On Friday I saw The Hangover, a film set in Las Vegas, where four men get loose, act stupid and have to figure out where it all went wrong. On Saturday, I went to see Avenue Q, an ‘adult’ puppet show set in New York, about finding your life purpose.
I saw puppet sex and gasped. I saw a man get hit in the head with a crowbar and laughed. Offense is a funny thing.
Of these two, Avenue Q gave the clearest lesson on how you can offend to amuse. The basic story line did not call for puppet fornication. It could all have been done very tastefully. But then Avenue Q would probably still be a script saved on a flash drive in a desk drawer somewhere in Brooklyn. The gratuitous sex, as well as the songs about racism and internet porn, make the show.
The Hangover has misbehaviour more fundamentally involved in its story line. Many of the actions in it are so offensive to society they are banned by law. As the title implies, it’s about consequences. The laughs come from seeing a man pee in Mike Tyson’s pool, from seeing a baby get hit in the head with a car door, from seeing a man marry a prostitute he’s just met, and from seeing a naked man get released from a car boot to savage someone with a crowbar. It’s a great film and I endorse it unequivocally.
Is it to do with how far you go over the line? Poke a toe over for a laugh, throw yourself over bodily, and you get in the stink? Or are there different kinds of lines? You can mercilessly taunt someone powerful, but you can’t even hint at what affects someone unpowerful? Is that why you can make fun of footballers, but not terminally ill kids?
Or what about this – I was watching Good News Week, and there was an extended riff on fat people. Noble, Anderson, and McDermott all got in on it. The audience roared. Then there was one joke about pensioners and the audience groaned. Is this why can we make fun of Scientologists but not Hindus? Is there a choice thing here – where if you opt in, you opt in to mockery?
I reckon offense has to do with context and perspective. If Hung Le makes a joke about Vietnamese people, the context makes it all right to laugh. If Pauline Hanson does the same joke, it’s much much less so.
It also depends on perspective. I find myself being offended on other people’s behalf all the time, but rarely on my own behalf. If you’re ‘Concerned from Doncaster’, you’re not going to let any opportunity for offence sneak by.
But, surely the butt of the joke has the only relevant perspective! It’s no good me getting worked up about a joke about the wheelchair-bound. Let’s find out what they reckon. People are in charge of their emotions, not the other way around.
Can we choose what offends us? And if so, can we choose what amuses us?