Why do we make jokes?

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readMay 19, 2018


Synopsis: We all love to laugh at jokes and feel good but often fail to realize the purpose of the jokes we hear which may be hidden or not so hidden. If the purpose is to put down others through jokes then it cannot be a good thing and should be condemned.

Source : Google photo

Have you ever wondered why people make jokes about other people? I have often thought about it and have come to the conclusion that a joke is a form of social disapproval of a person who may not be popular or represents an ethnic group that people tend to denigrate. We joke about people we do not approve as a person politically, morally or otherwise so the TV programs where stand-up comedians make jokes are popular.

We love to laugh at other’s expense because it is a non-violent way of protest that can cut deep specially if the object of the jokes has onion skin and easily gets annoyed. The comedians make a lot of money telling jokes and become famous household names until their dark secrets are revealed and “Me too” women start to come out exposing them as frauds.

One such comedian made millions of dollars simply by bluster because he had a funny face and short height that played in his favor but he knew no jokes so he hired people to write jokes for him and read from the cue cards displayed behind the camera. People knew but did not care because he made people laugh even if he was a total fraud.

People make jokes on all sorts of things and often point out pressing social issues like sex abuse, gun violence, domestic issues, discrimination and such so we can see that the jokes often serve a purpose in shining a light on the dark side of human nature and make people aware of what is going on, what is wrong with our society and what we can do about it.

But when jokes are made as a form of social disapproval of a person because he wears a turban or has facial hair or dresses differently then it shows bigotry and intolerance which cannot be good. This bigotry comes from the sense of superiority over others which has its roots in racism. It is the same reason racial profiling is practiced by the whites who suspect people who are not white therefore subject to scrutiny.

We as children often joked about the Sikhs in India who are very nice people and jovial in nature so they do not take jokes about them seriously although they must be wondering why jokes are made about them. One joke we used to say was something like this.

Why the Sikhs forget what time it is at noon? It is because they wear turban which heats up at noon time making them forget things like time. It is a cruel joke that is full of racist overtones but my Sikh classmates took it casually and never retorted back so eventually we stopped realizing how stupid the joke was. We learned such jokes from adults who showed their prejudice through jokes about Sikhs. It did not matter to them that Sikhs were as good as any and one became the president of India.

Another joke I heard in our village when we were children was from a teenager who kept on repeating this joke that we too memorized to the chagrin of others.

He said that “ Bangals are not human but a strange animal that jumps up a tree but has no tail.

We call the East Pakistan ( now Bangladesh ) Bengalis as Bangals who have a different dialect and speak with an accent that Indian Bengalis find funny so they make fun of them. Now to say that they are not human and are a strange animal that jumps up a tree etc. is downright racist but no one corrected that boy who said such things.

We heard the pejorative words like Mero and Khottas that describe the trading class of Marwaris in India who dominate the business sector in Bengal and the uneducated people from Bihar are called Khottas which is a slang. It clearly showed their prejudices which they showed through their jokes.

There are joke books sold on the sidewalks of India that are full of deprecating jokes that one can buy for pennies because there is a market for obscene jokes so there are full-time joke writers who make a living this way and some may even end up writing jokes for comedians who read them from cue cards held behind the camera.

This obsession with jokes to make people laugh at the expense of others often denigrating them with cruel and racist jokes shows the dark side of our nature that children learn from and become racist themselves later on. If you grow up in the company of such people hearing such jokes often then you too start forming your own opinion about others in a negative way.

Once we saw a girl in a fast food restaurant here in the Philippines who was entertaining her classmates with jokes about someone who was probably known to everyone with very elaborate facial expressions and mimicking the person’s habits and accent that made everybody roar in laughter but disturbing everyone else dining there. It was such a relief when she left and the place became quieter.

Let us face it. We mimic people we do not like or find very strange. I did it myself as a student but in retrospect I think it was wrong to make fun of someone behind his back but that realization came when I was much older and mature. The comedians do it every day because that is how they make their living but does it make it right?

If you joke about people who are racist and suggest ways to overcome racism then perhaps it serves a purpose or if you joke about a very corrupt and immoral politician and expose him for what he is then may be it too serves a purpose of naming and shaming a bad person but when a joke is made on someone just because he looks different or has accent then I think it shows pure prejudice that serves no one.

How many times you have heard jokes about the Pollacks (Polish immigrants) or the Dagos or the Irish in the United States? How often you hear jokes about the” Cathliks and Jews” in rural America where they are so vocal about their dislikes of them? Now add to their list the Sikhs ,the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Muslims who wear turbans and have facial hair etc. then you will know the extent of their prejudices they express through their jokes if not outright disdain for such groups. This comes mainly from ignorance they learn from their parents and peers. Believe me when I say that ignorance is also a learned process just like knowledge.

A child who grows up ignorant about other people learns it from others he grows up with who teach him bias, hate, prejudice and disdain and passes it on to the next generation. That is why racism still persists in many parts of the world.

We are very vulnerable as children when our brain is like a lump of soft clay where impressions are easily made and stays there when that lump hardens later. This is why the religious indoctrination starts very early in a child’s life. He can absorb good things as well as the bad things and a time comes when the bad things overwhelm the good things he has learned because the bad has an evil and dominating power over a weak person who is very vulnerable.

The prejudice is a learned process. If you repeat to someone some evil things over and over again for days and months and years then it starts to take root in the subconscious mind and affects the person in a negative way. If you tell a lie and repeat it over and over again then some people if not all will start believing such lies.

This is the bread and butter of politicians who resort to this proven technique to gain their supporters who may elect him someday to a higher office. No one bothers to check if the politician is telling the truth or lies except the news media that can be easily discredited as fake news if they tell the truth.

I have seen the prejudice, the bias and the ignorance about others in most countries I have visited or lived in and have encountered people who will try to convince you that they are right because that is what they have learned from their elders. Their jokes, their phobia, their apprehensions about others who are not like them, their ignorance of other cultures and people, their innate reticence to accept anything at face value, their pride in their own everything are all a learning process and it starts early in the childhood.

So the question to ask here is why people show disapproval of others through jokes? It is because they believe that they are upholding certain social values as self-appointed guardians of their society. This social disapproval can often take a violent form and can have dire consequences as we have seen in India where a boyfriend- girlfriend relationship is often met with ridicule at best or eve teasing or even rape at worst.

Let us all admit that we do not joke about someone we revere as a person. Have you heard jokes about Jesus or Mama Mary anywhere? Have you heard jokes about Nelson Mandela except in the inner circles of white policemen who jailed him? Does anyone denigrate Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II ? It is because people have a lot of respect for them so they do not make jokes about them. We use joke as an outlet to vent our negative feelings about a person because we feel a sense of superiority over them.

Did you notice that all TV comedians use a sidekick in their shows who will never disagree with the host and will always support the jokes no matter how absurd it is? In real life people who tell jokes also use sidekicks. It may be his office mates or school mates or someone else because they feel the need for someone who will agree with them no matter what. This is the reason the teen ager in the village was telling us the racist jokes because we were children and did not disagree with him just because we did not know any better. This was the support he was looking for that he was not sure of getting from adults.

So a jokester is out of place if people do not laugh at his jokes and someone may even stop him by saying that his jokes are out of place and he should shut up or find some other audience. So a jokester looks for people with similar mindset or he has a secret button in his desk that he can press to turn on a recorded laugh when no one is laughing.

I have seen this charade when the presidential candidates debate each other on live TV where someone favoring one candidate or the other presses the secret button that lights up a sign saying “Applaud” which is the cue for the audience. Such tricks are a part of the TV program that no one complains about because the audience is carefully screened before admittance to weed out the trouble makers. In Nixon’s case they used the Applaud button too often to show favor to him but he still lost to Kennedy who was charismatic and handsome to boot.

This is the same trick the stand-up comedians use in their shows because no one likes a trouble maker to disrupt their litany of cheap jokes. If the audience is not amused then there is always the secret button of recorded laughter. I wonder if they really fool the wider audience.

I must now conclude that it is ok to make a joke and make people laugh as long it does not smack of racism or putting someone down just because he looks different or has an accent. To teach the audience prejudice and bias through jokes is never a good thing and should not be tolerated anywhere. We know that children are most vulnerable and will learn bad things from you if you repeat them often enough because they have not learned to discern.

I learned my lessons early enough and can’t come up with any joke except one or two so people may think of me as humorless. My sister says so but I don’t care. I would rather be a decent person who does not denigrate people through jokes than one who does. Wouldn’t you?

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