Wednesday, January 31, 2007

SNL 'Terrorism' Punchline: A Matter of Taste?

Jonathan Schwarz of This Modern World links to a discussion at Rasputin Bigbodie about whether a recent, recurring SNL punchline is even marginally funny. Briefly:

SETH MEYERS: Christian and Muslim Britains joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Muslims. Also fueling a backlash against Muslims? Terrorism.
SETH MEYERS: Muslim groups are concerned that the new season of “24,” which features Muslim terrorists setting off a nuclear explosion near Los Angeles, will foster hate against them and create a climate of Islamophobia. Also creating a climate of Islamophobia? Terrorism.

I think the humor in these statements, or at least the intended source thereof, lies in the following areas:

  • Absurd contrast: This is especially the case with respect to the first quote. It raises the question "Why are Muslims worried about minor backlash generated by 'The War on Christmas' when the single biggest backlash-generator is terrorism?".
  • Taboo breaking: The statements generate humor by transgressively raising the aforementioned question in contravention of the prevailing norm.

I don't believe that these statements necessarily imply that all Muslims are terrorists, as some people appear to be claiming. Rather, they

  1. Note that terrorism causes image problems for Muslims.
  2. Imply that Muslims have the ability to prevent or reduce instances of terrorism.
  3. Question whether the Muslim community is committed to doing so.
Item 1 seems non-contestable, item 2 seems contestable, and item 3 seems like a legitimate question. I don't necessarily agree with items 2 and 3, but its not self-evident that they represent an ad hominem attack on Muslims in general.

As always, some of this is a matter of personal taste; the SNL statements might legitimately be classified as "black humor". I was going to try to explain what may be essentially unexplainable, but then Mr. Schwarz wrote the following in the Bigbodie comments

I’m sure that Seth Meyers and whoever’s laughing think the point of the jokes is “It’s ridiculous for Islamic organizations to try to lessen anti-Muslim sentiment by doing these small things, when they don’t seem to do much about a much larger reason for anti-Muslim sentiment: terrorism. I mean, what causes more Islamophobia — an episode of ‘24′ or 9/11?”

This sounds like it makes sense until you think about it for one second. Because semi-analogous jokes would be:
SETH MEYERS: Christian and Jewish Americans joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Jews. Also fueling a backlash against Jews? Shooting Palestinian children in the head.

Here's where personal taste comes in, because the first time I read that I laughed my ass off. That statement scores high in terms of both absurd contrast and transgressivity. Mr. Schwarz acknowleges as much, nothing that "[n]eedless to say, SNL won’t be airing material like that anytime soon". There's a strong norm in American against criticizing Jews/Israel, so when someone does do it while speaking truth (especially if they have good delivery) the results are darkly funny.

As always, however, one person's "darkly funny" is another person's "tasteless", wherein which the conflict lies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Writing that about the Jews is antisemetic and plain bullshit. Did you ever see Jews killing ANY children?! You're an ignorant person and if you think that is funny you have no sense of humor. I really feel sorry for people like you, who live such a pathetic life.

7:17 AM  

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