Friday, September 30, 2005

The hazards of humour

Have you ever made a witty remark on a blog and offended someone who took it the wrong way?

Roger Ebert has that problem, too. Here's a Q&A from Ebert's Answer Man feature:
Q. Recently you have come under fire from readers who don't get the humor in your columns, as in your "Dukes of Hazzard" and "The Aristocrats" reviews. The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty. A little piece of me dies every time one of your witticisms is mistaken for a sincere attack.
Andrew Zimmer, Los Angeles

A.
I hope it is a very small piece. A depressing number of people seem to process everything literally. They are to wit as a blind man is to a forest, able to find every tree, but each one coming as a surprise.
Roger Ebert
"The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty." Perhaps I'll take comfort in that the next time I make a joke and a fight breaks out. (Not that it has happened to me recently.)

7 Comments:

At 7:00 PM, September 30, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

I disagree. Most jokes are written and people just need to know that a joke is coming.

I used to write to Ebert back in the mid-'90s and he personally answered his e-mail. I was very thrilled about that the first few times. I asked him some blunt questions and he replied honestly. One such question was why he gave away the plot twists and endings. He said that most people read his reviews after seeing the movie. I also gave him grief for acting like a fan at the Academy Awards one year. He told me to chill that the event was akin to a high school prom for actors.

 
At 3:34 PM, October 01, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

I submit TM is correct in many worlds, but misses it a little in others. Although most broadcast jokes are in a sense 'scripted', others are not. At any rate, much of that humor is as likely generated by style of delivery and our new favorite word, nuance, over structured content.

But TM does hit it on the nose that to truly appreciate humor, people "just need to know that a joke is coming."

Isn't that the key to Ebert's comment? Too many of us take too many things literally - which I suspect is true - and we continue to be surprised by each tree we run into as we stroll through life's forest.

Could the reason we all seem to take some things too literally - (and the scope of those 'things' seems to vary widely betwixt us) - is because each of us in our own unique way are sensitive to our own personal 'hot button' terms, such as "NASCAR, PETA, Pro-Life, Neo-Cons, Wet-backs, Christians, etc.", and our senses of humor react differently when we suddenly run into any of those 'trees'? As if we suddenly discover our own ox's are being gored, so we must rise to the attack, get on the offensive and strike back?

 
At 3:58 PM, October 01, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Misanthrope:
You surprised me; I didn't expect anyone to disagree with the statement!

It's rather a truism that the more cues people have to work with, the more likely they are to understand the intent of your remarks. Print communication is missing cues like vocal inflection, body language, and facial expressions, so people are more likely to misinterpret things.

It's true, if people know there's a joke coming, they're likely to enjoy the punchline with you instead of taking offence. But there's a particular challenge in that respect with satirical writing, which maintains the pretense that the remarks are meant to be taken at face value.

I pride myself on my ability to communicate (though I don't think my writing is especially elegant), and most of the time I don't get into difficulty. I did offend a fellow blogger a couple of months ago, however, when I wrote something "tongue in cheek" and he took it as a put-down.

49er:
You have a down-home way with metaphor that is very colourful; I admire and enjoy it.
Q

 
At 5:36 PM, October 02, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Humour is SO difficult in print. I've lost count of the number of times I've had my head bitten off after trying to be light-hearted about something. I used to think that it was just my apparently 'warped' sense of humour - but now I realise that its the lack of cues we depend on to know when someone is joking. 90% of them are missing (or seem to be) in this medium. Even when you use smilies...

 
At 8:55 PM, October 02, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for sharing, cyberkitten. Even when you know you didn't mean to offend someone, it still troubles one's conscience. After all, they were hurt, regardless of your intent.
Q

 
At 9:10 PM, October 02, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

49er made me laugh, with his dry observation that we tend to lack a sense of humour in those areas where we are most earnest. Too true.

"People just need to know that a joke is coming". Well, that's exactly the problem in written communication isn't it? They often don't know it's coming. There's no quirked eyebrow, no twinkling eye, no lilt in the voice.

Like cyberkitten, I've offended people when I thought it was perfectly clear that I was being light-hearted. The worst culprit is irony, one of my favourite forms of humour! I've learned the hard way never to be ironic in writing unless the person knows me well or has evidenced an appreciation for that form of humour already.

Humour is much harder to do well than many people realize: it takes a deft touch. Additionally, most of us aren't half as funny as we think we are!

 
At 3:19 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Irony is tough at the best of times.. in print.. damned near impossible... But I keep trying... and keep having my head bitten off... good job I've developed thick skin over the years...

 

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