May 18, 2015

Unintended Consequences--Censorship and Humor

Laura E. Little, Temple University School of Law, is publishing Laughing at Censorship in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. Here is the abstract.
Comedians know from experience, and research supports the proposition, that an audience will predictably laugh when observing a censored statement (whether bleeped 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.”
Download the article from SSRN at the link.

Professor Little's comments on censorship humor remind me of one of my favorite passages from The Innocents Abroad. In it, Mark Twain discusses his visit to the Jardin Mabille and his experience of that scandalous dance, the "can-can."  "The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple. Within it was a drinking saloon, and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple, and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up, and then—I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers." Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1869), Chapter 14.


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