A joke has two functions. First, it reveals something hidden; even the lowly pun will reveal a connection between two words that wasn’t obvious (what do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator.) Some claim the shock of recognition that a joke provides is what makes us laugh.
The second function is social. When you tell a joke, you tell it to someone. When they laugh (or smile, or groan), it confirms that they saw the hidden aspect of it, that they are on the same page. They “got it.” To be able to understand a joke, two people need to be able to share not only a certain ability for a certain spoken language, but often certain cultural assumptions as well. A common joke in the last few years has been the inappropriate “Thanks, Obama!” echoing the Republican pundit refrain; however, depending on who is speaking and listening, the “joke” of this may mean something completely different. To “get it,” a person has to recognize not only the joke itself, but the conflict between the original spirit and the spirit in which it was told.
Of course, one of the most effective methods for forging “belonging” to a group is to create, or reinforce, an exclusion; this is the realm of the sexist, racist, or demeaning joke. The ubiquitous “blonde” jokes of the 80s, for instance, which suggested that women with yellow hair were idiots, enabled those who told and understood those jokes to feel the thrill of an innate superiority in which they already believed. They reinforced a difference in order to help underscore a similarity: “Haha! Cheese by a computer mouse? Hilarious!”
This function of humour was recently a hot topic, after Daniel Tosh singled out a member of his audience and made an aggressive and tasteless joke against her. This incident became something of a cause célèbre – a strong example of aggression against women in culture at large for those who work to make these structures understood. In some circles, these criticisms were received as an attack on the work of comedians, the demand for a muzzle. These people, some of whom are working stand-ups, suggested that it is a comedian’s job to make people uncomfortable, to point out what they don’t want to admit. Tosh later suggested on Twitter “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.” Of course, he forgets, in this statement, that in this moment he wasn’t just making a joke about something – he was making a joke at someone, above someone.
I have never liked Daniel Tosh. I watched fifteen minutes of his stand-up several years ago, and turned it off in disgust. Everything about his act was solidifying a kinship with rich, white, privileged men. Most of his jokes consisted of the sentiment “I’m just saying – isn’t being us great? Aren’t we just better?” In other words, his act is all about forming a bond with his audience by reveling in excluding everyone else – I just assumed the roots of his success lay beneath American frat-houses, and forgot about him until the recent outrage.
Enter Cards Against Humanity, one of Kickstarter’s breakout hits, the card game that completely sold out in its second day at PAX Prime 2012. The demand for this “party game for horrible people” is all the more remarkable for the volatile culture in which it was published, a time when tensions are high, tempers are hot, and the internet provides a points multiplier to the impact of bad choices.
Being Bad In A Good Way
At its core, CAH is Apples to Apples, but with a change in design that solves one of that game’s fundamental problems: what if you play with boring people? Apples to Apples, when played with a literal-minded group, is worse than a trip to the dentist. The game is only really fun when it is subverted, when the associations made by the game are surprising and, yes, offensive. CAH removes the possibility of a boring game by making almost every single card in its deck a loaded reference; something, like nitroglycerin, marked Handle With Care.
This makes it hilarious. I still chuckle when I think about a combination I made (out of cards from CAH’s recent expansion): “My new porn name is “Joey “_______” McGee” and “Mild Autism.” Is this offensive? Yes. Is it funny? I think so. But perhaps the major question we should ask is “is it exclusionary?” On that front, I think the game offers something that is genuinely remarkable.
Playing Cards Against Humanity means sitting around a table with friends and collaborating in subversive humour. When you play, you face the people whom you are joking with, who are in on the jokes, and you play to their reactions. Winning means predicting what the person across from you will most appreciate – which means that Cards Against Humanity is about learning your friends’ guilty pleasures and surprising them into laughter.
Just as important, the blanket aggression of the game (remember: this is “Cards Against Humanity”) and the random distribution of the cards mean that no particular individual, group, or ideology is targeted for more than a moment. CAH creates an unusual kind of “safe space” where everything taboo is up for grabs, where the illicit thrill of making an offensive joke can be had while suspending participation in the cultures that exclude, marginalize, and target people.
Essentially, CAH offers “offensive play,” a chance to indulge in exposing those aspects of Western culture which have been made hidden, taboo, offensive – and, consequently, made funny – without fear of damage. To play Cards Against Humanity is to enter an instant community based on ridicule, where everyone involved has agreed to participate and everyone is in on the joke. In a sense, these are racist and sexist jokes with the benefit of a safe word, the agreement that nothing on the cards is meant seriously and that no-one will carry the game forward into their day-to-day lives.
The incredible sales for Cards Against Humanity, then, could be understood as something more than just consumer demand; perhaps it shows human need. Humor is a fantastic way to deal the horrifying parts of our day-to-day lives, a way of distancing ourselves from and containing those secret traumas that we keep hidden. CAH offers a way to sincerely and genuinely make the defense “so what? It’s just a joke.” That this is possible is actually a marvel of good design and good writing.
While it is true that you can make a joke out of anything, in the real world it is very difficult to make a good joke out of some things – because it’s not guaranteed that everyone will hear it as a joke. Cards Against Humanity gives us an arena in which everything is a joke and you compete on quality; it’s nice to have the opportunity to try.