Comedian John Cleese gave an interview to Vulture today in which the topic of campus protests was raised. Cleese diagnosed the problem with people who push political correctness: They have no sense of humor:
I haven’t spoken at Cornell for eight years, so I can’t say I have firsthand experience of how receptive students are to having their thinking challenged. I’d planned to go back to the school sooner but I was hit with a divorce and didn’t have time to return because I was busy doing money-grubbing work to help pay for the settlement. So I’m quite curious to see how things are now. In fact, other comedians have tried to warn me off of speaking at colleges — they tell me it’s not worth the trouble. Jon Stewart said something like that to me about two years ago. But the thing about political correctness is that it starts as a good idea and then gets taken ad absurdum. And one of the reasons it gets taken ad absurdum is that a lot of the politically correct people have no sense of humor.
Because they’re scolds?
Because they have no sense of proportion, and a sense of humor is actually a sense of proportion. It’s the sense of knowing what’s important. In my stage show I tell jokes that make the audience roar with laughter, jokes about the Australians or the French or the Canadians or the Germans or the Italians. I make all these jokes and everybody laughs — and we don’t hate those groups of people, do we? Take this joke: “A guy walks into a bar and says to the barman, ‘You hear the latest Irish joke?’ The barman says, ‘I should warn you, I’m Irish.’ So the guy says, ‘All right then, I’ll tell it slowly.’” That’s funny! But if you tell that joke and replace “Irish” with “barman who isn’t very intelligent” it isn’t funny at all. Why should we sacrifice laughter to the cause of politically correctness if that laughter isn’t rooted in nastiness? This actually reminds me of an idea I had: Every year at the U.N. they should vote one particular nation to be the butt of the joke…
People find it hard to believe this, but unless we’re talking about puns and wordplay, all humor is essentially critical. So to eliminate jokes that are at the expense of other people is to eliminate most jokes. If you laugh at someone, it’s because his behavior is inappropriate.
Cleese goes on to argue that everyone should be fair game for humor:
If I can make jokes about Americans or English or Germans but I can’t make jokes about black people, then the question is this: When will we be able to treat black people in the same way that we treat Germans?When they’re treated equally outside of comedy. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that Germans are dealing with systematic oppression.
Well that’s right, but when will be able to say things are equal? Where’s the line? Here’s another example: Americans love jokes about English dentistry. Now that’s not very nice, is it? Have you ever heard an Englishman saying, “Stop persecuting me?” So where’s the line about what’s allowable? It’s very thin, wherever it is.
I think Cleese is absolutely correct about the nature of humor as criticism. The person telling the joke and the people laughing are agreeing that some 3rd party (the butt of the joke) behaves inappropriately. But in America, it’s no longer acceptable to laugh at certain jokes or to make them. You’re as likely to be protested for trying as to receive a standing ovation. Whatever contemporary issue you’re poking fun at, there’s a good chance the American left is not amused.
Here’s a video clip from last year in which Cleese presents some of the same points about the critical nature of humor.