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In Defense of Bad Jokes



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Anybody who knows me knows how much I love awful jokes — including the real wheezers that everybody else thought were funny in the schoolyard, but somehow I am the only one who continues to think they’re funny decades later, as I enter advanced middle age. The notorious recent joke by Santorum funding-father Foster Friess has elicited a touching defense of bad jokes by Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post. She writes that today’s culture of omnipresent (social and other) media makes just about every joke available to just about every listener, and thus creates a climate where offense is much likelier to occur:

Now [Friess has] apologized. And Santorum has denied him three times. And everyone and anyone with knees or aspirin is weighing loudly in.

 

There’s nowhere the bad-joke-makers can turn, no place of refuge where their remarks will be hidden from the ones who wouldn’t get it. Maybe that’s for the best. The world might be a better place with few of these aspirin jokes.

 

But it’ll be a bit duller, too.

True: A joke shared among friends after a half-dozen scotches sounds rather different on a stone-cold-sober national MSNBC broadcast. I trust my feminist bona fides are in order: I reject the point of Friess’s joke as the dinosaurial misogyny that it is, and I reject the anti-sex, demeaning-to-women ideology that it represents. But it is just a joke — and Friess’s apology for it is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, because of the distinctions it makes:

 

Today on Andrea Mitchell’s show, my aspirin joke bombed as many didn’t recognize it as a joke but thought it was my prescription for today’s birth-control practices. In fact, the only positive comments I got were from folks who remembered it from 50 years back. Birth-control pills weren’t yet available, so everyone laughed at the silliness on how an aspirin could become a birth-control pill.

After listening to the segment tonight, I can understand how I confused people with the way I worded the joke and their taking offense is very understandable. To all those who took my joke as modern-day approach I deeply apologize and seek your forgiveness. My wife constantly tells me I need new material — she understood the joke but didn’t like it anyway — so I will keep that old one in the past where it belongs.

 

Friess goes on to discuss his candidate’s view on the legality of contraception:

 

I am a big fan of the ancient Jewish scripture which says “God works everything for good for those that love Him and are called to His purpose.” So maybe the good to come from the high-profile reaction is a better understanding of Rick Santorum. He publicly stated he would not ban contraception; he has said if he were a member of a state legislature which introduced such a bill, he would vote against it; and he has incurred the wrath of his more conservative friends for voting to fund contraception to fight AIDS in Africa.

 

This is all very good to know. Friess’s other famous joke of recent days — a liberal, a moderate, and a conservative walk into a bar, and the bartender says “Hello, Mitt” — refers to a Romney vulnerability that is already rather too well known. The birth-control joke, on the other hand, while it was more offensive, may yet lead to a more informative “teaching moment.” I disagree with Rick Santorum’s view that contraception is immoral, and I am reassured that he would not work to make it illegal. His comments about using the bully pulpit of the presidency to inveigh against contraception worried some people; Friess’s description of Santorum’s views should lay that specter to rest. (As for the other Specter, the one Santorum endorsed for president, well, that issue has not been laid to rest — and thus we return to the topic of this post.)



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