Mike Huckabee Literally Isn’t Funny

The first DNC debate of the 2015–16 election cycle was this Tuesday. Regrettably, I didn’t watch it — I was eating pizza and drinking beer on a rooftop instead, and it was cool. Perhaps more regrettably, though, former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee did watch the debate. If you were to make the mistake of following his Twitter account through the proceedings, you’d notice he had a few zingers, a term I use here wrongly.

The reason I’m writing this post is because of one particular tweet of Mr. Huckabee’s that he’s (rightly) caught a lot of flak for. You know which one I’m talking about.

As a heads-up: this paragraph aside, I’m not going to touch on the fact that Mike Huckabee’s son is a literal dog murderer. Many others have made note of this; it’s a topic that’s been beaten to death and hung from a tree. Rather, I’m going to focus on the issue that I find the most fascinating here: Republicans are worried that your censorship will force them to put more effort into their comedy material.

What goes into a joke?

E.B. White once said that “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” And just like the noble sacrifices of a few frogs have led to great progress in the name of science, so too must a few jokes meet their noble demise for progress in the field of social awareness.

Let’s break down the thought process behind Mr. Huckabee’s tweet:

  1. He doesn’t trust Bernie Sanders.
  2. North Korean chefs cook dogs.
  3. Americans love dogs.
  4. Especially labradors.
  5. Labradors are dogs?
  6. Haha North Korean chefs would totally cook a labrador.
  7. If you told a North Korean chef to look after your dog, his impulses to cook it would overwhelm his better judgment regarding politesse and tact.
  8. This — because of your agreed-upon terms — would mean the chef is untrustworthy.

This illustration is either extremely simplified or extremely overwrought, and it terrifies me that I can’t tell which. In any case, when you get over the instinctual reaction of “North Koreans are different than us b/c they eat dogs lol” — and I was eight years old once too, so I can understand the appeal of that reading — the joke kinda falls apart. I’m not gonna front; I don’t know as much about North Korean culture as I could, so some of this might be wrong and I’m therefore erring on the site of self-evidence, but hear me out:

  1. There isn’t a celebrity chef culture in North Korea, presumably. There’s no North Korean Rachael Ray, convincing you to use “EVOO” to add complexity to your dog at home. There’s no North Korean Guy Fieri wearing North Korean Oakleys with North Korean frosted tips, taking you to the best Dog Drive-Ins, Dog Diners, and Dog Dives. There aren’t any restaurants in North Korea pulling in three Michelin stars thanks to their dog.
  2. This is because the people there aren’t eating dog by choice, also presumably. Be real; nobody would choose to eat a dog. Dogs are awesome. People there are eating dogs because they’re poor and because dogs are a readily available source of protein. Have you ever known a Korean family who lives in the US? I’ve known a few, and none of them eat dog. They’re not not eating dog because it would offend the American sensibilities of their neighbors; rather, they’re not eating dog because there’s no need to, and frankly it doesn’t sound great.
  3. If you happened to cross paths with a North Korean chef and asked him, “hey man, can you look after my dog?” you’d probably come back to find your dog in one piece. This is because North Koreans are people — people who, like us, keep dogs as pets and are capable of feeling empathy.

Mr. Huckabee’s joke doesn’t function without the preexistence of people who will literally starve if they don’t eat dogs. Sure, if North Koreans were eating dogs because they were a notoriously zany and eccentric people and were choosing to do so because that’s something zany and eccentric people do in this sentence, it’s a perfectly passable joke. That’s not the case. They’re eating dogs because of the awful conditions they live in as a result of a totalitarian and (at times yes but not at this particular one, hilariously) incompetent government. You can’t “what are thoooooose” someone’s diet when it’s driven by extreme need and not by choice.

It’s not even like Mr. Huckabee doesn’t understand this himself. He offered this defense on Facebook:

Political correctness has run amok in this country! Last night during the‪#‎DemDebate‬ I said, “I trust Bernie Sanders with my tax dollars like I trust a North Korean chef with my Labrador.” Now the liberal media is attacking me. Leave it to liberals to ignore injustices and atrocities of a totalitarian nation on human beings and put more importance on a nation’s diet which includes grass clippings and canines.

You wouldn’t make fun of someone for choosing to eat grass clippings, either, but the image of someone eating grass probably earns a lot more sympathy than that of someone eating a dog. The ironic thing here is that the intended target of Mr. Huckabee’s joke, the North Korean government, aren’t the ones who have to deal with the fallout of eating dogs or grass.

To be clear: I’m not condemning Mr. Huckabee’s joke because it’s riddled with schadenfreude and ill will towards other ethnicities (which it also is). I’m condemning it because it doesn’t make any fucking sense.

The word “indefensible”

One word you might use to describe Mr. Huckabee’s tweet is “indefensible.” Merriam-Webster defines the word “indefensible” as “not able to be protected against attack.” While true, I don’t think it’s an accurate word here.

“Indefensible” implies that something is worthy of being protected against attack. That’s not the case. We need a word for things that you shouldn’t even need to feel the need to defend, because they’re so meaningless to you. The closest word I can come up with is “unimportant.”

Earlier I mentioned Mr. Huckabee’s tweet about Tonya Harding. Let’s review:

I wasn’t just doing that because it’s funny to laugh at (not with) a guy whose best idea of attacking his political rivals is through twenty year-old figure skating references. I was doing that because it (like the North Korean thing) is a shitty and groan-worthy joke. While egregiously terrible, it’s a great example of a hill nobody should be willing to die on. It’s not indefensible; it’s just unimportant.

(As an aside because I don’t know where to interject this, I resent the fact that we live in a post-Family Guy world where simile humor is a serious thing. Saying x is like thing that has absolutely nothing to do with x is truly the lowest form of humor.)

Trigger Fingers Turn To Twitter Fingers

(I still love you, Meek Mill.)

There’s a difference in Mr. Huckabee’s two jokes, though — not in quality, but in reaction. A ton of people tweeted at Mr. Huckabee in response to the Harding tweet and told him (rightly) how terrible of a joke it was. The same happened with the North Korean Chef tweet. However, Mr. Huckabee only felt the need to defend himself against the latter.

Both jokes should — ideally — fall squarely into the realm of “unimportant” that I described above; they’re the kind of joke you tell, receive somewhere between a negative or an ambivalent reaction, and forget about. You move on, and you don’t turn them into a moral crusade, because shitty jokes aren’t worth moral crusades.

That’s not how the Republican hivemind works, though. The mistake Twitter users made was calling Mr. Huckabee a racist. The second you call anything racist — and this is so weird to me — something inside Republicans clicks and suddenly what was meaningless, unimportant, or inconsequential becomes a battleground for individual freedom and liberty and personal expression and The Way It Used To Be.

If you call a Republican unfunny, they won’t engage you. But if you call them racist, you’ll never get them to shut up. Racism — or in Republican eyes, the lack of racism — is ironically the most import you could assign to a given action.

Unfortunately, many Republicans — including many politicians — consider themselves aspiring comedians, but forgot the part where you actually have to be funny.

They don’t understand how unfair it is to say to others “lighten up, it’s just a joke” when structurally and practically whatever they just said isn’t actually a joke. Their obstacle isn’t sensitivity; it’s sensibility.

The problem isn’t racist non-jokes; the problem is simply non-jokes. “Racist” is just an adjective, and one that when assigned by others allows them some form of moral vindication.

How Do We Fix This?

First and foremost, do not give Republicans the satisfaction of being called racist — they eat that shit for breakfast and poop out a rainbow of victimization and projection and self-pity and finger-wagging at the real racists.

When your reaction is to point out the lack of humor instead of the lack of human decency, Republicans will be forced to acknowledge that it’s not that they’re not funny. It’s that they’re just not funny.

Second, never stop thinking critically about humor. Humor is something that — ideally — has a purpose. Even in the worst case, humor is something that should follow some rules: timeliness, internal logic, some connection to reality. It’s a tool that should be wielded with precision; it’s not a sledgehammer you attach your own prejudices to and swing around wildly in others’ personal space while simultaneously lamenting the lack of appreciation they show you for doing so.

Third, increase your personal standards of humor. You can’t call someone unfunny if you’re unfunny.

Fourth, accept there’s a tradeoff here: if a Republican comes up with a joke that’s legitimately funny and clever, you have to acknowledge it as being funny and clever.

Good jokes are worth defending. Bad jokes aren’t. We aren’t dealing with good jokes.