Fri. Oct 18th, 2019

The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Thought You Knew: How Soon is Too Soon?

4 min read

Why did Helen Keller’s dog run away?

You would too if your name was fdsvadk.

Okay, that joke works better in person. Let’s try another.

How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?

They re-arranged the furniture!

Once you’re finished throwing your heads back and laughing while clapping at my superb wit, I’ve got another question: are these jokes funny, offensive, both or neither?

If you ask me, the whole Helen Keller bit is played out, but if you’re a novice to the  “Too Soon?” genre, you probably think those jokes are hilarious—or wildly offensive.

Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, the only reason those jokes are funny is because there’s something slightly unnerving about mocking a subject as taboo as disability.

Having said that, anyone telling or listening to a Helen Keller joke probably doesn’t have much in common with ole’ Keller, and therefore aren’t as sensitive to her conditions as a blind, deaf, mute might be if they were to, you know, stumble upon Braille copies of the jokes somewhere.

From a comedic standpoint, as long as a joke is well executed, thoughtful and doesn’t just rely on shock value, the more I cringe, the better.

Natural disasters, high-profile news stories and the occasional national tragedy are all fair game. The already blurry line, between what’s borderline offensive and what some might call morally bankrupt, gets a little fuzzier every time I open my mouth.

When I make a joke about something that’s typically not a laughing matter, it’s not because I’m trying to make light of a serious situation.

I understand that the string of celebrity deaths during the summer of 2009 were tragic, but that doesn’t mean that the “Dead Celebs” party that my friends, and then subsequent other groups of friends, threw that July were out of line.

A “Live Celebs” party just isn’t funny.

It’s hard to get too specific when trying to discuss this topic because just talking about whether or not something’s offensive can offend people.

In my experience, the more isolated the incident you’re joking about is, the more successful the joke will be. Making fun of a friend’s DUI, while a touch insensitive, will usually not result in your friendship ending.

She knows you care about what happened to her and are just trying to put things in perspective and lighten the mood. I mean, next to Adderall, laughter really is the best medicine.

Referencing the LOL-acaust at your family’s
annual Chanukah party followed by a smile and a “Too soon?” might get somebody’s yarmulke in a bunch, though.

It’s difficult to know where to draw the line, so instead I suggest that you get to know your audience.

Last week in my acting class, our homework was to observe and replicate a random person’s walk. One guy got up and imitated the walk of someone with an obvious disability. In fact, everyone in the class knew exactly whom he was imitating within seconds.

I, of course, thought it was hilarious.

He took a pretty boring assignment and, with a little thought and a big risk, made it interesting and clearly memorable enough for me to write about it (Hey, random bro from acting class! If you’re reading this, I hope you’re not creeped out and thanks for the story!).

Other than his friends and a few people who I could tell wanted to laugh, but were unsure as to whether or not they should, the rest of the class did not seem to share my enthusiasm.

In fact, a couple guys across the room even felt the need to shout out “Hey man!” and “That’s not cool!” which was cutely earnest of them.

Those other guys weren’t wrong to be offended and acting class bro wasn’t wrong to walk—or, I guess, hobble—that walk. The only mistake he made was that he did not know his audience.

Comedy, like any other art form, is totally subjective. We’re all going to interpret things differently based on our past experiences and there will be times when you offend someone with a joke because you didn’t realize how it affects them on a more personal level.

You’ll also probably be overly sensitive about a joke that was never made with the intention of offending you. These things happen.

The best way to avoid an uncomfortable situation is to censor yourself until you know your audience.

Don’t make a joke about “pulling a Columbine” to a room full of people you just met.


Your friends might find the same joke funny, but if you learn nothing else from me this year, just remember not to make Columbine jokes until you’re sure people won’t get offended.

In most cases, it’s not out of respect for the subject matter that we should censor ourselves, but out of respect for each other.

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