I have a lady friend whose astrological sign is cancer. I was reading her daily horoscope, which said, “You feel like all hope is lost today, Cancer, but miracle comebacks can happen.”
A mutual friend, who was walking by at the tail end of the horoscope, put her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God! That’s terrible. I had no idea. Is it serious?”
My friend replied quizzically, “Uhhh, not as much as Chris’s. He’s a Pisces, and his said his big plans are thwarted. Time to regroup.”
“What?!? What are you looking… (seeing horoscope sheet). OH! You said you are A cancer?!? I thought you said you HAVE cancer.”
So we three laughed and laughed and laughed.
Except not really. You see, this story isn’t true, and it isn’t really funny.
Even while admitting our society has become extremely over-sensitive about jokes, I can’t fathom any context in which cancer is funny. This may come from losing my best friend when I was 12 to a brain tumor or the fact that a couple people I really respect in my profession are fighting it desperately right now.
Now what if this same kind of Three’s Companyesque misunderstanding leading to the humorous denouement was about AIDS? Would that be funny?
Judge for yourself. This is U.S. Senator Evan Bayh at the Indiana Jefferson-Jackson dinner last Friday.
The follow-up interview you hear is by Bil Browning from the Bilerico Project.
If I opine that the Senator’s joke wasn’t in particularly good taste, am I being overly sensitive? Before you answer, let me ask three questions. Do you have AIDS? Have you had someone close to you die from it? Are you gay or otherwise part of any at-risk community that has been demonized publicly because of its association with AIDS?
I ask because one thing I noticed is that people who claim others are too sensitive about a joke have almost never suffered from the condition the joke discusses. Can anyone envision any context in which lynching would be funny to a black person? Certainly not if it wasn't said by a professional comedian who was black (as we all know you get some comedic license if you talk about a group to which you belong). Do you think many people in sub-Saharan Africa laugh about starvation? How many Jews laugh at holocaust humor?
I get that AIDS wasn’t the focal point of Senator Bayh’s joke. It was about how different D.C. life is from Hoosier life. But somehow that changes nothing for me.
I’m painfully objective, so I will be the first to tell you that I’ve laughed at some pretty revolting stuff, as can probably be said about anybody who has ever watched South Park. Maybe that laughter comes because we don’t know how to respond to the uncontrollable and horrific. Maybe the laughter comes from disbelief because the creators of Southpark don’t slaughter sacred cows. They kill them, gut them, and turn them into hamburger and serve them to you as you watch.
But isn’t there a significant difference between when two guys nobody takes seriously laugh at AIDS in an expectedly offensive cartoon and when a United States Senator does it?
Or maybe I’m just being too sensitive. Anybody out there with AIDS want to tell me to lighten up?