Satirical Sideshow:


Satire, Shock Value, Ribaldry, Blue Comedy, and the Abuses of Comedy Out of Context

by John Tennison, MD

Disclaimer:  This article is not intended for anyone under 18 years of age.  This article quotes and discusses comedy and satirical writings which contain explicit sexual content not intended for minors.

This article is a review of particular traditions of comedy and literary devices that have informed my own satirical and comedic writings.

Meaning of "Satire"

According to Wikipedia (accessed on 6-7-2014), "Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.  Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—"in satire, irony is militant" —but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This "militant" irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. 

Satire is nowadays found in many artistic forms of expression, including literature, plays, commentary, television shows, and media such as lyrics."

The intensity of the humor from satire is usually in proportion to the extent to which satire presents highly undesirable situations and objectionable behaviors as if these situations and behaviors were normal or otherwise not objectionable.

Satire with the greatest potential to provoke thought and raise consciousness has traditionally focused on the most highly polarizing and most controversial topics possible, including, but not limited to politics, religion, ethnicity, sex, drugs, and vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly.

Shock Value

Within the category of satire, various literary devices are used.  One of these is "shock value."  According to Wikipedia (accessed on 6-7-2014),

"Shock value is the potential of an action (as a public execution), image, text, or other form of communication to provoke a reaction of sharp disgust, shock, anger, fear, or similar negative emotions."

With regard to the use of "shock value" in humor, Wikipedia states (accessed 6-7-2014):

"The term off-color humor (also known as dirty jokes) is an Americanism used to describe jokes, prose, poems, black comedy, blue comedy and skits that deal with topics considered to be in poor taste or overly vulgar by the prevailing morality of a culture. Most commonly labeled as "off-color" are acts concerned with a particular ethnic group or gender. Other off-color topics include violence, particularly domestic abuse; excessive swearing or profanity; "toilet humor"; national superiority or inferiority; "dead baby" jokes; and other topics generally considered impolite or indecent. Generally, the intent of off-color humor is to induce laughter by evoking a feeling of shock and surprise in the comedian's audience. In this way, off-color humor is related to other forms of postmodern humor, such as the anti-joke.

In the 1990s and modern era, comedians such as George Carlin and Dave Chappelle use shocking content to draw attention to their criticism of social issues, especially censorship and the socioeconomic divide. The highly-praised television show South Park also popularized the use of offensive humor, for which the show has become infamous. The Aristocrats is perhaps the most famous dirty joke in the US due to its high shock value and is certainly one of the best-known and most oft-repeated among comedians themselves."

"The Aristocrats" as an Example of Shock Value

Even though "The Aristocrats" is widely known as the "most famous dirty joke," it also regarded as an example of satire that utilizes "shock value," to satirize, among other things, the pretentiousness of aristocracy.

According to Wikipedia (accessed 6-7-2014):

"'The Aristocrats' (also known as "The Debonaires" or "The Sophisticates" in some tellings) is a taboo-defying dirty joke that has been told by numerous stand-up comedians since the vaudeville era. Over time it has evolved from a clichéd staple of vaudevillian humor into a postmodern anti-joke. Steven Wright has likened it to a secret handshake among comedians, and it is seen as something of a game in which those who tell it try to top each other in terms of shock value. It is thought of as a badge of honor among expert comedians and is notoriously hard to perform successfully. It is rarely told the same way twice, often improvised.

The joke was the subject of a 2005 documentary film of the same name.  It received publicity when it was used by Gilbert Gottfried during the Friars' Club roast of Hugh Hefner in September 2001."

Traditional Format[edit] of "The Aristocrats" Joke

"This joke almost always has these elements—alternative versions may change this form.

  1. Setup: A family act going in to see a talent agent; either the whole family or just one family member (usually the father).
  2. Act: It is described in as much detail as the teller prefers.
  3. Punch line: The shocked (or intrigued) agent asks what the act is called, and the proud answer (sometimes delivered with a flourish) is: "The Aristocrats!"
    The humor of the punch line is usually considered to derive either from the extreme discordance between the group's sophisticated name (and the regal "flourish" when stating it) and the vile acts they perform, or as a form of social satire aimed at the decadence of the aristocracy."

History of "The Aristocrats" in Print[edit]

2005 Documentary Film about "The Aristocrats"

Main article: The Aristocrats (film)

"A film called The Aristocrats premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It was co-produced by Penn Jillette, Matthew Maguire, and Paul Provenza; directed by Provenza; and edited by Emery Emery. It's based on hours of digital video taken over several years, featuring comedians and others in the know talking about and telling their versions of the joke. "The Aristocrats" was Johnny Carson's favorite joke. Because of this, and because Carson died days after the film was screened at Sundance, Penn Jillette decided to dedicate this film to his memory. The Aristocrats features performances and commentary from some of Hollywood's biggest power players in comedy, TV and film.  Included in the film is a mostly unedited recording of Gottfried's Friar's Club performance from 2001, which had been deleted from the TV broadcast."

"Rumors cited in this film suggest that Chevy Chase used to hold parties at which the goal was to tell the joke for an hour, without repeating any of the acts contained in its performance. Jillette states in the movie that no one has ever been able to listen to Chase for an hour."


Another literary device which is used in satire (and which is related to "shock value") is "ribaldry."

 According to Wikipedia (accessed 6-7-2014):

"Ribaldry is humorous entertainment that ranges from bordering on indelicacy to gross indecency. It is also referred to as "bawdiness", "gaminess" or "bawdry".

Sex is presented in ribald material more for the purpose of poking fun at the foibles and weaknesses that manifest themselves in human sexuality, rather than to present sexual stimulation either excitingly or artistically.  Also, ribaldry may use sex as a metaphor to illustrate some non-sexual concern, in which case ribaldry may verge on the territory of satire.

Like any humour, ribaldry may be read as conventional or subversive.  Ribaldry typically depends on a shared background of sexual conventions and values, and its comedy generally depends on seeing those conventions broken.

The ritual taboo-breaking that is a usual counterpart of ribaldry underlies its controversial nature and explains why ribaldry is sometimes a subject of censorship. Ribaldry, whose usual aim is not "merely" to be sexually stimulating, often does address larger concerns than mere sexual appetite.  However, being presented in the form of comedy, these larger concerns may be overlooked by censors."

Blue Comedy as a Form of Ribaldry

Acording to Wikipedia (accessed 6-7-2014), "'Blue comedy is comedy that is off-color, risqué, indecent or profane, largely about sex. It often contains profanity and/or sexual imagery that may shock and offend some audience members.

"Working blue" refers to the act of using curse words and discussing things that people do not discuss in "polite society". A "blue comedian" or "blue comic" is a comedian who usually performs risqué routines layered with curse words. Topical musicians may use blue comedy both in their commentary between songs and in the lyrics to their songs. Comedian Max Miller coined the phrase, after his stage act which involved telling jokes from either a white book or a blue book, chosen by audience preference (the blue book contained ribald jokes).

Private events at show business clubs such as the Bob Saget Club and The Masquers often showed this blue side of otherwise cleancut Bob Saget; a recording survives of one Masquers roast from the 1950s with Jack Benny, George Jessel, George Burns, and Art Linkletter all using highly risqué material and obscenities.  Many comedians who are normally family-friendly might choose to work blue when off-camera or in an adult-oriented environment; Bob Saget exemplifies this dichotomy."

Practitioners of blue comedy include highly-respected comedians, such as Louis CK, Seth MacFarlane, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, George Carlin, and Gilbert Gottfried.

Wikipedia also states, "On talk radio in the USA, many commentators use blue comedy in their political programs. Examples include Neal Boortz, Phil Hendrie and Steve Morrison."

Bawdy Songs as Examples of Ribaldry

"A Bawdy song is a humorous song which emphasizes sexual themes and is often rich with innuendo. Historically these songs tend to be confined to groups of young males, either as students or in an environment where alcohol is flowing freely. An early collection was "Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy" published between 1698 and 1720. Sailor's songs tend to be quite frank about the exploitative nature of the relationship between men and women. There are many examples of folk songs in which a man encounters a woman in the countryside. This is followed by a short conversation, and then intercourse. Neither side demonstrates any shame or regret. If the woman becomes pregnant, the man goes back to sea. Rugby songs are often bawdy. Examples of bawdy folk songs are: "Seventeen Come Sunday" and "The Ballad of Eskimo Nell". In 1892 "The Scottish Students Song Book" (edited by John Stuart Blackie) was published, containing 200 ribald songs. In modern times Hash House Harriers have taken on the role of tradition-bearers for this kind of song."

Other Examples of Ribaldry

"An example of ribaldry is "De Brevitate Vitae", a song which in many European-influenced universities is both a student beer-drinking song and an anthem sung by official university choirs at public graduation ceremonies. The private and public versions of the song contain vastly different words.

Ribaldry is present to some degree in every culture and has likely been around for all of human history. Works like Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Menaechmi by Plautus, Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius, and The Golden Ass of Apuleius are ribald classics from ancient Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales and The Crabfish, one of the oldest English traditional ballads, are classic examples. François Rabelais showed himself to be a master of ribaldry (technically called grotesque body) in his Gargantua. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne and The Lady's Dressing Room by Jonathan Swift. Mark Twain's long-suppressed 1601 also falls in this category.

More recent works like Candy, Barbarella, L'Infermiera, the comedic works of Russ Meyer, Little Annie Fanny and John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor are probably better classified as ribaldry than as either pornography or erotica."

The Abuses of Comedy Out of Context:

Presentation of Ribald Satire and Blue Comedy in the Context of Sexually Violent Predator Trials in Texas

      An interesting occurrence that I have personally witnessed in Texas is the presentation of some of my own satirical comedy writings to juries in the context of sexually violent predator trials in the state of Texas in which I am serving as an expert psychiatric witness.  In these instances, prosecution attorneys have cherry-picked and presented certain of my ribald or otherwise blue-comedic writings out of context to juries, apparently in the hopes that the juries will identify me or my psychiatric methodology with fictional situations or with innapropriate behaviors of fictional characters.

     Can you imagine if comedian Louis CK also happened to be a psychiatrist and had some of his comments taken out of context from his stand-up routines and presented to juries in the serious context of a sexually violent predator trial in Texas, as if such comments represented Louis CK's actual opinions or influenced his psychiatric methodology? 

     For example, imagine Louis CK being a psychiatrist and trying to give serious testimony to a jury, which needs to hear evidence that will help them decide whether or not an individual meets criteria to be commited as a "sexually violent predator" in the state of Texas.  Now imagine prosecution attorneys reading out-of-context comments that Louis CK has made in his standup comedy routines, such as from his 2007 HBO Special, in which Louis CK said:

     "I'm not condoning rape.  Obviously, you should never rape anyone -- unless you have a reason -- like you want to fuck somebody and they won't let you, in which case, what other option do you have?  How else are you supposed to have an orgasm in their body if you don't rape them?  I mean....What the fuck?"

Or from his 2008 special, in which Louis CK said:

     "I would never call a woman a cunt, except for my Mom because she likes it for some weird reason."

Or from 2010, when talking about gay people, at which time Louis CK said:

     "There's gotta be something to it.  Those folks are having a good time.  They have parades!  There's no parades for how I get laid.  They have parades -- marching down the street to celebrate that they blow each other and fuck each other in the ass.  Smush their vaginas together or whatever that one is."

or another from 2010:

       "So I'm looking at the couple and they're walking on the other side of the street.  And they have a child with them, but I can't see their child because there's like a dumpster and some other stuff.  I just see like a little head.  And I'm waiting -- I'm curious what their kid looks like because their so beautiful -- maybe I want to fuck their kid.  I don't know.  That's just me saying something terrible because it makes me laugh that it upsets you.  That's all that is -- just so you know.  It's just enjoyable to me that you're upset.  That's all it is.  I'm not gonna fuck a kid.  I wouldn't do that.  Maybe a dead kid -- who are you hurting?  He's dead!  Who are you hurting?  I'm not saying I would kill a kid and fuck him.  I'm saying if I found a dead kid in a field and it wasn't raining, I might take a shot.  I don't know -- I haven't been in that situation."

     No one in their right mind would conclude that these comments from standup comedy routines represented Louis CK's true views regarding rape, his mother, gay people, sex with children, or sex with dead children.  Moreover, if Louis CK was a psychiarist testifying in a courtroom, reading these quotations to a jury would waste their valuable time and direct their attention away from actual information that would have been helpful for them in deciding whether or not someone met criteria to be committed as a "sexually violent predator."  Yet, I have personally witnessed this type of process happening in sexually violent predator trials in Texas from 2009 through 2014.

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