Last summer, comedian Daniel Tosh was widely criticized for telling an inopportune rape joke targeting a female heckler in the audience. Offensive humor – whether ‘blue’ material, Friars’ Club roasts, or racial and ethnic humor – is significantly different than jokes of a ‘cleaner’ variety, and requires a unique analysis. Surely. Tosh’s joke elicited a quite different reaction than a similar joke which may (for example) be delivered by Sarah Silverman. So it’s clearly not due to he intrinsic properties of the joke, or thaty the subject matter itself is inappropriate for jest. Additionally, a subjectivist point of view (the fact that the listener “didn’t think the joke was funny’) doesn’t help us understand the difference between offensive jokes and merely bad jokes. But nonetheless I feel that offensive humor does play an important social role in exposing biases and stereotypes and can be used to address taboo topics.
In this paper, I wish to sketch a theory of offensive humor, which will allow such jokes to be better understood. I begin by laying down an inferentialist account of the pragmatics of jokes. Jokes are speech acts; but while many may be issued in the form of declarative or interrogative sentences, they are not reducible to conventional analysis of questions or statements. Following this,, I turn to offensive humor in particular, describing some of the conditions relevant to their uptake. I will argue that there is a degree of entitlement to certain jokes (relative to the speaker’s authority), and set of commitments that follow from a given joke – both of which allow one to understand the difference between when a joke is offensive and when one is funny. I hope (time permitting) to apply my analysis also to racial and ethnic humor, and discuss some of the positive and negative consequences of these types of jokes.