Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Question of Humor

Last season on SNL (the current season just started 3 weeks ago), a repeat sketch emerged that caught my eye.

The sketch features cast member Kenan Thompson as an ex-con, brought in to the police station to give a speech to three young male trouble makers about staying out of trouble. The dialogue of the sketch follows a very dependable formula. Thompson (plus the guest of the week as another ex-con) starts talking about how small misdemeanors turn into bigger crimes which can land a guy in jail. Thompson offers his own story as an example, and retells the plotline of an iconic movie – the Sound of Music, the Goonies, Back to the Future, etc. When one of the kids calls him out on the stolen plotline, the ex-con’s pull him out of his chair or otherwise get in his face and tell him that this is NOT a joke. Here Kenan starts talking about rape in prisons, using pretty graphic imagery and yelling loudly. The thing about this part is that he describes the rape almost exclusively using puns from the movie he just summarized. For instance, in an episode with Taylor Swift he uses the Back to the Future to describe the “1.21 Jizzawatts” awaiting the young man in jail.

I’m afraid I couldn’t find available clips on the internet that would play in Canada, but all three installments of the sketch, called Scared Straight (with guests Taylor Swift, Tracy Morgan, and Charles Barkley) can be viewed from the US on Hulu.

The clip brings up some interesting questions, particularly because of its nature. The puns themselves are pretty silly – and do not require the violent scenario in order to be valid sexual puns about innocent movies. The guests themselves look equally ridiculous, especially Taylor Swift, acting like tough punk ex-cons. I would say that there are (just an opinion though) a handful of very funny elements present in the piece, not the least of which is Bill Hader fighting back laughter towards the end of the sketch. However, the sexual assault allusions make me uncomfortable.

The issue here is using sexual assault and humor. The sketch walks a funny line though, because it isn’t quite saying that sexual assault is funny, but using sexual assault as a excuse to make silly puns about iconic films. However, by using the puns, it creates a dialogue whereby the inclusion of sexual assault is funny . . . Its altogether a little confusing.

There are several questions being raised here:

What does the sketch say about sexual assault? How far is too far? What makes something funny? Where is the line between harmless and harmful humor?

I imagine that because everyone has a different relationship with humor that the answers will vary, but this is also a conversation that goes far beyond a few SNL sketches.

Share your thoughts, comments, additional questions!

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