The moral limits of comedy


Photo courtesy of UNO

Professors William Kline and Edward Johnson discussed, at length, comedy’s role in society and how the perception of comedy has changed through the years as society has changed.

Demi Guillory, Reporter

“Anyone have a joke they’re ashamed of?”

UNO’s Dr. Edward Johnson’s question started the March 28 lecture in the Earl K. Long library. Johnson, emeritus professor of philosophy, and Dr. William Kline, associate professor of business at the University of Illinois, were guest speakers at “Don’t Make Me Laugh: The Moral Limits of Comedy,” a talk presented by the Honors Program.

The talk was an interactive discussion, with Johnson and Kline feeding off questions and comments from students throughout the course of the lecture. One student noted early on that comedy is a “release of tension” — Johnson and Kline agreed and spent the next hour supporting the claim and examining society’s changing views on what jokes are considered morally acceptable.

Does finding jokes about serious issues funny make us morally corrupt? Johnson said the question is host to “complicated” answers. “It might sometimes be one [answer], it might sometimes be the other,” he said.

Kline revealed that this is 2,000-year old debate, dating back to Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle believed that using comedy to deal with real problems was a form of “cathartic release,” while Plato insisted that laughing at bad jokes corrupts one’s character.

“I fall a little more to the catharsis side. I’m quite a minimalist when it comes to ethics,” Kline said, expressing his belief in taking the “steam out of people with laughter.”

Kline also questioned the role of comedy in relation to the natural human condition. “What if we need spaces to be bad?” he asked. He stressed the necessity for “designated” spaces like comedy clubs and bars where people can go to engage in vice. “I think it’s important to have spaces where you don’t have to be ethical.”

Comedy, as Johnson explained, allows people an “arena” to externalize and share their feelings and concerns about societal issues, even when jokes are “from a strictly moral perspective, noxious.” However, he argued that society has changed through the years, and comedy has increasingly become a less acceptable form of approaching taboo subjects and “delicate material” than it was in the past.

“We live in a very judgmental, holier-than-thou time, frankly,” where jokes are commonly taken out of context and shared worldwide on social media, Johnson observed. The person behind the joke becomes the “new worst person in the world,” he went on.

Comedians face a dilemma, as Kline said. “To do comedy, you’re trying to generate a certain tension in the audience. Go too far, you break it, and they hate you. Don’t go far enough, and it’s boring.”

Authenticity is a real problem comedians face, and Kline expressed his frustration with society’s inability to separate a comedian from their work. He used actors as an example. “There have been actors out there that have played really despicable characters, like in ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ Nobody thinks Anthony Hopkins eats people,” he said.

The associations people make with comedians stick “forever,” Kline said. Comedians go from being “part” of the joke to the “whole” joke.

“Somebody makes that [bad] joke, they immediately get associated with it, and that joke gets globally judged,” he said.

Kline is hesitant to jump to moral judgement regarding questionable jokes made by comedians but said he realizes that “over time, small things can turn into larger things.” Similarly, Johnson and Kline agreed that there are obvious limits to some comedy and that some jokes are completely unacceptable.

Johnson noted that it is the responsibility of the comedian to “test” the audience as a predictor of reaction before presenting their material.

The talk concluded with Johnson and Kline addressing final comments and questions from the audience.