughing at something that doesn’t fit under the general matrix of things we usually laugh at. Cultures, groups, and individuals have those lines in different places, sometimes through ignorance, sometimes through sheer disregard, and sometimes just because. But generally, comedians don’t punch down, even if they’re starting off with a story about someone who’s down and out, because the down-ness and the out-ness is not the source of the comedy. And if they do punch down, the people they punched get first say in whether they feel picked on, and somebody calls the comedian an asshole until they apologize, or don’t, and that’s how we learn which of our comics are assholes and hacks taking cheap shots because they get attention, and which are trying to actually be funny, are capable of learning, and respect the subjects (subjects, not targets) of their comedy. And that’s as it should be.