In recent articles on commenting we've discussed freshness and originality, and now, having tackled those, we're prepared to move on to the slightly weightier topic of race relations in Western culture. Well, not quite. But we are going to talk about racist jokes.
Abuzz as the sports world is with Linsanity, it's no surprise that many people have heard—and heeded—the siren song of cheap cracks that take as their subject Jeremy Lin's East Asian heritage. You've seen them, here and elsewhere: the old L-for-R gag; puns on words like "slant," "slope," "gook," and "chink"; jokes about Chinese food and penis size and MSG. Some have been funny. Some have been tasteless. Some have been tasteless and funny. Some have been bitch-slapped into tomorrow.
Here's the thing: racism and racial insensitivity, by themselves, are obviously bad. But from a commenting perspective, they're not so different from any other available, established topic or formula or trope or crutch—like Emmitt Smith butchering the English language or "I haven't seen an X like that since Y" or puns or anything else: capable of yielding funny stuff when deployed with style and humor and originality, but not funny on their own. Where they differ from those other crutches is that a racist joke that isn't funny is about a thousand times worse than a regular old bad joke.
Does that mean you should categorically avoid jokes about race? Not exactly—but you should be aware that the bar for crafting a successful race joke is pretty high, and attempts that fall short of it will crash and burn. No one gets particularly offended by a straightforward clumsy joke, but a racially inflammatory joke is going to piss people off unless it's good enough to override their sensitivity to the issue.
There's no magic formula for clearing that bar, either. But the most basic, rudimentary form of quality control you can exercise is to ask yourself what reaction your comment is engineered to produce: Is it going for genuine laughs? Or for "Good God, he went there!" Would your joke work if you swapped out racially inflammatory language for milder alternatives?
The idea here is to be careful that you're not lazily substituting shock for actual humor, and that goes for potentially sensitive topics other than race, as well. Any maladjusted 12-year-old boy in the world can score some cheap attention by crudely and artlessly spouting transgressive language at the school bus stop. Let's set our sights a little higher than that.
And now, to cleanse our palates of this dour subject, let's laugh at some jokes that you didn't make.
Let's have some more of your favorite recent comments below.