Recently I attended a comedy show that wasn’t very good. I suspect, based on the size of the venue and the absence of a marquee sign with the performers’ names, that these were comedians who were just getting their start. They were trying to break into the field. I’m all in favor of comedians working on their material. It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of an audience and try to be funny. Not every joke is going to be a winner, and even George Carlin had to work on timing and stage presence. You have to be really bad at something in order to know what being bad feels like so you can avoid it in the future. So the unfunny jokes didn’t bother me. But what did bother me was that when the comedians attempted to do crowd work – interacting with members of the audience and attempting to make banter with them – they were not only unfunny, but also mean. At a comedy club, you usually have three performers. The “host” does the shortest set, usually ten minutes or less. The “opener” does the next set, often about 20 minutes. The “headliner” does the longest set of about an hour. The headliner at a bigger club is usually the comedian the people specifically came to see. A host and an opener get to “warm up” the audience and they get much needed exposure. During my recent visit, all three performers heckled the entire audience relentlessly. They made disparaging comments to many audience members. And all three of them took shots at me, especially after they discovered I am a priest. Their heckling and negativity was unsurprisingly poorly received, angering the crowd in the process. While I am happy to engage in humor at my own expense, and I love good comedy, there’s just something terribly unfunny to me about people being mean. Being mean for the sake of making jokes at personal expense creates cheap comedy, and cheap comedy is not good comedy. Bullying a crowd is not a good way to be invited back to a comedy venue.
I think there’s a good chance we’ve all struggled with bullying in our lives. When I was a little boy, girls were taught that if a boy was mean to her, that means he likes her. I remember being pushed, shoved, punched, and laughed at when I was a kid by the other boys in my class. I was made fun of because of my weight and I was made fun of because I was told I have a voice that sounds like a quacking duck. I’m sure I’m not alone in my experiences. Bullying continues to be an epidemic in our world. In fairness, I likely bullied other kids, too. That’s just what we were taught to do. Instead of “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you,” most kids were taught, “do unto others before they do unto you.”
A lot of people grow up just fine after having been bullied. They let the bullying wash away from their consciousness like water off a duck’s back. And many times, bullies continue their bullying ways into adulthood. It becomes a personality trait. But for sensitive people like me, bullying stings. And that sting stays with us. I’ve talked openly about being on the autism spectrum. I don’t like that autism is referred to as a “disorder”, by the way. Autism is simply different wiring in the brain. Many autistic people have tremendous gifts and talents, so I wouldn’t exactly call that a disorder. But autism does mean that people who have the condition feel things deeply. Every autistic person is different, but for me, I simply didn’t understand bullying as a child. Instead of realizing that something was wrong with the bully, I internalized that something was wrong with me. Of course, now that I’m older, I understand a little better. But it does still sting sometimes when someone makes a mean-spirited joke about one of my sensitivities. Usually I sulk for a bit, wondering how I need to change myself so that I can rid myself of the “flaw” that served as the butt of the joke. Eventually, I come around and realize that the problem is with the other person, not me. But it can take a bit of time.
Although my autism makes my sensitivity perhaps different than the sensitivity of others without autism, I know that plenty of neurotypical people are also sensitive to bullying and hurtful comments. Sometimes people say that they make self-depreciating jokes at their own expense before anyone else has the chance to. This is a common technique people use to take the ammunition out of the area of sensitivity. It sounds something like this: If you hear me tear myself down before you can, then there’s no reason for you to bring me down. It’s no longer fun or amusing. Bullying has been known to bring about feelings of tremendous shame. Sometimes it leads to retaliation. The retaliation might mean bullying someone else, injuring someone else, or even killing someone else. Sometimes it leads to self-harm and even suicide for the victim. I have known people personally who responded to bullying in each of these ways.
I’m happy to say that I held my own with these comedians who tried to make mean jokes at my expense. When I answered one of the comedians’ questions in a way that he apparently didn’t think was very funny, he said, “not all jokes are funny.” And I responded with, “yes, we’ve noticed.” Later, when he asked me if I knew any Jewish people, I told him, “my boss is Jewish.” He said, “wait. If you’re a priest, how is your boss Jewish?” I said, “I work for Jesus and Jesus is Jewish.” Just to show how bad the show was, those two comments got the biggest laughs of the night. Again, humor, even humor at my expense, is perfectly fine by me. But mean-spirited humor is not. What’s the difference? Humor at our own expense might be something like laughing about getting tongue tied while trying to speak. It might be poking a bit of fun at the reality that one’s idea of tidying up the house is drastically different than their spouse’s. Essentially, it’s not taking ourselves too seriously and allowing ourselves to laugh when we do or say silly things. It’s harmless. But bullying pokes fun not at behaviors and actions, but at who we are. Things that are directed at the person. Things like saying, “You are a fat person,” or, “you are a stupid person.” Stereotyping and putting people in a box because of their identity are examples of mean-spirited humor. Everyone has different tolerance for what might be funny at their own expense, but we can be pretty sure that if something is mean, then it isn’t funny to everyone.
It simply isn’t ok to teach little girls that if boys are mean to them on the playground, then that means the boys must like her. It isn’t ok to teach kids to be aggressive. It isn’t ok to teach kids to be “alpha” personalities. And it isn’t ok to model those behaviors around kids. Kids learn so much from what they see and perceive as “normal.” An example of this is that children of smokers are significantly more likely to become smokers as adults than are children of non-smokers. When smoking is “normal”, then it’s just something that you grow up and start doing. When bullying is perceived as “normal”, then it’s just something that you grow up and start doing. Young minds are impressionable and they learn from their environments.
I love humor just as much as the next person. I’m not bothered by foul language or even taboo subject matter, provided it isn’t used in a cheap way. Those techniques can be quite funny. Goating an audience to anger them is not funny. And bullying is not funny. It’s up to us to stand up to bullies. We can speak up for ourselves when we’re being bullied and we can speak up for other people when we notice they’re being bullied. That’s what Jesus did. He spoke up for the woman caught in adultery by saying, “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7). I believe it is appropriate to use humor, to enjoy humor, and to laugh often. Laughing boosts our moods and is good for our health. As the old saying goes, sometimes laughter is the best medicine. But when we are humorous, let’s always remember kindness. We owe it to ourselves to be kind to ourselves. We owe it to others to be kind to them. And we owe it to others to speak up for them when someone is being unkind to them. We can all do our part to stomp out bullying, and to shine as a beacon of kindness in the world.