Learn to Take a Joke, Young Man

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Lately I’ve been hearing people talking about how the young people need to learn to take a joke, because, one supposes, people back in the day were never offended by anything. Of course, people back in the day were offended by quite a lot of things, and we older folks know that, because we can remember just how offended our contemporaries have always been, so it isn’t immediately obvious what these old geezers are on about.

I mean, come on, Lenny Bruce was arrested for being obscene. The Smothers Brothers were fired for being political. Comedians have been offending people for as long as comedy has been around. Except, I think I know what they’re on about. What they mean is that they used to get away with saying things they are no longer allowed to say, and they don’t like being told to stay in their lane. They used to make jokes about women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ folks without fear of any sort of reprisal.

From their explanation, you would think this is because women, racial minorities, and queers used to just laugh along with them. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t see how anyone can possibly think that’s true. Imagine a gay kid laughing at a dad joking about killing his kids to prevent them from growing up gay. I don’t think that ever happened.

Rather, I think what happened is that these marginalized groups did not feel empowered to speak up for themselves, but now they do, and I for one think that’s a good thing. I think it is really good that gay people (and anyone who thinks gay people deserve respect) say they are offended when someone jokes about killing them. I think it is good that trans people say a man in a dress isn’t obviously the funniest damn thing in the world. I think it is good that women feel empowered enough to say they don’t think jokes about rape are part of a good time.

Comedians have every right to make any joke they want, and the audience has every right to tell them they are assholes for making them.

Other Kinds of Hicks, Bill

I saw a documentary where comedian Bill Hicks described how a heckler once complained to him that he didn’t go to comedy clubs to think. Bill said, “Well, where do you go to think? I’ll meet you there.”

Bill was from Houston, like me, and it seemed to frustrate him that the one place people didn’t go to think about the things he wanted them to think about was Houston. He would play sold out theatres in the UK only to return home to rant at an empty room to a smattering of drunks who didn’t even know his name.

I’d say Houston crowds never liked the local sons, but they sure enough turned out for ZZ Top. Those boys could easily sell-out the Summit three nights in a row. Heck, they could probably sell it out for a month. Bill Hicks tried to show us that everything we know about the world might be wrong—probably is wrong. ZZ Top taught us that many women have legs they enjoy seeing. So different goals and different success rates. When ZZ Top sang about legs, you really believed they meant it. When Bill Hicks flew into a blind rage, you really wanted to get out of the room.

Bill was probably right about everything, though. I mean, you know advertising really does cause a lot of problems, though I don’t know how many marketers killed themselves just because Bill told them to. When he flew into one of his rages, screaming at people to kill themselves, the audience would laugh at first, thinking it was a sort of Sam Kinison kind of thing, but Bill’s screaming never resolved into any kind of punch line. You’d be just as likely to cry as to laugh.

And sometimes he would cry, too. I mean, he was really moved beyond despair by the events at Waco. You might not agree with Branch Davidians, but Bill said he saw ATF setting a bunch of people on fire, which is hard to watch, you know, and you might be moved by it. Bill really was. It’s like when you realise the people in charge might not have your best interest at heart.

Disgusted by most things of the earth, Bill sought higher answers. It isn’t possible to talk directly to the cosmos for most people, so Bill did what many before him did—he turned for help to psychotropic substances. I don’t know whether it made him any wiser, but maybe it gave him some comfort, and I can’t fault him for that. Maybe he knew too much—or not enough—either one seems to bring the same pain. That’s the irony really, isn’t it? People who seek answers are rarely made happier by them, but they still keep seeking them, and really, people rarely say, “I wish I’d never looked into that.”

They just get wiser. And sadder. And that makes life worth living.