The Sick Joke (Brooke Daley)

Mary Douglas’s essay Jokes explores the purpose of jokes and how to categorize them. One type of joke that Douglas discusses is the “sick joke”.[1] A sick joke plays with the reversal of societal values. These types of jokes purposefully mock a social value in a way that blurs the lines between good and bad. They will often make fun of a serious topic and muddle the moral values surrounding it. The purpose of a sick joke is to question the moral values that society attaches to certain social conventions.

One comedian who is famous for his use of sick jokes is Jim Jefferies. In a performance for Comedy Central, Jefferies first tells a joke about dead dogs. Then he jokes about dead babies. Then he jokes about how it is easier to buy black or Asian babies than white babies.

Jefferies muddles the morals of racism by making a racist joke then scolding the audience for laughing. Jefferies yells, “I will not put up with racism in my shows”. Then he goes on to make an even more outrageous racist joke. Is the audience morally wrong for laughing at the joke or is Jefferies for making it? Jefferies finally switches to a social commentary joke about the number of children Madonna and Angelina Jolie have adopted. Jefferies’ joke stirs up mixed feelings within the audience allowing them to consider international adoption in a different light than the conventional positive view.

A sick joke allows serious topics in society to be brought up and pondered. The complex moralities of topics like racism and international adoption are important things to discuss. But comedians take big risks telling sick jokes, because there is a fine line between being thought provoking and offensive.

[1] Douglas, Mary. “Jokes”. In Implicit Meanings; Essays in Anthropology. (Routledge: New York, 1975). p.97.

One comment

  1. It is interesting the way in which this example also emulates one of the key elements of the “Joker” as described by Douglas later in the article. Because of the social immunity that the joker, in this case, Jefferies carries, he is able to both make a racist joke without repercussion and then mock the audience when they laugh.

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