13 March 2015


'Laughing at Censorship' by Laura E. Little in Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities comments
Comedians know from experience, and research supports the proposition, that an audience will predictably laugh when observing a censored statement (whether or otherwise obscured) — at least where the audience has been primed by the context to interpret the statement as comedic. In a society that condemns censorship as the enemy of our cherished right of free expression, one might reasonably ask how this can be: why is censorship funny?
This article begins by canvassing the various forms of censorship humor flourishing throughout United States culture in print, film, television, music, and internet entertainment. The article then probes mainstream condemnation of censorship — observing that individuals, law, and society all benefit from line drawing — even in the context of something as special as freedom of communication. Through the lens of interdisciplinary humor studies as well as First Amendment doctrine, the article explores the notion that the laughter emerging from comedy featuring censorship might be a “tell” that exposes this truth.
Many censorship jokes simply ridicule the censor. Others, however, are more nuanced, suggesting that censorship humor might provide unique emotional rewards ranging from a spark emitted from the benign danger of a censored joke, the creative enterprise of imagining what message was — to the comfort of mapping the line between the proper and improper. Audience laughter at censorship humor often appears to derive primarily from pleasure. It might also include a measure of anxiety, fear, and anger. That complexity, however, does not mitigate the possibility that humans occasionally see and enjoy some inherent value of censorship as separating “right” from “wrong.” ...
This article begins by canvassing a cross-section of censorship humor, illustrating the diverse art forms through which censorship evokes laughter. I then look at these examples through the work of interdisciplinary humor scholars that sheds light on the source of this laughter at speech restrictions. Next I reckon with the law: are there soft spots in First Amendment doctrine that actually dovetail with my analysis and embrace censorship? The project then turns to exploring whether the comedic value of censorship might emerge in part from human desires for boundaries, our love of structure, as well as the comfort and benefits that rules provide for human society. Finally, I explore the suggestion that we may be living in a ‘golden age’ of censorship humor, made possible by the internet, digital technology, and the relative freedom of communication available in democratic societies.
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If indeed human nature favors the boundaries exposed by censorship and celebrated in censorship humor, why has censorship humor just now experienced such a remarkable surge? Shouldn’t we have observed a strong presence of this comedic genre throughout history in many different cultures? Two conditions in the contemporary era suggest insights. First is the boost to censorship humor from digital technology and internet communication capacity. Second is the possibility that censorship humor is a luxury stimulated by the free flow of information generally occurring in democratic societies, but unlikely to flourish where government tightly controls expression. If the current surge of censorship humor is tied to any of these conditions, any claims about the universal, timeless appeal of censorship humor may falter. Such a causal connection would also influence the lessons emerging about the optimum form and scope of speech constraints that censorship humor may offer us.
Censorship humor is filled with mash-ups, pixelation, bleeping, and non-human means to accomplish mimicry and obfuscation, thus suggesting that technology — particularly digital technology — inspires (or at least stimulates) its creation. Supporting this conclusion are the works of multifarious professionals documenting how digital technology makes possible innovation and creativity. The internet also promotes the creative work of comedians in wide-ranging ways: facilitating access to censorship humor’s raw material, making available applications and tutorials that assist in creating comedic content, expanding the audience for censorship jokes, and allowing independently created comedy to be aggregated and featured on central platforms. It seems clear, then, that both the internet and digital technology have indeed fuelled interest in censorship humor.
Yet jokes about speech regulation and repression have occurred over many decades in live theatre, hard copy novels and magazines, stand-up comedy, editorial cartoons, and bar stool conversations. They continue, in real time and in real space, today. Over-reliance on a causal relationship between censorship humor (on one hand) and technology/the internet (on the other hand) also invites potentially inaccurate conclusions that those who lack access to digital technology or the internet fail to enjoy or create censorship jokes. I am reluctant to conclude that we would lack robust censorship humor today if the internet and digital technology did not exist.
I also resist suggesting that vigorous censorship humor flourishes most in “free societies.” After all, one needs censorship to have censorship humor—or at least to have censorship humor that is meaningfully funny to the audience. One has to assume that societies subject to repressive policies on expression have plenty of raw material for that type of joke. In fact, they may very well produce more raw material for censorship humor than less restricted societies. As noted above, humor often serves as a safety value for anxieties and political pressures — relief presumably more needed in controlled societies than those that enjoy expressive freedoms. Repression may also cultivate provocative, edgy humor, a quality thought to boost comic enjoyment. For all these reasons, one might expect that there’s as much — if not more — censorship humor bubbling beneath the surface in authoritarian societies as in less controlled ones.
This intuition is supported by anecdotal evidence of flourishing political humor in a cross-section of societies known for official crackdowns on free expression, including contemporary Egypt, Russia (as well as the former Soviet Union), and Germany during the Third Reich. Some analysts have even observed that Egyptian political humor has reached beyond the borders of North Africa, providing not only the “foundational building block upon which humourists in Europe and the United States have been able to construct their own jokes concerning the Arab Spring,” but an accessible medium for understanding the social implications of Egypt’s revolutionary activity.
Striking evidence emerges from modern Russia of political humor specifically focused on censorship. A popular trope for this censorship humor concerns “mat,” or Russian obscenity. Sometimes referred to as an underground language or the “language of the street,” mat is entirely “rooted in sexuality.” Associated with lower classes as well as males for many decades, mat is now a powerful force in communication for both genders in all walks of life. Given the flexibility of the Russian language, including its highly synthetic grammar (which is produced largely by inflection), mat serves as a rich and adaptable vehicle for communication, taking on the cultural role of “linguistic theatre, verbal performance art.” Not surprisingly, given its potency and association with sexuality, mat has often served as a point of contention for Russian authorities. In fact, Vladimir Putin recently signed legislation outlawing swearing in movies, theatre productions, and concert performances.
This history of official attempts to suppress mat has produced at least three variations of censorship humor. Most importantly, the attempted suppression has made the use of mat itself a joke: the outlawing of mat together with its linguistic flexibility has made it an even more entertaining and flourishing component of oral conversation. The flexibility of mat and the Russian language also allows speakers to ‘push the censorship envelope’ through the use of puns that play on the similarity between mat and non-obscene words. For example, “watch the eggs!” apparently also means “watch the testicles.” Similarly, the expression “I don’t believe it!” can be used as a near pun for “F*** off!”
The third and final type of censorship humor uses straightforward references in jokes or quips to mat censorship and the effects of mat censorship. Not all references are contemporary. In fact, alluding to “sanctimonious censorship” of references to sexuality, Pushkin poetically described a “culture of women” missing their lady parts (or at least missing explicit reference to their lady parts in daily discourse). Bemoaning this absence, Pushkin writes: “The Tsar dispatches his heralds in search of them and after arduous ordeals they are recovered.” A more contemporary reference that plays on the connection between mat and the working class appears in the following joke highlighting the dramatic practical effect of censoring mat:
Everything is in order at the factory and the Party inspection commission is pleased. The inspectors have just one comment: too much mat is being used on the factory floor. The management takes note, and mat is banned in the factory. By the next inspection, the factory is falling far short of its quotas. Why? Because the workers had used obscene terms for all the mechanical equipment, and without mat they are no longer able to communicate.
As for Hitler’s Germany, a fairly well developed literature documents jokes during the Nazi era that mocked tyranny and repressive policies. Consider the following example of censorship humor from the era:
Whaddaya got for new jokes?
Three months in Dachau
As evidenced in these examples from Russia and Germany, humor takes on certain unique qualities when conceived within social and cultural contexts that suppress free expression. The first (most obvious) reason for this is pure survival. Take, for example, jests about censorship during the Third Reich, which had to be discreet, whispered, and/or oblique in order to avoid the strong arm of the regime. Consider the experience of comedian Werner Fink who became “a master of ambiguity. . . and was forced to adopt a number of tricks in order to conceal political messages in harmless packaging.” Fink even founded an association with a name appealing to Nazi brass, “Fighting Association for Harmless Humor,” which he used for cover of Nazi slogan parodies. Apparently the German audiences became “highly sensitized” to coded jokes and could find amusement in observing “invisible boundaries being crossed.”
Similarly, comedians in the Soviet Union had to mask their censorship critiques, as they were required to submit their performances to an official ‘department of jokes’ for preclearance. In Germany, the Soviet Union, and Russia, as well as Egypt, political humor often occurred orally in informal settings so as to avoid government detection.
A more complex reason why the form of censorship humor must change according to social and political context concerns the general mechanics of comedy. Comedy works best when it engages with the realities in the audience’s life. As with many creative endeavors, comedy also thrives on specific facts or ideas. The requisite specificity tends to flow most naturally where it draws from proximate surroundings — surroundings to which the audience relates. Accordingly, a society’s sensitivities will influence the vibrancy and tone of its jokes about censorship.
Likewise, a specific type of censorship will likely yield a specific type of humor, as evidenced by the use of mat in oral Russian society to satirize the censorship of mat in writings and public cultural productions.
Finally, censorship humor changes character, and can more specifically focus on censorship itself, where citizens know the precise details of what is censored. In wholly repressed societies, citizens might know generally that censorship occurs, but, if the strict censorship machine is really working, citizens will not know many specifics. By contrast, in democratic societies, citizens often know the character (and sometimes the identity) of suppressed information and may debate and joke about the propriety of its suppression. This is a luxury that may not be enjoyed under an authoritarian regime. In addition, the hidden character of totalitarian censorship may eliminate the opportunity for jokes to enlist the audience as co-author in joke-telling. In societies where censorship works by stealth, the opportunities to co-construct a censorship joke — and the joys associated with that creative endeavor — are likely reduced because the audience may have no clue about precisely what censorship has eliminated from the marketplace of discourse. As the experience in Russia, Nazi Germany, and Egypt attest, however, the human spirit is not so easily crushed, and other outlets are exploited for creating and communicating censorship humor.