6 Jokes We Need to Stop Making

While some people think comedy should be above criticism, a culture’s sense of humor affects and reinforces its values. We are a better country than we would be if we still found the idea of women voting, for example, laughable and absurd. Many jokes that our society used to find hilarious are now regarded with horror; many more are still met with laughter, but should be left on the pitch room floor. 

Our sensibility over what is funny, and what is worth making fun of, shift over time, at the level of the individual, the generation, the community and the nation. I don’t expect to see consensus about what jokes are morally objectionable any time soon, and different communities may reasonably have somewhat different standards. But when jokes target marginalized and oppressed subgroups within a given community, there’s a good chance those jokes play a part in a harmful and reprehensible cultural attitude.

There are plenty of caveats to a list like this. While I mention several broad categories, I don’t mean to suggest that the topics are entirely off the table. In particular, members of the subgroups mentioned can often playfully repurpose these jokes as a way of communicating their own perspectives. Key & Peel, for instance, brilliantly put complex racial dynamics to humorous ends. And Amy Schumer is essentially making an extraordinary career out of lampooning societal attitudes towards women.

Contrary to those who endlessly bemoan “political correctness,” leaving needlessly offensive jokes behind still offers ample room for comedy; in fact, it would make comedy better. Humor that subverts harmful norms is usually more clever, fresh and entertaining anyway. The types of jokes below typically reflect decades-old prejudices and preconceptions that in addition to being oppressive and degrading are stale and uninspired:

1. Violence towards women

Jokes that endorse or downplay violence towards women thankfully appear to be falling out of favor. A couple years ago the comedian Daniel Tosh made a joke about raping a female heckler. Though some defended the joke, Tosh faced harsh criticism from many corners.

There are countless reasons why these kinds of jokes are inappropriate, not the least of which is that they alienate the victims of this violence. Consider also the case of Bill Cosby’s “Spanish Fly” joke, told as recently as 1991, in which he joked about drugging women to have sex with him.

Who could deny that we’re better off living in a society where such jokes are not considered funny or acceptable, or are seen as red flags? Only once we’ve stopped laughing at such jokes can we start to address the cultural roots of such violence.

It’s hard to imagine a comedian getting away with a similar joke in his act nowadays, which suggests that things are getting better on this front. Similarly, consider the 1950s sitcom “The Honeymooners,” in which a repeated joked featured husband Ralph threatening to punch his wife Alice “to the moon.” I doubt such a casual reference to domestic abuse would be accepted on “Modern Family.”

But are any jokes about violence towards women funny? Yes, when women aren’t the butt of the joke.

2. Racial inferiority

When jokes depend on the implied inferiority of a marginalized racial population, they can play into destructive cultural prejudices. Some people make these jokes because they think they are so beyond being racist that the idea of their being racist is what’s supposed to be funny. But for many members of racial minorities, there’s little that’s funny about the idea of people being racist; it’s a constant and oppressive reality.

When The Washington Post suggested that some of Amy Schumer’s racist jokes put her in league with Donald Trump, they were exaggerating, but only somewhat. While it’s clear Schumer wouldn’t endorse anything like Trump’s vile views, particularly about Mexicans, some of her jokes (which she says are cut from her act) played into stereotypes and fears that have a real impact on our nation’s policies.

Jokes that even superficially mock racial minorities give cover to harmful racist ideologies of all forms, and can marginalize members of the audience. There are lots of clever points comedians can make about race, but relying on lazy stereotypes for humor should stop.

3. Prison rape

I am continually shocked by how casually otherwise insightful comedians will make jokes about sexual abuse in prisons, usually rape of male prisoners. The joke in part plays on old-fashioned “gay panic” humor, which takes homosexual sex acts to be innately repulsive and worthy of mockery. But they also play on an even more pernicious disdain for the incarcerated.

Sexual assault in prisons is a serious problem, and there’s nothing funny about these abusive incidents. Our society will never take these abuses seriously if we’re laughing about them on late night talk shows.

4. Denigrating trans people

Caitlyn Jenner has been subjected to countless rounds of ridicule, misgendering and insults since coming out. But even when these jokes aren’t directed at any one individual, the idea that a prospective sexual partner might be secretly trans is a common comedic trope. Sometimes, violence towards these people is a part of the joke, despite its being a national problem.

Sex and gender turn out to be much more complicated than is commonly thought. If we accept that there’s more diversity along these lines than previously thought, then we’ll realize that there’s nothing inherently funny or ridiculous about a person’s being trans. Since trans people are still fighting for basic respect, it’s all the more important that we refrain from making jokes out of their identity.

5. Making light of mental illness

Shortly after his first election, President Obama made a joke comparing his bowling to that of Special Olympics athletes. He apologized very soon thereafter, but it revealed a lack of consideration of those with disabilities which permeates our society, and in particular those with mental and intellectual disabilities.

Though it seems to be falling out of the mainstream, you can still hear the “r-word” thrown around as a casual insult. But there’s no defense for holding and perpetuating demeaning attitudes towards individuals who have mental illnesses, who often suffer from misunderstanding and mistreatment as much as anything else.

6. Fat shaming

Perhaps the most common of all the jokes on this list, jokes that ridicule people for being fat are harmful and oppressive. While everyone should be encouraged to live a healthier lifestyle no matter their weight, there’s no reason to make people feel bad about the way the way their bodies look.

Women tend to bear the brunt of these jokes, as they face more pressure from society to conform to sexualized ideals. Especially in a society in which millions of people are impacted by eating disorders every year, it’s about time we recognize that fat shaming is destructive and needs to end.

Photo Credit: Craig Cochrane


No A
No A2 years ago

Great Article

Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim V3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

While sometimes a joke can be taken wrong and be hurtful, most are not meant to be. I think we need to be less concerned about offending others and being offended and just get over some things. We are becoming a society of babies.

Robby k.
Past Member 3 years ago

I am 110% for complete & TOTAL freedom of speech. But, I HATE this type of speech. Like these type of jokes that make light of such serious horrendous thoughts & ideas. They perpetuate these problems.

We need people to analyze these type jokes, where they come from, etc, & fire back w/jokes or arguments that'll help reverse these hideous thought processes, etc...

EX: Someone makes prison rape joke to friend who just spent night in jail for DUI. Prison rape is NOT ONLY dominance- one HAS to be able to make 'things' work & that doesn't happen unless they get excited.

So, he should fire back with "yeah, one guy DID try to get some from me & was pretty big & aggressive but I fought him off & watched my back. I found out he was getting out in 2-3wks, SO, I gave him your name, #, & general idea where you live, etc. You know; birds of a feather buddy :-) He's a real nice guy- just strong libido! But, despite him being the "top," most regarded him as the fag b/c he liked to do it to people- takes both sides ya know. Still, I know you'll like him!"

This is NOT meant to offend homosexuals, but to offend RAPIST homosexuals! Rape is rape & wrong for every animal.

Janet B.
Janet B3 years ago


Melania Padilla
Melania P3 years ago

Agree, sharing

Ann B.
Ann B3 years ago

Children learn from what they hear.....and the television is a terrible things to "waste minds" it needs to start there!!!