On April Fool's Day, our local Socrates Café had an interesting discussion around the question of what makes something funny. One observation that came up repeatedly was that most jokes seem aimed at particular audiences -- at people who share particular assumptions, experiences, and contexts with the person telling the joke. The expectation is that those "in the know" will recognize what's funny, and that those who don't see the humor are failing to find the funny because they're not in possession of the crucial knowledge or insight held by those in the in-group. Moreover, the person telling the joke seems effectively to assert his or her membership in that in-group. People in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, "Probably not."
With this hunch about joking in hand, I wanted to take a closer look at a particular joke and what it might convey.
The joke was posted at Greg Laden's blog:
How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
The very choice of patritypical hyper macho sexual imagery in reference to what one might do with a light bulb exposes a deeply held and hegemonic bias objectifying the light bulb as both passive, willing victim and as compliant proxy for the colonial fate of southern hemisphere alterity.
I'm going to take a pass on a detailed translation on the pseudo-postmodernist jargon in the answer to the question. Clearly, the joke is supposed to turn on the idea that feminists see everything in terms of heavy theory that seems kind of crazy to normal people. Or that they constantly inspect everyday activities for reasons to be pissed off.
The question raging in the comments after the post seems to be is this joke actually funny?
Greg asserts that it is:
What is really funny is that this joke is in no way sexist. It does not have sexism or women as it's intent or object. It is a joke about pomposity in academics and post modern readjustments of reality...
Anyway, my student, who is a certified feminist (and indeed one of the commenters above) thinks its funny, and she is a VERY hard audience....
(and this is science. I'm an anthropologist. This is a ribbing critique, mini critique, really, about communication in the social sciences.)
(Bold emphasis added.)
Of course, the joke didn't open with "How many academics in the social sciences does it take to change a lightbulb?" But maybe that's just a function of Greg not being a professional joke writer. Still, from the opening, the "critique" comes across as targeted specifically at feminists. Not feminist anthropologists, not feminist academics, but feminists.
Greg asserts here that the joke isn't sexist. And, he tells us his student, a "certified feminist", found it funny. (I'm wondering now when and where I was supposed to get certified ...) So, the in-group that finds the joke funny, I take it from this comment, is supposed to include feminists. Moreover, Greg, in telling the joke, is asserting his membership in the in-group (although it's rather vaguer from the comment where he is on the Venn diagram -- whether he also takes himself to be a feminist).
Not every commenter seemed to agree that the joke was funny, or that is was not sexist. For example, notfunny2 explained:
I'm sure most of us feel it's your 'right' to post this, just as it's the right of many of us to find it unfunny without being called humourless feminazis. Ask any comedian about the importance of context to a joke. You're posting this on ScienceBlogs, where I would garner that many/most of your female readers are scientists, science students, or working professionals. Which means that a lot of us have to deal with shit from men in our male-dominated workplaces and we come here to have a somewhat more enlightened discourse. Or not.
It's as easy to make fun of humourless 1970's style feminists as it is to make fun of humourless Marxist-Leninist Russians. The difference is that your visitors aren't Marxist-Leninist Russians, but women, many of whom would call themselves feminist in at least some ways, even if they don't relate to the type being made fun of in that joke...
I'm guessing you're actually not a bad guy and that, chances are, with your background and your biologist wife etc that you are far enough away from a lot of this that you think we're all 'past' it. Which is why you perceive it as ok to joke about it, because it's a non-issue. The thing is Greg, for many of us, it's not. When the other woman in your building is a secretary, and when all the men turn around and give you the stink eye when you walk into the library, it gets to you. The same as "funny feminist jokes" can get to you when you see them on a place like ScienceBlogs. Probably I'll be called a humourless feminazi now, but so be it. Walk a mile in my shoes, in MANY of our shoes, y'all
In short: Greg may not be as far in with the in-group as he thinks he is. Or maybe the issue is that he's misjudged his audience and what they'll find funny on the basis of their experiences.
One of the commenters who found humor in the joke, StephanieZ, notes that some of Greg's unlaughing readers may not actually be the target audience for the joke:
Jokes have their audience. None of them are universal. If you're not part of the audience for this joke, it isn't necessarily a reflection on Greg--or on you. Calling Greg sexist because you don't share the same sense of humor, especially after he's explained the joke to you, is a waste of time you could spend on something you do enjoy.
I disagree with the assessment that there's no useful way the joke -- and its failing to amuse some of Greg's readers -- reflects back on Greg, but that's a point I'll return to.
Indeed, responding to Greg's "it's not sexist at all, a feminist told me so" comment, notfunny2 notes that context in which the joke is delivered brings with it a certain audience:
...unfortunately, the joke in the context of this site is for me, sexist. And given some of the reactions, I wager I'm not the only one. If we were all academics in a similar field, or if we had just been joking about jargon, I might have been more inclined to give it a pass. But what looks like a tired old joke on a general science site? Like I said, sometimes context is everything. You seem to be assuming a whole context for this post that a lot of readers, like me, are just not going to 'get'...
(Bold emphasis added)
Further downthread, Another leak in the pipeline puts it more succinctly:
Just another reminder of why I'm getting the hell out of science.
I do not know whether Greg expected to be met with virtual peals of laughter upon posting this joke. I find it interesting that when commenters indicated they didn't find the joke funny for various reasons, Greg seemed to want to assure them that really, it was funny -- they just needed to understand the joke, and here's the cheat-sheet to find the funny ... and why aren't you laughing?
Greg seems not to be listening to the commenters explaining the reasons the joke is not connecting with their funnybones. I don't think his consciously pulling the sexist equivalent of the Whipping Out Your Best Friends maneuver to avoid really dealing with racism, but resting the whole "not sexist AND funny" judgment on the assessment of a single self-identified feminist -- when other self-identified feminists are voicing alternate views -- seems like a suspect move.
And you have to wonder if what he's really saying is, "I'm telling this joke to those of you who agree that it's funny; the rest of you are not really part of the group I'm trying to speak to here."
We all have our audiences, the people we have in our minds who we think we're trying to reach when we hit the publish button. What's kind of coming across from some of these comments (and from Greg's responses to them) is that maybe Greg's is narrower than some of his readers thought it was. He already knows all he needs to know about how women experience jokes, and he's not open to any reconsideration of whether his own is as funny and non-sexist as he thinks it is.
On a blog, he doesn't need to listen to the people who disagree with him. That's his prerogative. In real life, it's also taken to be the prerogative of those at or near the top of the hierarchies to decide whether to listen or care about all sorts of things -- how well the "standard" ways to make hiring decisions or tenure evaluations work, whether it's worth the trouble to switch to double-blind peer reviewing just to reduce gender bias, whether one ought to gather any kind of information beyond introspecting that, "Gee, I'm not consciously discriminating against anyone, and I don't see my colleagues doing it" before deciding that everything is just fine.
Just like context affects what makes you laugh, it also affects what you notice. And the fact that you don't notice something that others do does not mean you should automatically assume those others are hallucinating, or oversensitive, or humorless.
(And to nip in the bud comments to the effect that I have no sense of humor, I'd argue that my jokes do reasonably well when the in-group is stacked with nerds.)