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Bullying and Laughter

Comedy, humiliation, and the "Impractical Jokers."

Last week, the Staten Island Museum opened a much anticipated exhibition on the Impractical Jokers.

For those (like myself) unfamiliar with the comedic work of this group, a likely response is a question: “Why?” Why would a museum showcase a group of grown men filming themselves engaging in publicly humiliating “challenges”? And perhaps more than "why?"; is the museum not concerned that the exhibit will further normalize public humiliation, which is the linchpin of bullying? What, exactly, is the cultural contribution of the Jokers comedic routine?

I reached out to museum staff to find out what they had in mind. Diane Matyas, the Vice President of Exhibitions and Programs, pointed to the social importance of comedy, contending that the Jokers’ medium showcases “history happening” by highlighting the concerns, sensitivities, and boundaries of contemporary culture. Matyas has a valid point. Comedy is irreverent, and the specific ways that it is irreverent provide insight into culture.

Looked at this way, an exhibit on comedy—on what we laugh at–seems both important and relevant. But bullying—publicly ridiculing and laughing at someone—is also culturally relevant.
How did Matyas respond to the concern that that the Impractical Jokers exhibit is helping to normalize the humiliation of one’s friends, and the intent to ridicule them?

Matyas prefaced her answer by patiently walking me through the “rules” that structure the Jokers truTV show (which might be described as a charmingly sophomoric game that looks to one-up the humiliations they impose on each other). In a nutshell, the four friends first “challenge” each other to "ordeals" in each episode. Challenges are devised on the basis of a pre-existing inventory of each Joker’s likes, dislikes, anxieties and phobias. Second, scores for how well a Joker completed his challenge are tabulated. The ‘winners’ then devise an embarrassing ‘punishment’ for the Joker with the lowest score.

What is striking in this formula is that the Jokers, like bullies, intend to humiliate.

They deliberately cause discomfort, and to enjoin the TV audience to laugh at the uneasiness they provoke. The difference, of course, is that causing discomfort is part of their routine–one that is willingly, consensually engaged.

Clearly, consent is not part of any schoolyard bullying dynamic. The ability to ground "challenges" in it allows the Jokers to negate the slippery slope of intent, and deflect the cruelty underlying other situations of ridicule. With no malice motivating their pranks, the Joker’s antics are “good clean fun.” Not only are their stunts “harmless,” but, as one fan explained, “their humor is inclusive.” The Jokers let their audience in on the nuances of each prank, and thus make everyone feel like an insider. This is key—not only in understanding the Joker’s success, but also in understanding the relation of laughter to humiliation and bullying.
Laughter bonds.
Sharing a laugh positions those who are amused (e.g. fans) as insiders, and those who are the object of chuckles as outsiders, or “others.” Both Jokers and bullies laugh at an individual; they "other," (and in so doing connect onlookers). But because rejection and betrayal are precluded, the Joker’s exploitation of vulnerabilities allows them to marshal humiliation in the name of comedy; to pull down laughter on themselves. This may seem patently obvious, but the distinction has secondary social significances.

In making it OK for us to laugh at them, the Jokers make it possible for us to laugh at ourselves and our own foibles and fears. (We may inwardly cringe along with one or another Joker’s discomfort, but it is precisely his discomfort that makes him vulnerable; an "everyman" not unlike you and me.)
Witnessing an "everyman" routinely facing down his own dis-ease and vulnerability facilitates our taking our own fears (or others’ ridicule of our foibles) less seriously.
As the Jokers walk through the jeers of their friends to face down challenges intentionally linked to their phobias, we walk with them.

Lest translating their formula for facing one’s tormentors (and bearing one’s discomfort) sound disconcertingly close to telling victims of public humiliation and ridicule to simply “take it” (in the hope that stoicism will lead to a cessation of ridicule, if not redemption) a distinction must be made. “Taking it” does not necessarily mean stoically stuffing down emotional responses (forcing them to fester inside, until they can no longer be contained). Rather, for the Jokers, it means letting the laughter of others roll off their backs.
They reposition themselves to the joke everyone is sharing (at their expense), and to feelings of humiliation and embarrassment that arise.
In so doing they disrupt laughter’s ability to victimize.
The Jokers model a response that denies victimization precisely because it embraces vulnerability.
While embracing vulnerability might initially incite further ridicule in the schoolyard, a shifting of intra-psychic dynamics—which is what the Jokers model—helps targets negotiate a victim self-identiy, if not sidestep it altogether.

Because the Jokers engage humiliation knowing that a safety net of friendship is spread beneath them does not make what they are doing any less culturally significant. They are facing their foibles, and the teasing they elicit, and pressing forward. Rather than stoically denying that they are uncomfortable, they showcase their dis-ease, and encourage us to laugh. Their refusal to let their discomfort or embarrassment be the end of their emotional road illustrates (and seeds) an ability to move forward in the face of social shame.

What’s more, in considering their dynamic, we can shift our focus to the Jokers who devise the punishment, and allow for redemption. Who re-admit their flawed peer back into the fold, allowing him to face down the laughter that bonds the group and aligns them against him.
(And if this is not enough the, Jokers comedic Producer Joe Imburgio, who is the exhibition’s guest curator, points out that each punished Joker will eventually have the opportunity to avenge himself on the others—an opportunity that smoothly allows the series to tap into revenge-fantasies we have all had).

So why is “a museum dedicated to the Arts, Science, and History" showcasing humiliation, and “exhibiting stuff like duct tape and kitty litter”? Because it entices laughter. And laughter has the potential to bring us together, and to educate us.
Not to mention that laughter is healthy. It reduces stress, and releases endorphins that help to modulate pain.
Diane Matyas summed up the particular relevance of enticing laughter inside a museum in this way: “Laughter,” she emphasized, “is as important as contemplation. It facilitates a different type of learning—especially when it can double back on itself."