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Why Is It Funny To Shame People?

December 10, 2012

I’m not a fan of pranks and practical jokes. What I mean is, people learn quickly not to play pranks on me because I don’t care if the rest of the group finds them funny. I don’t and I’ll make that clear at length and volume. One of the people involved in the prank is going to end the encounter feeling very uncomfortable and it isn’t going to be me.

Pranks and practical jokes are generally predicated on convincing someone that something they care about has been destroyed or some event that is important to them is ruined. They are often passive aggressive actions taken to get back at people rather than, you know, telling them that they are being a dick or talking about a problem. People often instigate pranks in retaliation for real or imagined slights. If a child did that to another child “I am angry at you so I will take something of yours and convince you that it has been destroyed or lost. You can have your original thing back when I think you’ve suffered enough,” most people would reprimand that child and possibly lecture them about not touching things that don’t belong to them and talking about their problems.

In a lot of cases, they are also aspects of bullying. The person targeted as the butt of the joke is either already the omega or the bully wants to challenge the social order by pushing someone down a rung and rising in the process. Even when the victim is socially safe, such as, for instance, the Duchess of something, they still have an inherent right to not be used as the but of a joke when they’re sick or hurt.

Most people defend their pranks with some variation of “I was kidding.” Now, I’ve talked before about why this particular excuse is bullshit.  Making someone suffer for your amusement is not funny. It’s mean. It’s knowingly mean.  The object is to be mean. What’s ironic is that the same type of people who will rail against bullying in children will encourage it in adults, praise those adults for “a good one,” and try to further shame the victim of the prank is that victim does not react in a way considered socially acceptable.

Keep in mind, the fact that someone laughs isn’t always an indication that they think something is funny. It is often an indication that they want to match the social mood of the group. If someone has already been tagged as vulnerable, by having a mean trick played on them, the last thing many people are going to do is step even farther away from the current group norm by refusing to “be a good sport.”

In the same way that making a sexist/racist/ableist whatever-ist comment and then hiding behind “I was kidding,” doesn’t change the fact that the comment was inappropriate, doing something mean and then calling it a prank doesn’t change the fact that the action was mean.

So, yeah. Mean, not funny, childish. Why is that behavior acceptable in adults?

It’s not just “acceptable.” It is pretty much lauded in a lot of cases. Whole careers and television shows are predicated on it and they have been for years. Punk’d? America’s Funniest Home Videos? Candid Camera? The premise of all of those shows was, at least in part, the public humiliation of others for the amusement of the audience.  Hell, even The Office is pretty much a show about people being professionally uncomfortable.

Shaming people is one of the earliest forms of comedy and despite all of our other advancements, we still do it. Most people love it. They eat it up.

Now this has happened. It’s a tragedy. The poor woman was publicly humiliated across several continents and she killed herself. It’s horrible and everyone is blaming the DJs for playing the prank.

Um, wait a moment.

Entertainers exist specifically and exclusively to give us what we want. That’s how these things work. We get what we want and we reward whatever type of entertainer with revenue. That’s how it works and these DJs did what they have always done to accumulate that revenue.

Don’t get me wrong, they are at fault and their retreat into “we were kidding,” land is all kinds of fail. They could have hung up the phone at any time. Once they realized they had passed the first step, they could have stopped. However, they clearly never thought that there would be negative consequences for their actions, because there have never been any in the past. This is what they do and they get away with it because their listeners encourage them.

We love this kind of behavior. We reward this kind of behavior. And when this kind of entirely mean, bullying behavior reaches its natural conclusion we act surprised and outraged and we blame the perpetrator solely when in reality we share at least part of the responsibility. We are entirely reward oriented creatures. For companies, the reward is revenue. For comedians, the reward is the laughter of their audience. For the audience that reward is the shared enjoyment of the show.

If there were no reward, they would do something else that did reward them.


This woman is dead because we still convince ourselves it is acceptable to both invade people’s privacy and laugh at their pain. Her children are without their mother and as the child of a parent who committed suicide, I promise you that they will be left with one question lingering, hanging like a shadow over every moment for the rest of their lives; why didn’t she love me enough to stay?

The answer, of course, is that she did love them but the hurt was more immediate than the love. Let me tell you, that isn’t at all comforting from the child’s point of view.

So everyone is outraged and the DJs are “wrecked,” but tomorrow adult bullies are going to go on “pranking” their friends and expecting everyone to laugh at their victim. And most people will laugh and go along with the “joke.” Because no matter how bad things get, if you meant it to be funny, it’s OK, right?

No one, except the victim, is innocent in these situations. We need to stop shifting blame and start accepting responsibility.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 10, 2012 7:00 PM

    Very insightful and wise!

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