Humor is Hard

There is a stereotype that people diagnosed with autism don’t have a sense of humor. I can’t speak for everyone across the spectrum, but as one guy on the Asperger’s side, I can vouch that this stereotype doesn’t completely apply to me. Whether or not my sense of humor is on the same level as the typical non-autistic, I’m confident that I have at least some ability to tell and laugh at jokes. But on the other hand, I do believe that being funny can be a challenging skill to develop whether or not you’re on the spectrum.

For myself, the problem often isn’t thinking of jokes so much as it is picking ones my audience will appreciate. This is especially the case if my punchline requires familiarity with the subject at hand. For example, a joke about anthropology, history, or paleontology would go over most laypeople’s heads, because they’d have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. A lot of jokes work through linking separate pieces of knowledge or conventional wisdom that most wouldn’t associate together, so they’re bound to flop before an uninformed audience.

Maybe this explains the stereotype of the humorously challenged autistic. We could joke all day about our pet obsessions, but anticipating what everyone else knows about them is not our strong area.

The other big challenge is that, personally, I have a soft spot for jokes poking at society’s idea of polite decorum or good taste. Or in other words, so-called “dirty” or “vulgar” humor. I’m not talking about the pointless raunchiness of certain teen comedies, or the vicious bigotry that trolls post on blogs or message boards because they can’t think of a punchline. Vulgarity by itself is not funny, but it can be a delicious spice to a joke if you use it properly.

Like, I thought it was hilarious when Borat wrestled his producer naked in that hotel, and both of those hairy unattractive guys rolled out into that nice hotel lobby in front of all those people. And then there was that flashback from Superbad when Seth Rogen’s character admitted to drawing all those penises when he was a little kid. There’s a brazen, taboo-busting audacity to those scenes that I have a special admiration for.

Another example of “dirty” jokes that I like are the ones that prod at so-called “touchy” subjects, the ones usually considered “politically incorrect”. Stephen Colbert’s comparing the Washington Redskins to a hypothetical “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” from a couple of years back is one example, and I thought it was genius. It was clear to me that Colbert was mocking the team’s racist name by showing how similar it was to slurs most of us would recognize as offensive. It distressed me to see all those dumb kids on Twitter crying #CancelColbert, as if they thought Colbert was being serious (I can only presume they were starved for pseudo-radical brownie points).

Unfortunately it’s precisely those kinds of jokes which I’m sometimes afraid of telling even though I like them so much. I don’t want to alienate certain friends of mine who might take my humor the wrong way, or take offense to its punchline. One time I suggested, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that the dinosaurs might have died off because the Jews poisoned their water. I meant it as a mockery of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and scapegoating, but a few people took it the wrong way and accused me of anti-Jewish bigotry or Nazism. Others said it was just tasteless.

Personally, I believe jokes are only as tasteless or offensive as their premises. It’s not the topic of the joke that matters, but what you say about that topic. That’s why genuinely racist (or sexist, or whatever) jokes aren’t my cup of tea; they require the acceptance of racist premises in order to work. Jokes that mock racism on the other hand can be very funny, because even if they prod a sensitive subject in an unorthodox way, in the end their premise is progressive. The best jokes are those with heart no matter their veneer.


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