One Joke We Can Do Without

Recently “Jimmy Kimmel Live” showed a video of a “Candid Camera” style prank pulled on an unsuspecting woman at her workplace. As a loud siren blared, everyone around her started hurling themselves on the floor, losing their balance, reeling and staggering as if the building was shaking. It wasn’t, but the woman was understandably alarmed (even conspiracy theorists don’t instantly assume that they are really surrounded by actors that Jimmy Kimmel has paid to behave like the sky is falling), though the commotion ended as suddenly as it started. Then it started again..then a third time. The woman ended up on the floor, hiding her head under a metal folding chair.

Hilarity ensued.

Televised practical jokes in which one individuals confusion, frustration or humiliation is mined to get laughs from millions is an old, old stand-by. Provoking terror for laughs is relatively recent, however, taken to extremes by the cable show “Scare Tactics,” in which unsuspecting victims have the wits scared out of them by elaborate scenarios, usually involving complicit friends, designed to make them think they are doomed: the night guard forced to try to disarm a “self-destruct” order in a secret warehouse, and the code doesn’t work; the lab worker who is told he has absorbed a deadly dose of gamma rays; the morgue worker who sees corpses crawling out of their drawers. The show has been sued many times, but apparently it is profitable successful enough to pay out settlements as a business expense. Like the Kimmel gag, many of these segments are funny.

But are they funny enough to justify intentionally inflicting severe emotional distress? I think not. The Kimmel gag seems especially cruel at a time of increased anxiety over the possibility of terrorism. Obviously the joke fails a Golden Rule analysis, but it doesn’t meet a utilitarian standard, either. Whatever humor is mined from the victim’s fear doesn’t begin to compensate for causing that level of anxiety.

I know, I know. I might be talked into enjoying a practical joke where the head of NPR was ready to board an airplane and actors playing Middle Eastern passengers were staging loud and sorrowful farewells to loved ones over cell phones, clutching sinister-looking carry-on luggage, practicing pantomime box-cutter thrusts, but being completely ignored by smiling gate personnel. Nevertheless, fears over impending terror attacks, even fears that the victim won’t admit, should not be exploited for laughs. Terror is too painful and upsetting to be justified by merriment.

And there is something else. These kinds of jokes are a variety of bullying, in which a large number of people pool their efforts to inflict harm—amusing harm, perhaps, but harm—on a weaker individual (weaker if for no other reason than because he isn’t in on the joke) for the mirth of another large group of people. This is what bullies do, and how they do it, diminishing an individual’s image and self-worth by creating fear and embarrassment.

People used to think torturing animals was funny too, until we realized it was too cruel to be amusing. It might be time to come to the same conclusion about terrifying people

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