Why are the French so much better than Americans at taking a joke?
"I'm told that some Jews managed to sneak into the room? [A beat.] You can stay."
Thus begins perhaps the most offensive skit by the most talented and most celebrated French comedian of all time, the great Pierre Desproges. He performed this in 1980s France, with memories of the Holocaust still very raw. The skit was disturbing — and side-splittingly funny.
Desproges was not anti-Semitic. He was not attacking Jews. If anything, he was making a deft political point by delivering horrendously anti-Semitic lines with an utterly deadpan delivery to show how racist atrocities emerge from an underlying soil of seemingly-nonviolent, everyday racism. His comedy was commentary. As The New York Times writes:
France has a long history of comedians who test the boundaries of taste when it comes to race and religion. The well-known comic Pierre Desproges, who died in 1988, told an audience in 1986 that "Jews had a hostile behavior toward the Nazi regime during the Second World War," and in the 1980s the popular Coluche, also now dead, said on television that Jesus was a Jew because "he had lived 33 years with his mother." [The New York Times]
Taboos are often the best trigger for humor. The disconnect between the enormity of what's being said and the banality of how it is said makes it almost impossible not to laugh. But comedy doesn't work simply by "going there." To work, boundary-pushing must be done with tremendous artistry. And it must be more than extreme name-calling.
Shock was far from Desproges' only talent (he was a master of the French language, for one, and today's average French preteen would probably have to google some of the words and tenses he used), but he did like to push boundaries. And he did it with such talent and good humor that it left many critics disarmed. He famously said in an interview, "You can laugh about anything, but not with anyone."
This is all very French.
When two jihadists armed with automatic weapons killed 11 people, including eight employees of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures lampooning Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, the entire world became exposed for the first time to a typically French type of shock humor. And many were ... confounded? Befuddled? Flabbergasted? Certainly one of those verbs that has no French equivalent. Vox's Max Fisher held his nose and explained that Charlie Hebdo "punches down" on France's minorities, asserting that Hebdo mocks minorities more often than it does French Catholics (actually the reverse is true), and sniffing that its sort of satire needs to be "called out".
This sort of reaction is why, after the Hebdo bombing, I had to try to explain why, as a member of the group that, in point of fact, Hebdo satirizes above all else — white, straight, conservative French Catholics — the attack felt like it killed a part of me, and why I was utterly unconflicted in my mourning for those comedians whose work I loved.
Why did I love this comedic work that used my deeply held beliefs as a punchline?
Because it was funny.
I often think about the late Desproges and Charlie Hebdo when I see the latest freakout over some offensive thing that this or that U.S. comedian has done or said. The latest is Samantha Bee calling Ivanka Trump a "feckless c--t." This wasn't funny, and probably she shouldn't have said it. But when such a thing happens, conservatives, who, understandably but lamentably, are irresistibly drawn to the idea of hoisting progressives on their own petard of political correctness, start convulsing uncontrollably. We should not behave this way either.
But why is Samantha Bee's crude insult, or Stephen Colbert calling President Trump a "cock-holster," or whatever else the outrage du jour is, different than France's political comedy? Why are Americans offended by name-calling while the French laugh at far more outrageous jokes?
Perhaps it's because Bee, Colbert, and Co. aren't delivering bitingly hilarious jokes — at least not when they're getting in trouble for being offensive. Instead, they're just using over-the-top insults. It's not that such things are offensive per se — it's just that they're not particularly funny. And it's much easier to claim offense when the room is full of crickets instead of laughter.
Of course, offense for the sake of offense is bad. And I'm not saying there should be no limits. That's not possible in any functioning society. This is the paradox of humor: It works by pushing taboos, which means that if there were no taboos it would no longer work. Comedians who push the boundaries should indeed be held to a higher standard, but it should be a standard of humor, not of political correctness.
And that would actually be a much higher bar to meet.