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Editorial: When do jokes go too far?


A joke makes fun of someone, or something. A joke offends someone — almost always.

A joke's intent is meant to make people laugh, even if it's bad. A joke is often misunderstood and labeled an attack. A joke is considered — in most cases — acceptable whereas an attack is not.

Comedian Penn Jilette went through the wringer over the weekend as the latest in a romp of celebrities that have made Newfoundland the butt of a joke, or the butt of something. And, in Fighting Newfoundland fashion, we let him know exactly what we thought and tore him a "devil's torture chamber."

The routine is nothing new and seems to strike the same emotional response when celebrity-of-the-day throws a barb at this beautiful province.

When those insults are first steeped in vitriol and show an obvious prejudice against the people and place, the strong reaction is expected, warranted even.

However, when does the joke be taken as just that? When is it a chance to look at ourselves and let things slide off our water-collecting sponge-filled back?

Think about all the times Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have walked down the easy road of making fun of their neighbours for being stereotypical, or even casting an entire town with ridicule on an unfortunate event that took place in its recent past.

Think about the things people said about St. Jude's over a few worm vendors. Or what about how those from both sides of the Bay of Islands says about those "useless city slickers" in Corner Brook. A little further east and we've all heard things said about Sheppardville or Torbay for unfortunate crimes that only involved a few. What about how our fine friends in St. John's are clueless about the rest of the province?

Most are jokes, of course, and passed off as such. Does this make them wrong? Forgivable? Most will say they’re harmless and treat them a little more lightly because they're not finding the reach that celebrity status carries.

So, where do you draw the line?

We can all agree the cutting and misguided bigotry that was never meant to make someone laugh has to be off limits. And let's not think this doesn't exist in every single town and city outside this fair province when the word Newfoundland is brought up. There's still a strong undercurrent of prejudice there, mostly steeped in insecurity people have in trying to make themselves seem "better" than someone. It's wrong, regardless of its root.

So, what about things meant to make people laugh? Shouldn't we be able to treat these as we do our more localized jabs? Maybe, then, it's a matter of context. If the joke itself is a fresh, lighthearted take something, most would agree it's fair game. If, however, it's playing on that tired old insult that had hung over the head of a province for decades, maybe we have a right to get bent out of shape, or at least let the person delivering it know it's not funny.

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