Can’t Anyone Take a Joke?

© 2018 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

We have two adult daughters. Both are married with children of their own. One of them lives overseas in Italy (don’t ask, it’s a long story, but it gives us a great place to visit), the other lives 10 minutes away in the same upper-middle-class suburban town as my wife and me, in the eastern part of the country. One of our local daughter’s neighbors is a broadcaster for a sports radio talk show. He and his wife are perfectly nice, normal people. Their young daughter plays with our daughter’s 6-year-old several times a week. They are remarkably unremarkable, regular in every sense.

A few days ago, he made an on-air a quip in which he mimicked the stereotypical speaking style of a foreign ethnic group. It was a joke, the kind of thing every one of us has done a thousand times, in reference to any one of a dozen or two well-known ethnic/national groups.

Well, apparently in this highly-charged, everyone’s a victim, incredibly thin-skinned and humorless environment in which we all now live, it wasn’t a joke. It was a heinous personal crime, betraying a shocking lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness on the part of the “joke” teller, injurious to the self-image of the target group to an irreversible degree. The morally-indignant brigade struck with Blitzkrieg-like (I probably can’t say that, either) suddenness and fury: No less than three very high-profile sponsors immediately—and very publicly—announced that they were pulling their advertising from the station. The station, trying desperately to get in front of what could be a PR disaster, instantly issued a public apology on all fronts—on-air, on social media and on its web site. And of course, they wasted no time announcing that the offending on-air host was suspended at once without pay, pending further investigation—with the implication that a firing might be imminent.

This relatively recent development of widespread social/professional victimhood coincides very closely with the rise in identity politics, particularly as practiced by liberal politicians and supported by the liberal media. Liberals seem to orient their political strategy and activity around the notion of identifying special interest groups based on age, ethnicity, gender and gender-orientation, religion, socio-economic class and education. Liberal politicians then convince the group in question that they’ve been victimized (either by society at large or by conservatives in particular) and so the liberal politician proposes a specific program to cure their ill and garner their vote. Humor has no place in the liberal paradigm. There is no innocent humor; there are only intentional, degrading insults, designed to maliciously hinder or prevent the group in question from advancing to their deserved standing in our culture.

Really? Every joke is meant to harm someone and prevent them from progressing?

I work in the music industry, in the marketing department of a very large company that owns and manufactures several very well-known brands of electronic musical instruments and keyboards, DJ gear, recording equipment and musical composition computer software. It’s a “hip” company—everyone is into music and we have frequent contact and interactions with today’s biggest recording artists and DJs (arranging endorsement deals, loaner equipment, etc.). As the senior marketing person (both in age and tenure), I supervise the marketing department. Our department is so diverse, the generals of the Politically Correct Army should pin medals on us. You name the gender, ethnicity/race, age group and sexual orientation, and we have them.

Connected by our love of music, our common professional drive for marketing/sales success in a highly competitive industry and our shared familiarity and interest in the gear itself, we all get along great. Pick your favorite cliché and it fits: a well-oiled machine, a winning team, an engine firing on all cylinders, whatever. They all apply.

About a year ago, I began telling a quick joke at the end of the day once or twice a week, to send people off with a smile. I have that public-speaking “performance knack,” and it’s really become something of a deeply-entrenched tradition now. People come from all over the building, not just marketing. Everyone waits for it. “Joke today?” “Do we get one today?”

Most of the jokes are squeaky-clean and decidedly un-ethnic. Not all of them, however. There are a lot of Jewish jokes, a never-ending stream of Yo Momma jokes and the occasional good-natured (never distasteful or nasty) off-color joke. When a joke is going to stray off the straight-and-narrow path, I preface it with a humorous disclaimer:

“This joke may be construed as being ever-so-slightly off-color or ethnically-insensitive in nature. If anyone here feels that such a joke contributes to a hostile work environment or hearing it would be at all unwelcome, I invite you to avail yourselves of this opportunity to vacate the area. I will take it as explicit approval anyone who chooses to stay.”

People wait for the disclaimer itself, it’s so dry and tongue-in-cheek. But I do say it, and it’s “on the record,” so to speak. By the way, everyone always stays. Everyone, always.

Then the joke follows. Our 34-year-old female marketing coordinator is the most disappointed of all when the joke that day isn’t going to be off-color. No one laughs harder than our African-American brand managers when I put on my exaggerated Black affectation and do a rapid-fire string of “Yo Mammas.” (I’m a middle-aged white Jewish guy, so it is particularly funny, I can assure you.)

People are people. We can all tell when we’re being seriously disrespected and when it’s just a routine situation. My feeling is that we’re united by things like humor, personal/emotional connections to other people, shared interests, and professional drive far, far more than we’re separated by any differences in ethnicity, age or gender/orientation.

It was a joke on that radio station. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Let’s get more jokes into our everyday lives, and let’s take the transparently-calculated over-sensitivity to well-intentioned jokes out of politics and the media. No joking.