Ted, and the Fallacy of ‘Harmless Jokes’

No spoilers

I wanted to like Ted. Although I had problems with both Family Guy and American Dad, the story arcs of Stewie/Brian and Roger were often funny, and didn’t always rely on offensive material. Being a talking teddy bear, I thought Ted would fit into the same mould.

Sadly, much of Ted’s humour stemmed from his being one of the most obnoxious non-villain characters I’ve seen on screen. He is the ultimate lad’s lad – doing drugs, sexually harassing women, surrounding himself with prostitutes, spewing racist tripe, and being quick to point out that he is totally not gay. All of which, of course, is supposed to be hilarious.

Film critic Jonathan Kim says in the Huffington Post, “It’s a film filled with the kind of jokes you might make with your closest friends, where you can say the most offensive things you want to get a laugh since your friends know you and your intent well enough not to take anything you say to heart.” Well, I’m not sure what kind of friends Jonathan has, but my friends and I certainly don’t find such things funny. No, not even in private. Not even if we ‘know we don’t really mean it.’

The whole idea of how it’s fine to make jokes at the expense of minority groups, because everyone knows you’re not really sexist, or racist, or homophobic, is a common fallacy.

In Quirkology, Professor Richard Wiseman’s book on psychology, he investigates the world of laughter by conducting a wide-ranging experiment as to the kind of jokes people find funny. He found that “the top jokes had one thing in common – they create a sense of superiority in the reader…in each case it is about one group of people trying to make themselves feel good at the expense of another.” He also goes on to say:

“Some research suggests that jokes like these can have surprisingly serious consequences. In 1977, psychologist Gregory Maio from Cardiff University of Wales and his colleagues looked at the effect that reading superiority jokes had on people’s perception of those who were the butt of the jokes. The study was carried out in Canada, and so centered around the group who was frequently portrayed as stupid by Canadians, namely Newfoundlanders (or ‘Newfies’). Before the experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The people in each group were asked to read one of two sets of jokes into a tape recorder, supposedly to help determine the qualities that make a voice sound funny or unfunny. Those in one group read jokes that did not involve laughing at Newfies (such as Seinfeld material), whilst the other read Newfie put-down humour. Afterwards, everyone was asked to indicate their thoughts about the personality traits of Newfoundlanders. Those who had just read out the Newfie jokes rated Newfoundlanders as significantly more inept, foolish, dim-witted, and slow, than those who had delivered the Seinfeld material.”

“Just as worrying, other work has revealed that superiority jokes have a surprisingly dramatic effect on how people see themselves. Professor Jens Förster, from the International University Bremen in Germany, recently tested the intelligence of eighty women of varying hair colour. Half of them were asked to read jokes in which blondes appeared stupid. Then all participants took an intelligence test. The blonde women who had read the jokes obtained significantly lower scores on the IQ test than their blonde counterparts in the control condition, suggesting that jokes have the power to affect people’s confidence and behaviour, and so actually create a world in which the stereotypes depicted in the jokes become a reality.”

So is Ted, as Jonathan Kim opines, “a breath of fresh air,” or does it merely trot out the same old tired stereotypes and brand of humour that has honestly gone completely stale? In a world where sexism, racism and homophobia are thriving – the very things MacFarlane’s jokes depend on – do we really believe that all “viewers are smart enough to know that they’re just jokes”?

Being obnoxious doesn’t make you cute or funny, Ted…even if you are a bear.

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21 thoughts on “Ted, and the Fallacy of ‘Harmless Jokes’

  1. I haven’t seen Ted but when I heard some of the jokes that bear was saying I decided it probably wasn’t for me. I enjoy comedy, I love laughing but sexist and homophobic jokes that don’t have a critical context are getting lame.

    I’m glad someone agrees with me on this!

    • Exactly! The weird thing is, such jokes are always framed as being shocking. But they’re really not; we’ve seen it all before. How can they claim to be controversial when all they do is maintain the status quo?

      • I think they’re “shocking” because we know morally that they should not be said. Maybe were more so laughing at the fact that they’re “rule breakers” or laugh because we’re uncomfortable. But yes, there is nothing controversial about maintaining the status quo!

        The only time I laugh at jokes that could be considered sexist, homophobic, racist or what, are usually when they are performed by comedians of that group. They are speaking from experience and are usually making fun of how society is structured!

    • Very valid sentiments! For the most part, I boycott stupid films. Usually if a film seems as though it will be offensive and unimaginative, it usually is. However, I admire your openness and second-guessing your instinct to judge the film by its cover.

  2. Really interesting to see how “mere jokes” are used to raise the self-esteem of the teller at the expense of the sense of self of the butt of the joke. How they affect them both in opposing ways.

      • I feel horrible when I accidently say “harmless” jokes, they slip out and I hate it it’s like I’m conditioned to say things like that because it’s “normal”. I’m really starting to realize how subconsious some behavior really is.

  3. “Well, I’m not sure what kind of friends Jonathan has, but my friends and I certainly don’t find such things funny. No, not even in private. Not even if we ‘know we don’t really mean it.’”

    Yes, this. Telling a racist joke tells me a lot more about the speaker than the racial group. Once I heard one of my good friends speak about a racial group in a derogatory way, and I was pretty shocked. He thought it was ok since he was just talking to his friends and he wasn’t really a racist…some of his best friends were of that group (insert eyeroll here). And of course he didn’t really feel that way. But I soon saw a divide between my friends who would tell racist/sexist jokes among other friends and my friends who didn’t, and while they might not mean the exact words of the joke, there is an undeniable underlying racism or sexism.

    • Indeed. I think that to tell or laugh at a racist joke, one has to have racist notions on some level, even if it’s not necessarily obvious on the surface.

  4. Great writing again my friend. I’ve only seen adverts for this movie and hated it straight away. There are so many rubbish films made and lots of remakes – there’s a crisis in mainstream culture and it shows.
    My dad was a great joke teller but racist and sexist jokes make me most uncomfortable and I won’t tell jokes because most are so horrible – I’d rather be funny spontaneously. I’ve worked in some uber-masculine places like a car factory and there’s always a tension when blokes try to tell these so-called jokes – they try to get you onside and attacking women or racial minorities. I’ve got into heavy situations by objecting but you have to stand up for what you believe in. I love having women as friends and people of low intelligence or social awareness don’t realise they are attacking themselves by behaving in this manner.
    In the end, if you love yourself and everybody else you realise we are all one – sorted people don’t have to look down on others to feel good.

      • I think some people like to feel behind the times – it’s comforting for them like being a bit drunk – times when men were men, women were women and bubonic plague was all the rage. It’s the same with those who support the monarchy – they think they’d like to wear silly clothes and reside in the ‘good old days’ that never existed, except in films and costume dramas. The modern world scares a lot of folk…

  5. Well said! It makes me think of how it used to be acceptable, and common, to joke about beating one’s wife. There were a whole series of jokes that people evidently found hilarious back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s that all hinged on physical abuse of one’s female spouse.

    Oddly, these jokes are not heard much anymore. And yet, such jokes would be even more shocking, I assume, than your standard “black people are lazy LOL” joke or whatever. So why don’t our alleged “shock jocks” use jokes like that?

  6. I’m Canadian and despite having heard Newfie jokes all my life, I love the Newfies I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Our accents are different, and I love listening to them. They are the warmest, friendliest people in the country!

  7. The blondes who had read blonde jokes getting lower scores on a subsequent IQ test sounds like an example of stereotype threat, where anxiety causes people to underperform when they are attempting a task in a situation where they fear they may fulfill a negative stereotype about the group they belong to. This is covered in depth in a very, very interesting, readable, and well-researched book by Claude Steele called “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us All.” Race, gender, and school are discussed at length. The whole book was so fascinating and relevant.

  8. Pingback: “Women Aren’t Funny” – Gender and Stand-Up Comedy | Crates and Ribbons

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  10. I laugh at many jokes about race, gender, and even murder or rape if they are truly creative and funny, but

    A: If I am studying or noticing a problem along those lines it can remind me of the real life events that are not funny

    B: I don’t like jokes that would only be funny or laughed at if the laugher would have to have a real life agreement with those things to find them funny,

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