Once upon a time, a shepherd boy cried out, “Wolves should be hunted to extinction.” The villagers heard him and talked about it. They thought the boy was mean-spirited and just plain wrong. The next day, the boy said he was only joking. But no one believed him.
What can we learn from this story? Two things. First, the boy needed to improve his comic delivery – a lot. Second, humor is in the eye of the beholder. If comedians think they’re funny, but the audience doesn’t then they’re not. This is especially true in our age of irony. If you’re trying to be ironic, you better communicate that at the time of your ironic statement. Claiming to be ironic or sarcastic after the fact just won’t cut it. So don’t be surprised if no one believes you.
I was reminded of this cautionary tale by some news items over the past few days. During a speech to law enforcement personnel, President Trump suggested that police should be rough on suspects. And Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House communications director, suggested that his White House colleagues Steve Bannon and Reince Preibus could perform sexual acts on themselves. Public reaction to these statements from President Trump and Mr. Scaramucci was negative.
Subsequently, both claimed they were just joking. Here are the headlines.
By the way, this “joke strategy” isn’t limited to Americans. Here’s a recent headline about Philippine President Duterte from the Philippine Star: “Duterte on threat to abolish CHR: Only a joke.” (CHR is the country’s Commission on Human Rights.)
Is this a new trend?
Whatever it is, it bothers me. As a humor consultant, I find this retroactive declaration of joking to be a poor excuse for not developing real humor skills. You say something that’s not funny. Then later you say you were just joking. Without getting too philosophical, the dictionary defines a joke as “a thing someone says to cause amusement or laughter.” So even a failed joke should demonstrate how it was supposed to be funny. There’s got to be some relation to potential funniness. You can’t just say anything, wait for some time to pass and then define it as a joke.
The passing of time was once used to think of a better response. That process built intellectual discipline. How many times have you said something that wasn’t well received? Then a few days later, you thought of what you should have said. It was a learning experience. Then if the same situation ever arose in the future, you’d have a great line ready to use. But apparently, that’s not a thing anymore. Now a few days after a failed remark, you just say it was a joke and declare yourself retroactively funny.
Are my objections overblown? You can argue that the examples I’ve chosen are just speakers floating trial balloons that didn’t work. They’re just trying to save face by saying they were joking. I don’t disagree. But speakers have floated trial balloons that didn’t work since language was invented. There are other ways of handling the situation.
Saving face by retroactively claiming you were kidding doesn’t help anyone. It’s lazy. It’s perceived as a lie. It cheapens public discourse. And that’s no joke.