Untimely Observations

No Jokes, Please: We're American

There is a kind of meta-humorous flavor to this story in the New York Times, which reports that a certain humanities instructor is in hot water after telling a dark and edgy joke to his class earlier this month.

It seems that this twinkly-eyed but utterly luckless prof couldn't hold back from indulging in a topical crack of questionable taste. After dimming the lights and starting up a video, he advised his students: "If someone with orange hair appears in a corner of the room, run for the exit," an obvious reference to James Holmes, the deranged young man with bright orange hair who shot up a movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring many others, on the opening night midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.

This man and I have a very similar sense of humor, and we're both college teachers... although I would have managed to restrain my wit at such a juncture. Even so, the nutty professor probably would have been okay, and nobody would have reported his lamentable wisecrack, if it hadn't turned out that-- wouldn't you know it!-- despite the astronomical odds, one of his students had a father who'd actually perished in the cinema massacre a week and a half prior to the occasion of the ill-timed classroom jibe! (Cue the pathetic punchline music: wah-wah-wah-waaaaahh!)

And here is where the meta-humor comes in... I have to admit, I can't help but crack up when I think of what this guy's face must have looked like when he found out that he'd just unknowingly traumatized the family member of a mass murder victim. I picture the sad mug of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm as he mutters to himself: "Uh, oh... Yikes... Guess I really screwed the pooch here..."

I freely admit: I feel bad for the man. He figured, reasonably enough, that nobody in his class had a personal stake in the horrific event. He thought the biggest reaction he'd get would be gasps and rolled eyes and nervous laughter and maybe a few appreciative utterances of, "Oh, professor... you're terrible!"

After all, the college is in Long Island, New York, thousands of miles away from suburban Denver. What were the chances that anyone nearby was of any relation to any of the victims of the shooting? The danger of suffering spontaneous combustion, or suddenly geting struck by an asteroid, was probably greater. The capricious fates just have it in for some of us, don't they?


There is something very American about this story, and I don't mean that in a good way. It's yet another iteration of the relentless media shame-cycle, whereby some sacrificial victim who said or did something supposedly"offensive" (usually "racist," "sexist," or "homophobic") gets kicked around, humilated, and cast for a time into the utter darkness, before being forced to apologize and beg forgiveness, all the while enduring the shaking heads, pursed lips, and squinty eyes of the holier-than-thous who stand in judgment over him. In this case, consider even the bitchy tone of Times reporter Ariel Kaminer, which seems designed to tell us how we ought to feel : "The joke would not have been especially funny in any setting, but 11 days after the shooting it was dreadful..." (What's with this glib editorializing, you dizzy broad? Who asked you your opinion of the joke, anyway?)

No one controls what he finds funny. Humor, unlike ideological sensibilities, cannot be tamed or brought to heel. You won't find something unfunny just because some scoldy sensitivity-trainer writing for a newspaper gets in your face and insists "IT'S NOT FUNNY!" In fact, it is just what it is. I, for one, plan to keep laughing at things that happen to tickle my funny bone, and I resolve never to apologize for continuing to do just that.

So shoot me.