The Ethics Of… Dead Baby Jokes

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is kicking off once again, drawing in hundreds of the world’s best comedians. And while we’ll certainly be up to our armpits in the likes of your Jimeoins, who’s harmless family-friendly shenanigans always brings a smile to my face even as my eyes glass over and my brain goes on standby, the true gold of comedy will be where it always is: in the edgy stuff.

You know the stuff I’m talking about; the sort of jokes that don’t make you laugh, so much as make that weird, drawn-out ‘Awwwww!’ noise of I’m-disgusted-but-enjoying-it noise, while guffawing awkwardly around it. The sort of humour you know is wrong, you know you shouldn’t laughing at, and that you know would immediately destroy your if you tried it in polite company, but which you just can’t help laughing at. The sort of humour where the sheer wrongness of it makes it oh so right.

Nothing epitomises this sort of dark humour like the dead baby joke. A quick example for the uninitiated (sourced from which exists for some reason):

How do you make a dead baby float?
Take your foot off of it’s head.

It’s gross, it’s horrifying, it’s extremely childish (pun entirely intended), it spits in the face of every social norm we have… and that’s why it’s funny. Without a single doubt, telling this joke will offend many people and understandably so – everything from the content, to the mental imagery, to the very fact that someone thought it was ok to say it, make this joke offensive. And yet, for those that find this sort of thing funny, that just adds to the humour of it all.

It’s easy to pass this sort of thing off as childish (and it often is), but this sort of dark humour is more than just a bunch of arseholes getting their jollies by making other people uncomfortable – it’s also a subtle critique of a society’s hangups, taboos and culture as a whole. Yeah sure, that dead baby joke up there may well evoke some nasty imagery, but since it’s extremely obvious that no one is actually considering drowning a child when they make that joke, why then is the joke such a taboo in our society?

Since when is discussing an awful concept an awful thing in itself? And given that it’s entirely done in jest, what’s the problem with someone finding such a concept funny? Certainly it might make other people uncomfortable, but as we’ve discussed here before, censoring what we do and say on the basis of whether other people find it offensive is a fool’s game, since offense is entirely subjective and doesn’t need to be grounded in reality whatsoever.

I have no doubt that many of you reading this will find the joke above stupid, immature, or just simply dull, but so what? Other people do think it’s funny, and since humour is just as subjective as offence, that’s all that matters. You can argue that their taste is terrible, you can argue that such humour is inappropriate in certain places, and you can definitely ask other not to tell such jokes around you, but at the end of the day, if someone genuinely thinks dead baby jokes are funny then that’s the end of the story – it’s true because it’s true, and it’s none of your damn business.

Even in cases where hearing a dead baby joke might cause someone legitimate grief, such as if they had experienced a miscarriage for example, sweeping censorship of something we enjoy because someone might be hurt by it is a silly response to that problem. Sure we should be considerate of the needs of others, know our audience and refrain from dropping a dead baby joke in, say, the hospital maternity ward. But should the specific needs of a few individuals prevent us from doing something we enjoy at other times? Should we stop watching action movies because someone might suffer a PTSD-induced flashback? Or stop going for walks because some people have agoraphobia? Of course not.

In this way a simple, stupid joke becomes a massive challenge to everyone that hears it – sure you find the joke offensive, but why do you find it offensive? What makes your personal preferences superior to mine? And why is it that you think that those preferences are a good reason for you to literally censor other people?

It’s this underlying challenge that makes The Aristocrats the absolute work of art that it is. For the uninitiated, The Aristocrats is a famous joke amongst comedians that is widely considered the dirtiest joke in existence. What makes it so dirty? Largely the fact that every person to tell it does their absolute best to describe the most horrific, disgusting, taboo thing they can think of – consider this example by the great Gilbert Gottfried:

Awful, right? But that’s the whole point of the joke; to make it as terrible as possible, undermine as many social norms as they can, and create the biggest juxtaposition against the name of the joke in the process.

So offensive humour is fine, and anyone who doesn’t like it can either voice their discomfort, go somewhere else, or get over it? Is this going to be the shortest article I’ve ever written on this site?

Brevity? Conciseness? An effort to decrease my verboseness to enable superior comprehension by the reader? NOT ON MY WATCH!

This is where I throw in my customary counter-example to mix things up a bit, and this week’s counter-example comes in a very controversial form: the rape joke.

Way back in 2012, a certain comedian by the name of Daniel Tosh, well known for his highly controversial and offensive material, was doing a gig at the Laugh Factory when he encountered a heckler. Comedians have a lot of different ways to dealing with this sort of thing, ranging from scathing wit, simply ignoring the heckler, or in a few unfortunate cases by having a total meltdown on stage. Tosh’s reaction however, it pretty unique:

For those who can’t be arsed watching the video, his precise words were:

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [heckler] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”

Needless to say, a shitstorm promptly erupted. On the one hand you had feminist groups arguing that Tosh had basically said ‘rape is funny’, and was therefore the biggest arsehole currently walking the earth. On the other hand, however, were a legion of dark humour enthusiasts who made the same argument that I have above: Tosh was OBVIOUSLY not suggesting that the heckler should literally be raped, so where’s the problem? Yeah you might find it offensive, but so what? They thought it was funny, humour and offense are both subjective, so why do the personal preferences of feminists have any relevance to the situation?

Other comedians also came to the defence of Tosh, with Jim Norton summarising their arguments nicely when he said “It’s either all OK, or none of it’s OK…everyone knows the difference between [humour and a serious statement].”

Now obviously the ‘all or nothing’ statement (originally from the creators of Southpark, big surprise) is an obvious false dichotomy; kind of like arguing that either completely support or completely oppose everything a government does – obviously the merit of each action/joke depends on whether it stands up to criticism.

But is ethical criticism relevant to jokes, given they’re subjective? How can it be possible to say if a joke is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when the very fact that someone finds it funny means it’s funny? If the very concept is just a matter of personal opinion, then surely it’s beyond fact-based criticism, right? What am I going to try next, logically disprove that someone’s favourite colour is blue?

Well that works for as far as it goes: you’d be totally right that I can’t say that people find rape jokes funny – the fact that Daniel Tosh even has a fan-base means they most certainly do. What I can do though, is ask whether a joke portrays rape as a positive or a negative thing.

Remember, this isn’t dead baby jokes or The Aristocrats we’re talking about here, which are both extremely exaggerated and implausible – even if you actually wanted to try something like that in real life, you’re going to get caught so fast the judge won’t even bother reading your name.

“That one. Yeah the one with the hair. Guilty. Next.”

Rape on the other hand, is not just plausible, but disturbingly common with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes. In other words, it’s an issue that exists in the real world, and that your average person is definitely capable of. As such, the way we treat the concept of rape (or racism for that matter, since that’s equally real and even more do-able for normal people) is kind of important.

So how does Tosh’s joke reflect on the heinous act of rape? We’ll let’s have a second look:

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [heckler] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”

Not great. You can cry ‘irony!’ all you want, and sure, given the heckler was objecting to Tosh making rape jokes earlier in his set, there would be some sort of irony there. But we’re not talking about whether it was funny here – that’s totally up to you – we’re talking about whether the joke portrayed rape as a positive or negative thing. And in terms of that question, the interpretation is pretty simple: ‘it would be funny if the person annoying me was raped. I am encouraging you to laugh at the idea of this person being raped.’. Not great in other words.

This isn’t to say that all rape jokes are off the table: in fact I’d go so far as to agree with comedian Sarah Silverman when she jokes that we need more rape jokes out there:

Notice anything different there? A slight difference in tone between Silverman’s shtick and Tosh’s joke? No? Maybe the immortal George Carlin can clarify things a bit then:

Couldn’t have said it better myself: it’s all about the construction of the joke. What Silverman and Carlin both understand is that for a rape joke to fly, it MUST mock to rapist, the act of rape, the mindset behind rape, the culture that enables rape, or the excuses that happen afterwards. These jokes inherently criticize rape and make it extremely clear that it’s a very very VERY bad thing. Tosh’s joke? Not so much.

The same goes for virtually any realistic topic; a comedian gets on stage and starts joking about how, back in the day you could beat a black man for kicks and no one would bother you? Yeah, they’re going to get howled down as a racist, and that’s because they are a racist.

But write a skit about a white family that just happens to have the last name of ‘Niggar’, which mocks the absolute shit out of the stereotypes used against black people? Comedy gold right there, and intelligent comedy gold to boot. What’s the difference? One uses racism to get laughs, while the other mocks it for laughs. One confirms and contributes to a culture that causes definable harm, and the other attacks that culture.

Maybe you personally find racist jokes funny, I don’t know and frankly I have no place saying whether they’re funny or not. What is my place however, is arguing whether the joke itself is racist or not, and criticising it accordingly.

The exact same thing goes for dead baby jokes; while the vast majority of them do portray dead babies as a semi-positive thing, the extreme absurdity of the content take the harm out of them entirely. But try that crap in a miscarriage support group and you are rightly going to be told to shut your face and do it quickly.

By and large, ethics is the question of whether something is good or bad depending on whether it has good or bad consequences in the real world. Whether a person finds a particular joke funny or not doesn’t fit in that question, nor do jokes that have no relation to real world issues. But jokes that either attack or defend real world issues that can and do affect real people in the real world? Those are definitely open to criticism, and whether you find them funny or not doesn’t mean a damn thing.

6 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Dead Baby Jokes

  1. While, in general, I agree with your stance, the idea that we should never abstain from something that we “enjoy” is the epitome of a entitlement society. God forbid we avoid doing something we enjoy in the interests of wider society. It’s a god awful side effect of a culture that is obsessed with individualism (which has morphed into pure ego-centrism and selfishness).

    Believe it or not, holding back from doing something that you “enjoy” because holding back would have a positive effect on someone else is actually healthier for you than just busting your nut on pissing off as many people as you can. And, really, isn’t that what most people consider “freedom”? Hey… we have the freedom to be assholes and treat people like crap, so I guess we should exercise that right as often as possible!

    • Hi Ben, thanks for the comment and apologies in the delay replying.

      Good point and I agree with you. I’ve re-read my post and not sure I really balanced it right in the end. While I stand by the point that offense is subjective and therefore irrelevant when it comes to the principle of a matter (ie. offensive jokes that don’t promote actual harm are justifiable), I do agree with you that needlessly upsetting people is unethical in and of itself. They may not have a valid reason to be offended, but the fact remains that, in this time and place, they ARE offended and that’s legitimate emotional harm.

      Perhaps what I should have argued is that while offensive humour CAN be justified, we should choose ouraudience in order to prevent unnecessary and pointless harm to others feelings.

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