Can’t you take a joke?

// 7 January 2012

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I think it’s safe to say that professional comedians do not tend to use this phrase, for several reasons. One is that if you genuinely have tried to make a joke about someone and they’ve found it unfunny or offensive or both, the only way to retrieve the situation is to apologise, learn quickly and move on. Or, if you’re on stage and need to get the audience back, start making fun of yourself for having been so clueless. But get hostile, and the laughter in the room will shrivel up like one of those Blue Planet sea-creatures being menaced by a larger Blue Planet sea-creature.

However, of course, the thing about the phrase “Can’t you take a joke?” is that it isn’t usually anything to do with trying to make anyone laugh. It isn’t a synonym for “Oh go on, have a chuckle: that was very amusing!” What it usually implies is one of the following:

– I have said something, or laughed at something, that I found funny. You did not laugh, and it is now clear to me that you found it unfunny and possibly offensive. This makes me feel bad. I do not like feeling bad. It must be your fault.

– I insulted you without meaning to, perhaps by commenting humorously on your size, height, gender, skin colour, cultural background or taste in clothing in the belief that you wouldn’t mind. But you did mind and now I feel bad. I do not like feeling bad. It must be your fault.

– I insulted you intentionally, but I pretended it was intended humorously so that when you didn’t laugh, I could enjoy the bonus insult of telling you that you had no sense of humour. I win!

In other words, as I’m sure you already know, the phrase is usually the result of wounded pride, or it’s the mark of a bully. Moreover, it’s telling you that you shouldn’t mind about something that you do mind about, and believe you should mind about, such as sexism, racism, transphobia, disablism and other examples of someone’s failure to imagine, and care, what the lives of others might be like.

So how do you respond to being told “Can’t you take a joke?” – assuming that you want to (or need to) respond? It depends very much on the context, of course, but I offer the following suggestions in case they’re of use.

– The pseudo-serious response: “I’m afraid not. It might be contaminated.”

– The random response: “I don’t know. Hum it and I’ll try to remember the words.”

– The rhyming-insult response: “Can you make a joke?” (Best if used as quickfire repartee designed to trick your interlocutor into thinking that the two of you have turned into a Laurel and Hardy-type double act. This may lead to them tripping humorously over a banana skin, giving you the opportunity to walk away with a nonchalant whistle.)

– The rambling response (best done in a Ronnie Corbett voice): “Of course I’m happy to take it if you’re sure you don’t want it, but should you really be giving jokes away in this cavalier fashion? A joke is for life, you know, not just for Christmas. I had this aunt once, bought a joke off the back of a lorry and it never worked properly. It kept getting stuck on “Three man walked into a bar” and never getting to the punchline. So she tried to get my brother-in-law to take it, but he said it was broken and threw it away. Speaking of bins…”

– The prepared response: “No, sorry, my pockets are full of them already.” To be combined with producing a handful of cracker jokes from a pocket and waving them in the direction of your interlocutor.

– The simple yet effective response: “No. I had my humour gland removed because it was interfering with my ability to build killer robots.”

This was my first guest post for The F Word. If you liked it, I’m Fausterella. If you didn’t then… I’m still Fausterella, but you’ll probably be less interested in knowing that.

Picture of a horse appearing to be sarcastically laughing by dkjd, shared under a creative commons licence

Comments From You

nilsinela boray // Posted 7 January 2012 at 7:49 pm

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told to “get a sense of humour” – usually when I’ve objected to racist comments. The most memorable recently was by MP Tom Harris (who didn’t make the comments btw) on Twitter – I responded by saying “Thank you Bernard Manning I will !”. He responded by following me.

I do wonder sometimes whether I really am too touchy. I know people who still call a telephone a “statue” – which relates to a joke about Idi Amin in the early ’70s in which he answered the phone by saying “Statue dere ?” Is that racist ? I’d say yes. Is it funny ? I’d say yes. Should we be laughing at it ? I really don’t know.

I like your post katyha !

nilsinela boray // Posted 7 January 2012 at 11:00 pm

And as if by magic, in response to David Cameron’s description of sitting opposite Ed Balls at PMQs as “like having someone with Tourette’s sitting opposite you” up pops one @SamSussex (!/SamSussex) who describes himself as “Progressive Tory but Eurosceptic. Conservative party local activist. Doting father & dependent on @mrssamsussex for moral support. Arsenal supporter” to say :

Oh dear, #lefties need a have sense of humour (sic)

you don’t need to make it up

Clare // Posted 8 January 2012 at 11:30 am

Great Post! I am now well armed for every time someone makes an offensive joke, and at the same time have proved I have a sense of humour by chuckling away to myself.

I do get annoyed when people come up with this “lefties need to get a sense of humour” thing. I find a lot of things funny, Bill Bailey can literally have me crying with laughter, as can Dara O’Briain and Jo Brand. I love satire, and think the country would probably be greatly improved by giving Ian Hislop some form of vetoing rights. There are numerous comedians and comedies which can make me laugh without having to revert to poking fun at stereotypes.

That said, I do worry about our prime minister’s sense of humour. His two attempts at “jokes” in the past year have both managed to be offensive, firstly be being patronising to a woman in opposition (calm down dear) and now using tourettes as an insult. What a role model.

Becky // Posted 8 January 2012 at 3:17 pm

This is such a tricky one isn’t it – I don’t find it hard in social situations because I’m quite happy to go into detail about why I didn’t find it funny. However, it’s when things like this come up at work that I find it really difficult – I never know quite where to pitch it and have made myself no friends by walking out of the office after a (what I saw to be) badly judged or offensive comment. This doesn’t bother me apart from the notion that I will therefore be viewed as not being as fully integrated in the team as managers might like … not at all sure what to do!

Jaime // Posted 8 January 2012 at 3:28 pm

It used to get my back up when people got angry & defensive but I think either age is mellowing me, usually when people are accusing others of being overly sensitive or not getting the joke they themselves demonstrate an over sensitivity and an inability to understand the situation that the people questioning them didn’t.

Recently I’ve taken to just point blank ignoring comments that I find offensive, people around me know my opinions & beliefs and to be honest I’d rather cut them out than waste my energy on arguing with them. In the past I’d argue & fight my corner to the point where I think people would go out of their way to be offensive just to wind me up whereas ignoring and reiterating my opinion if pressed about it seems to embarrass people, make them think & sometimes even start a worthwhile conversation.

Obviously it doesn’t always work that way and I can be an argumentative so and so but I’m trying to stick with this approach, if I want to engage with people I can’t expect them to respond well to my anger & vice versa.

rose411 // Posted 8 January 2012 at 4:34 pm

That’s some really good advice, really clever! It made me laugh. :)

Like the witty post.

fairyhedgehog // Posted 8 January 2012 at 6:10 pm

I love your analysis of how people use the phrase. It took me a long time to realise what was going on when people say it.

And I really love your proposed replies!

Kate Harrad // Posted 8 January 2012 at 8:51 pm

Just wanted to say thanks to people who commented, linked etc. – glad you enjoyed the post. I’d like to think this is the F-Word’s first blog post to feature both Ronnie Corbett and killer robots. :)

Alan // Posted 9 January 2012 at 11:49 am

I especially like the Ronnie Balfour Corbett tactic…and am now especially pleased that I found out that his middle name is ‘Balfour’.

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