On the Front Lines Between ‘Funny’ and ‘Offensive’

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

Seeing as today is April Fool’s Day (or April Fools’ Day, as Wikipedia pointedly suggests I should be apostrophising it), and most of the commentary on the day’s festivities seems to border on despair and desperation, I thought it might be fun to post something about the uses and limits of humour.

The line between what’s funny and what isn’t is a fine one, and is often purely a matter of context. Even when successful, humour is always a question of morality, politics, and aesthetics. One need only look at the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings and controversy to confirm this assertion. Humour can be used to point to both serious and trivial issues, and whether it is productive is always a question of perspective.

In the introduction to their 2005 essay collection Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering have the following to say about the distinction between what is considered funny and what is offensive:

It is generally regarded as being beneficial to laugh about things, including ourselves; to get problems off our chests and ‘see their funny side’; to look back on what was previously regarded as very serious, maybe even tragic, and ‘have a good laugh about it’. There are clearly many cases where this is so, but equally there are others when it is inappropriate to laugh, when humour does not sit happily with the general tenor of an event or situation, and when a joke is regarded as overstepping the mark, as being beyond a joke.
(p. 4)

In this definition of the border between humour and harm, the focus is on whether the object of ridicule is the person laughing, or some unspecified other. A few pages later Lockyer and Pickering use the example of a female Muslim comedian, who tells a joke about being felt up during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Were a Christian man to tell this joke, they argue, it would ‘shift from being a joke at the teller’s expense to a joke told at someone else’s’ (p. 9).

From the cover of Beyond a Joke
From the cover of Beyond a Joke

Nazi jokes and humour are often the target of these kinds of questions. Is the Japanese ‘Nazi chic’ trend excused by the fact that the perpetrators aren’t German, and weren’t even alive during World War II? At what point are we responsible for the images and ideas we appropriate?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the borders of the humorous. I recently finished a first draft of a chapter on humour in the novel-as-masup (Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, etc.), which is also under review as part of an upcoming book collection. In these mashups, the question of humour is mainly one of triviality. The very idea of combining Jane Austen and zombies or sea monsters is so silly it almost crosses the border of humour in the other direction to become boring. Even for those inclined to be disturbed by the potential defacement of a literary classic, is it really worth getting upset over fiction? Because I’ve been working on it so much I’m a bit tired of the whole genre at the moment, but I’m also writing on a tangential paper for the upcoming Material Traces of the Past in Contemporary Literature conference in Málaga, Spain (naturally the location had nothing to do with my decision to attend).

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

For this paper I’ll be looking at how the creation and inversion of ironic distance complicates readings of historical fiction in the twenty-first century. Rather than looking at the nineteenth century as I do in my chapter, I’ll be covering some texts set during the two World Wars. The first is Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron (1995 | 2012), an alternate history novel that imagines Count Dracula leading the German forces during WWI. The second is Billy Ludwig’s manipulations of old photos from WWII, modified to include iconic images from Star Wars.

The Bloody Red Baron was a largely uncontroversial novel, both at its original 1995 release and at its reprinting in 2012. Ludwig’s photomanipulations have seen some moderate internet blowback, however, as has the similar If Star Wars Was Real photo series. This comes despite the fact that the two sets of images clearly mesh well aesthetically, partially due to the fact that George Lucas drew liberal inspiration from both World Wars when creating the Star Wars universe, as fan and historian Cole Horton demonstrates. When you get down to it, both texts are technically doing the same thing: inserting fantastical characters and images into historical contexts. What makes the one potentially upsetting, while the other is accepted as harmless?

The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.
The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.

One answer might be the visualness of photography. It’s inherently more confrontational than text. With a novel we have the right not to read, or to ‘look away’, as it were. In her 1968 article ‘The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception’, Mary Douglas argues that humour needs to be permitted as well as understood in order to be perceived as a joke. There is nothing particularly offensive about any version of The Bloody Red Baron’s cover art, or the book’s title. You never know where Ludwig’s photomanipulations might pop up, though, confronting you with something you have no chance to opt out of.

A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.
A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.

Another answer might lie in the question of celebrity. In The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman mainly hijacks famous historical figures. By stepping into the public spotlight, these figures have abdicated their right to privacy – at least to a certain degree. Additionally, many of these famous figures remained far from the front lines during the war. The same cannot be said for the lowly foot-soldiers and everyday citizens featured in many of the Star Wars photomanipulations.

What do you think – are these images offensive? If so, where do they cross the line?