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Deconstructing “Offensive” Humor

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCD chapter.

One day I was scrolling through YouTube shorts when I saw a stand-up comedy clip titled “Mulan Makes Sense” by Zain Sharif. His shtick was that Mulan pretending to be a guy only worked because she was Asian. He claimed all Asians look the same, further developing his idea by saying: 

“If there is one race of people where the women and men could blend in as each other, it’s gotta be the Chinese…”

“And yo, I’m Indian, I’m just saying, it’s the same shit — I was in India two years ago and everybody has a mustache… men, women, babies, we all have mustaches.. we’re not that different, I just want to clarify…”

“Mulan would not make sense with black people.” 

But rather than the performance itself, a particular comment on the video caught my attention: “Bro was sweating hard and he knew if they didn’t laugh he was gonna have to run,” written by James Kellum. This reminded me of a course I took titled “HUM 015 Language & Identity”, where we had a short unit that briefly scratched the surface of humor as a phenomenon. 

But what exactly is humor? The Merriam—Webster Dictionary defines humor as “the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous: the ability to be funny or to be amused by things that are funny.” As such, humor is experienced psychologically and linguistically — it must be delivered by a performer and understood by an audience, where there must be mutual agreement on what is and can be perceived as “humorous.” There must be a target and focus (the butt of the joke, so to speak) that could be a person, group, action, attitude, or even a concept. 

These all must be established through specific communication — humor is encultured on many levels, meaning that humor must be understood in the context of its spatial and interactive space. This also means that it cannot be translated from one context or culture to another, because it would not have the same weight or meaning. For instance, a knock-knock joke can be culturally enjoyed (or not) throughout the United States and most other English-speaking countries. But if you assume that the joke is universal and can be translated into Chinese, you would most likely find that different cultures have different senses of humor. 

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Molly Longest / Her Campus

Regarding the different senses of humor, there are also different types of humor. While there are many ways of categorizing them, some categories are as follows: 

  • Affiliative: think of affirming affiliations, reinforcing common attributes between people 
  • Counter affiliative: makes distinctions between groups (in vs out) 
  • Self-enhancing: emphasizes flaws (i.e. self-deprecating humor) 
  • Defensive: emphasizing flaws in others, usually to contrast the negatives with the individual and their perceived “in-groupmates” 
  • Aggressive: emphasizing flaws in others, often in essential terms or to provide a reductive narrative about the “other”  
  • Bawdy: refers to corporal functions (often associated with vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity) 

A special case can be highlighted for humor that utilizes the “shock factor” or touches on the “taboo.” Laughing out of nervousness or shock is a common human reaction that plays into responding to performances that transgress past socially perceived boundaries and ideologies. For instance, joking that all Asians look alike has roots in racist undertones that rely on the audience being aware of the stereotype that Asians all have narrow and slanted eyes. 

The performance of humor and the interactions with taboo subjects such as racism, even if not said outright, then implies a sense of power (and power imbalance). Humor can be experienced as an exercise of performative power, where social conventions and groups decide who can joke about what, which subjects are appropriate to talk about, and who can be the subject of a joke. The power in humor, as an expression of authority, constitutes which subjects are taken seriously and which are not. 

Hello, nice to meet you! I'm a 4th year senior editor. I am a double major in English and Psychology. I greatly enjoy writing, editing, and the works! In my free time I love finding new things to eat from Trader Joe's and playing games :)