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Vince Vaughn’s Gay “Slur” And Other Offensive Jokes About Being An Idiot

2010 October 16

The trailer for Vince Vaughn’s The Dilemma has caused quite a commotion. I saw the original, ‘gay’-containing trailer in the theater and didn’t think much of it, but now I can’t even find it on YouTube — and they’ve even replaced the “Fuck You” song  with “Forget You,” how lame is that?

The argument, which began with Anderson Cooper, is that having Vaughn’s character Ronny use ‘gay’ as an insult is simply not acceptable. Granted, the timing of the this trailer just couldn’t be worse with the advent of some truly tragic events.  Still, I tend to side with Vaughn when he argues that you should still be able to make this particular kind of joke.  That’s because in my professional opinion, Ronny (like many of Vaughn’s characters) is supposed to be an idiot.

Vince Vaughn in a still from The Dilemma, but probably not making a gay slur.

This character is clearly an idiot, or a least a buffoon in the grand Aristotelian tradition.

But people who deliberately make jokes about being an idiot are very easy confused with people who are actually acting like idiots, as several incidents have shown.

Sarah silverman performing Jesus is Magic.

Sarah Silverman plays an idiot onstage, and she's the first to admit that she's uncomfortable knowing that some people take her "nigger" jokes at face value.

In The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman describes an ill-fated incident on Late Night with Conan O’Brien:

The joke goes like this: I got a jury duty form in the mail, and I don’t wanna do jury duty. So my friend said, “Write something really racist on the form so they won’t pick you, like ‘I hate niggers.'” I was like, Jeez — I don’t want people to think I’m racist, I just wanna get out of jury duty. So I filled out the form and I wrote “I love niggers.”

Frank says I can’t say “nigger” on the how, even though it’s obviously not a racist joke, it’s a joke about an idiot — me — trying to get out of jury duty.

(In the end, it was decided that she could say “Chink,” but this slur ended up getting her in trouble for exactly the same reasons.)

Peter Griffin from Family Guy.

I don't see anyone arguing against this statement: Peter Griffin is an idiot.

An NYT interview with Seth Macfarlane reveals a similar joke pattern:

Deborah Solomon: Personally, I find the show’s rape jokes especially unfunny. In one episode, Peter learns that three co-eds were raped and murdered. He says to himself, “Everyone’s getting laid but me.” Why is that funny?

Seth Macfarlane: Because he’s so oblivious. You’re not laughing at rape; you’re laughing at him being an idiot.

At moments like these, I’m glad to see jokewriters defending their craft.

Idiot jokes are insulting.  Polack jokes and blonde jokes, for example, have nothing to do with being fair-haired or Eastern European, and everything to do with insulting the intelligence of certain classes of people. Same goes for calling things ‘gay.’

But jokes about being an idiot are different. The whole point of Sarah Silverman’s joke is to portray racists as idiots. The Family Guy ‘rape’ joke portrayed the unenlightened Peter Griffin as an idiot. Vince Vaughn’s Ronny is just another version of an idiot, an immature jerk who’s bound to get his comeuppance at some point in the film — so, even apart from humor theory, one might argue that this is simply character development.

But, were I to get really theoretical I might argue that, in terms of speech acts, what these people have said ‘in character’ aren’t slurs,  they’re meta-slurs — jokes about people who use such slurs.

Now on the one hand, you can’t argue funny. If people don’t get it instantaneously, explaining doesn’t work. And whole theory behind offense is that if you’re entitled to your personal beliefs about what’s too serious to joke about. So people who don’t think these jokes are funny are under no obligation to reconsider their position.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s fair to say that these jokes make light of racism, homosexuality, sexism, or rape. Structurally, there’s no simply no defense for the interpretation that they are actually advocating such views. And much as we’d all like a world without slurs, absolute bans on hateful language simply do not stamp out the real problem of hatred. This is why I agree with Vaughn, Macfarlane, and Silverman: unlike idiot jokes, jokes about being an idiot actually help keep the channels of communication open — and they remind us that the people who do say stuff like this are complete and utter IDIOTS.

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