Laugh, and the world laughs with you?
With all due credit to poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, not necessarily.
"One man's laugh can be another man's tastelessness," says Jeffrey Goldstein, psychology professor at Temple University and an expert on humor.
Ethnic jokes, in particular, carry some unspoken rules and motivations, along with mistaken cues. In other words, different jokes for different folks. And it doesn't look like ethnic jokes are going away.
"There are certain dues you pay that give you leeway with humor," says comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory. Phyllis Diller, for example, can joke about ugly women, but Bo Derek "couldn't do a three-minute TV act putting down what society would call an ugly woman."
She'd seem cruel, says Gregory, because she hasn't "gone through the ordeal of being treated by society as an ugly woman. That's how ethnic humor works too."
Says Goldstein: "If you can't do anything about your situation, you might as well laugh about it. It's a way of expressing fears, acknowledging the situation and making the best of it. I think it can improve a group's camaraderie, morale and solidarity."
Rebellious humor, says Larry Coleman, an actor and communications professor at Howard University, is a "drive-reducing function of fantasy behavior because participating in a certain kind of fantasy can reduce your drive or aggression, thereby helping you cope."
Slaves, he says, often joked about their master. "Black folks laughed to keep from crying; that's what kept them alive. An old part of the folklore is this saying: 'When the white man came here, the Indian cursed him and died. Then the white man brought the black man, who laughed and multiplied.' "
Black kids, says Coleman, tend toward combative humor--"verbal-sparring contests that help build psychological strength." He points to the popularity of "Dirty Dozens," a game in which participants hurl one-liners such as: "Your mother looks like death standing on a streetcorner eating lifesavers."
Immigrants adjusting to American culture often joke about their mishaps, says Izzy Sanabria, comedian and publisher of Latin New York magazine. He tells the joke of a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican who puts 90 cents into a cigarette vending machine, which lights up "dime." In Spanish, di me means "tell me." The Puerto Rican leans toward the machine and whispers, "Marlboros."
"When I first came here, I couldn't smile at all," recalls Johnny Yune, a Korean-American comedian who immigrated in 1962. "The language problem gets complicated because immigrants take slang expressions literally."
He recounts the time he took a date to Bakersfield. "On the drive back to Los Angeles, she told me, 'I just want you to know that I don't go all the way.' So," says Yune, "I let her off in Encino."
Pat Morita, a California Japanese-American comedian, says he learned early to defend himself with quips. "If somebody called me a little Jap, I'd say, 'Hey, don't talk like that or you'll find your lawn all messed up on December the 7th.' "
Chicanos--Americans of Mexican descent--also like disarming opponents with sharp quips, says Danny Mora, a Los Angeles comedian and actor.
"Guys would spend hours hanging around a storefront engaging in a medieval kind of verbal joust. There was great status in being quick-tongued and fast-witted."
Jews laugh with themselves, says New York comedian Emil Cohen, not at themselves. "We don't need Polish jokes because no ethnic group has a monopoly on stupidity. Instead, we have the legendary city of Chelm, where there are no wisemen. And we don't say a person is stupid. Instead, we say, 'Too smart, he isn't.' "
Self-mocking humor, says Goldstein, is a coping mechanism: "It's a way of saying: not only can we take it, but also we can dish it out better than you can."
Asian humor, claim Yune and Morita, tends to be less sarcastic than black and Chicano humor because of traditional protocol.
"It was shameful to be laughed at, embarrassing to laugh too loudly, and forbidden to laugh at a superior," says Morita. "For years, many Japanese-Americans didn't understand stand-up comedy."
Yune, who lives in Los Angeles, says he now sometimes gets complaints from Asians who don't appreciate his stand-up humor. Chinese-Americans, for example, criticized him for perpetuating a racial stereotype when he told this joke: "The Chinese, who came here before Columbus, actually discovered America. But when they saw all the naked Indians, they exclaimed 'we'll never make it in the laundry business here,' and went back to China."
Yune defends it by saying that many Chinese were in the laundry business at one time. "You have to be able to open up and laugh at what has happened to you. But if something goes wrong, we Asians try to hide it and act as if we don't make mistakes."
Bill Shinkai, a comedy writer for TV's "Diff'rent Strokes," says he prefers situational jokes to racial jokes, because some people can't distinguish a stereotype from reality.
"Ethnic jokes (of the Polish-joke variety) are hostile; good or bad that's what it's about," says Gary Shimokawa, director of "Archie Bunker's Place." "They're always going to exist because there's a human tendency to pigeon-hole somebody at the bottom."
"Ethnic jokes, or something like them, exist every place I've studied humor," says Goldstein. "Usually, people make fun of groups with whom they are competing economically.
"I would never encourage my kids to tell Polish jokes, but I think expressing this mild form of prejudice in a joke is preferable to joining the Ku Klux Klan."