Many years ago, I took a humor writing class in New York City. It was one of the most rigorous, challenging classes I’ve taken. (And for those who don’t know, I was a biochem major.)
Unfortunately, I’m not really quick enough on the draw to have ever developed even a freelance sideline in the genre, but one of the main lessons about the construction of humor—that the punch line is where you twist or challenge the expectations you arranged in your set up—stuck with me.
I was reminded of that when reading about the condescending responses from the Sidney Albert Albany Jewish Community Center to members who called them to complain about their recent ad campaign.
If you didn’t see the ad, it’s in a “retro” ’50s style. The woman in the foreground is crying and looking at a man and woman behind her. The text reads “Dick and Jane used to be a hot item, but Jane didn’t want to join the gym when he did, and then he met Susan. Don’t let this happen to you. Join the Albany JCC right now.”
If you’re waiting for the punch line that turns this around . . . there isn’t one.
Unsurprisingly, the JCC has gotten an earful about all the lovely implications of this ad—your partner will cheat on/dump you if you’re not a hot gym bunny? Couples must share all interests and activities or they are headed for failure? Men need to be watched at all times around women who are working out or they’ll leave you?
The response the JCC sent to people who complained began, “We are sorry that some people have misunderstood the advertising campaign and were offended.”(Note to absolutely everyone: “We’re sorry you were offended” is not an apology.) Then it moved to excuses: “The campaign was done in a playful manner (which is one reason why I approved of the ad) and designed to appeal to a broad audience.”
In other words, “It was a joke, guys, relax. Take off your too-tight, politically correct twisted knickers and chill out.”
Then the letter recaps the ad, as if the complainants might not have gotten it. To wit: “The woman did not join the Center while her boyfriend did. At the Center he found a new person who shared his involvement and new interests.” Uh, thanks for the enlightening clarification. I’d missed that.
Here’s the thing. This is not actually a joke. It’s not funny; it’s not “playful.” Not because I’m being overly serious and decided it’s not something to joke about. It’s just factually not a joke. It doesn’t twist, complicate, or challenge its premise. It doesn’t depart from its storyline in an unexpected way at any moment, and its storyline is not itself surprising. I suppose there’s a certain shock value in “Oh my god, they totally went there out loud in public,” but it’s pretty tenuous.
See, as depressing as it is, people in our culture, mostly women, do fear being left because they “let themselves go.” We constantly get the messages that men are fickle and shallow that way, and that (heterosexual) women should accommodate them by policing their bodies or risk being alone. Other people never leave their spouse’s side or cultivate independent hobbies and believe this is a healthy partnership. This ad campaign doesn’t make humor out of those creepy realities and then try to encourage you to become a member for more healthy reasons. It just reinforces the ick. It will push buttons for a broad audience certainly. “Appeal” may be more of a stretch.
As my ex used to say (not, generally, to me), “If you could say it and mean it, then you can’t say it and claim it’s a joke.” Words to live by.
I’m picking on the JCC not because this is the worst thing anyone has said in an ad lately, but because the outcry and their response to it are such a perfect example of the “Geez, we were joking” defense to being called out. It’s much easier to label large swaths of people (feminists, anti-racists), explicitly or implicitly, as “humorless” than it is to look closely at the quality of your own attempt at humor and what might have been wrong with it.
People who have trouble taking a joke, laughing at themselves, or recognizing satire do exist, and they come in all political and ideological stances. But in my experience, there’s no particular correlation between them and people who are willing to call out negative or damaging assumptions and concepts masquerading as humor. I’d like to think that the Albany JCC will eventually realize that and take a serious look at what bothers their members about this ad.
(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on May 8, 2014.)