Taking the Fun out of Jokes (Or, Finding Truth in (Insensitive) Humor)

A coworker told a joke that went something like this:

A young boy with Down syndrome had moved to a new neighborhood, and was waiting for the school bus. When the bus arrived, the driver opened the door, and the boy said, “Good morning”. The driver slammed the door shut and left. Hurt, he told his mother about the incident.

The next day, when the driver opened the door, the boy tried again to be friendly, but got the same result. Again, his mother had to comfort him and encourage him to keep trying. But she decided she would walk with her son to the bus stop the next day.

In the morning, the mother walked her son to the bus stop and waited with him for the bus. The bus arrived, and the boy greeted the driver again. The driver slammed the door and drove off.

The next morning, before her son could greet the driver, the mother asked, “Why are you being so rude to my child with Down syndrome?”

The driver replied, “‘Cuz hees alway ma’on fun o mi.”

Most jokes have at least a shred of truth to them; that’s part of what makes them funny. But before we all decide this was a distasteful, insensitive joke (or, for those who already have, before we start deriding the teller), let’s consider what truth there might be in it. On one level, there’s the caricaturization of the speech patterns of people with Down syndrome. This is at once what makes the joke funny, and what makes the joke insensitive. A nice bit of irony, that the joke can’t be funny without being insensitive. But let’s not stop there, no. Let’s dig deeper.

What other truth could there be here? Let’s analyze the speech and actions of the boy and the bus driver. First, the bus driver. We know, from the end of the joke, that the bus driver assumed that the boy was making fun of him when he tried to be friendly. We can suppose that prior experiences taught him that when people talk to him the same way he talks, they are making fun of him. We can also suppose that as he matured, he learned the “flight” response was usually the best when it comes to “fight or flight”. So, he naturally dealt with the emotional sting of perceiving that he was being made fun of by closing the door and leaving.

The boy assumed that the bus driver, never having heard him talk, was a normal adult, and as an adult, was expected to act responsibly toward children. This expectation was rightly shared by his mother—indeed, she was likely the source of his expectation. So when the driver closed the door and drove away, he felt the emotional sting of being excluded.

So what can we take from this? I would say the deeper kernel of truth in this joke turns it from a joke into a short parable. We don’t always understand the motives of others, their life experiences, what burdens they carry. We would do well to seek to understand others before assigning meanings to their words or actions that aren’t there (or that maybe are, but they deserve the benefit of the doubt). Even here, with this joke, we can assume that someone telling this joke meant to be cruel or insensitive, or we can assume that they were telling it as a parable: “Please don’t react before trying to understand. Please don’t be hurt by what seems to be on the surface something cruel or insensitive; reach out to those around you and give them love, even if what you felt in response to their words or actions was pain.”

Given the nature of most jokes, I’m not convinced the teller was meaning it as a parable. But I’m willing to give the teller the benefit of the doubt: the teller deserves it, as much as the boy and the bus driver.

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