When I was growing up, white people making jokes about black people was considered in poor taste, rather like kicking someone when they were down. Only in carefully controlled situations where some affection and equality were assumed were such jokes allowed, and it was usually considered better if the black person led in this. For blacks to make jokes about whites was a little dicey, but more acceptable. Only people with a fine-tuned social sense could make it work consistently.
Bill Cosby came in, and the focus of his humor was how much his childhood experiences were like everyone else’s, especially those who had grown up poor or in cities. The universality was the key, rather like the Jewish comedians earlier poking fun at their mothers, who turned out to be much like everyone’s mothers (only more so).
Cosby gradually inserted gender and racial material over time. I doubt it was so much intentional as it was a comedian’s sense of what the market would bear – how far you could push an audience and still be funny. That he was able to push the envelope illustrated that we were all growing up.
Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy came up and made fun of both black people and white people more – and it worked. No matter how many they offended, they always were able to delight a larger percentage, forcing the offended to smile anyway. It is good for us to pretend to be more great-hearted than we are. For one thing, you learn that it doesn’t kill you; secondly, you find that people like you better.
Rednecks make fun of themselves. Female comedians increasingly make fun of women instead of men. I recently read a female travel writer who wrote “My Inner Princess wanted to scream.” That joke could not have been told twenty years ago. It wouldn’t have been funny.
There has been a lot of complaining about men being the butt of jokes on television for forty years. It persists because most men don’t mind all that much. We’ve been doing this for years and are more comfortable in our own skin. When men find general insults unfunny, it is usually because the attack was clumsy – merely insulting, with little grace. Remember Cyrano, for example. The rising group often takes pleasure in the mere ability to get away with the insult.
That confidence may come from having been the power group for so long. The recent increase in men complaining about how they are portrayed may reflect a recognition that the field is leveling.