Just because you can get someone to laugh doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. It’s a convenient excuse that people try – Oh come on, it was just a joke – implying that the fault must be yours.
It’s tricky, because sometimes it’s true. Some people, perhaps even some entire groups, are oversenstive and their offense should not be an obstacle. With humor, sometimes the entire point is to show how little it takes to offend them. I have mentioned before that the ability to laugh at oneself is good shorthand for emotional balance.
Comedians may drive culture somewhat, yet I think they mostly reflect it. They are out at the edge, breaking down barriers, but it isn’t arbitrary. They are usually sensing which barriers are soft, what boundaries can be expanded. We as audience are in a sense invitational: Break this fence. We want you to. We haven’t quite got the courage to do this ourselves.
Yet the offense given is sometimes the entirety of the humor. When you take it apart, there isn’t actually anything funny in there, just meanness, and the audience is only expressing joy that the meanness is being expressed publicly. In those situations, what is happening culturally is worth observing. Historically, it has been used in the arts to suggest evil and stupidity – groups of boys attempting to humiliate girls with hurtful comments they dare not respond to; rednecks making fun of blacks. The Nazis in the 30’s were not a stern people – they loved to go out and drink with their friends and make fun of gypsies or laugh at stories of terrible things done to Jews. The play “Cabaret” didn’t come out of nowhere. That people laugh is not sufficient. A good deal of “clever” writing now is mere creative insult. It is remarkable how little of even the NYT columnists remains once one studiously removes the snark. I have a distant impression that television comedy and standup are the same, but I can’t be trusted to have a representative sample from what I encounter indirectly. And I know less still about movie comedy.
I can like that sort of humor as well. Dave Barry and especially PJ O’Rourke have that as part (though not all) of their repertoire. Jonah Goldberg same. I liked small doses of Jay Severin in the old days for his sheer outrageousness. But for me, it only works as a seasoning, not as food itself. It gets tiring. I can also enjoy sheer outrageousness, of the “Borat” type.
When people don’t laugh, it usually means it just wasn’t that funny. But there is a type of not-laughing that tells us something else. There is an uncomfortable silence, an intake of breath, a how-dare-you quality that is a refusal to be amused. It is hard to describe, because once the moment of humor has passed, the memory of being offended can pass as well, so that the non-laugher can tell himself “No, it just wasn’t very funny. I didn’t mind him making fun of X in principle.” Yet if you can read the audience right, you can tell they aren’t going to laugh. Don’t go there. They aren’t going to like it. You are treading on sacred ground. Watch what happens to a professional comedian, who thinks the old rules of chuckle-funny still apply. A few laugh uncertainly, but it dies quickly.
Well, perhaps it wasn’t chuckle-funny, even in a different era with a different audience; perhaps nothing along those lines would be. We’ll never know. Rickles cleverly attributes the problem to it being a basketball joke. Ah. The audience knows Rickles from roasts and insults, which may give it an added significance.
Not very shockingly CS Lewis had something to say on this.
The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their 'sense of humour' so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humor is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful—unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humor." (The Screwtape Letters, 1942.)