As We See It

Punch line: Offensive humor can make us laugh—or just make us look

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After Joan Rivers’ death, many tributes referenced a clip of her tearing a heckler to shreds over her right to touch nerves, whether digging at deaf children or one-legged men.

“Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot,” Rivers said.

Whatever you think about George Carlin calling bullsh*t on religion or Lisa Lampanelli exploiting black culture or Andrew Dice Clay talking about anything, we look to comedians to rattle us, to make us cringe and cackle about life’s sensitive material. Delivered by a bar marquee, offensive jokes land differently. Las Vegas’ Blind Tiger has been in the news more than once for quips in big plastic letters, most recently: “Ray Rice new bouncer on ladies night at BT.”

Footage of the indefinitely suspended NFL player punching out his then fiancée (now wife) is disturbing. Comedy tries to flip such emotions for amusement and catharsis, even with subjects as dark as it gets.

“Whenever I defend freedom of speech someone always says ‘so you’d let Hitler off?’ Haha. It wasn’t his words so much as all that genocide,” tweeted comedian Ricky Gervais, in the midst of backlash for a snarky comment he made about the nude celebrity photo hack. Accused of “victim blaming,” Gervais pointed out that making a joke about something doesn’t mean you condone it.

The owners of the Blind Tiger might say the same. Some commenters on the R-J story about the Ray Rice sign defended both its wit and license to exist. Others called it “outrageously disgusting” and brought up the bar’s history of line-crossing missives, like the one following this year’s Super Bowl that said the Broncos couldn’t beat the sick kids at St. Jude. The Internet hit back hard, and management issued an apology on Facebook.

Blind Tiger’s feed is quiet this time. Its gallery and Google Images show the sign reading everything from “Drink until she’s pretty” to “We support gay chicken fingers.” Funny or not, irreverence is clearly its thing.

But just as there’s a difference between jokes and true feelings, choosing to watch clever people say shocking things onstage or on TV isn’t the same as having your eyes involuntarily drawn to a glowing wisecrack. Without nuance or context, without the humanity great comedians toss in the pot they’re stirring, it might still make you chuckle. Or it might just be ugly words.

Tags: Opinion
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