Is Profanity Necessary in Humor?

The subject of using profanity often comes up in my classes. Should I use it? Should I avoid it? The answer is: Fuck if I know! Here’s the deal: Sometimes profanity is absolutely necessary for a joke to work: A little old lady is golfing on the back nine when a tee shot whizzes by her head. She looks back and screams at the guy, “Why didn’t you yell, fore?” The guys says, “Sorry, I didn’t have time.” “Oh no?” says the old lady. “But you had time to yell ‘Oh Fuck!’

If we laughed at this story it’s because we set it up that it was a little old lady. We don’t expect a little old lady to use that kind of profanity, so it shattered our expectation and the surprise is what got the laugh. But it’s not the element of surprise alone that gets the laugh. The surprise is also heightened with shock and delight that the old lady would use such a word. Would that joke be funny if the little old lady said “Yeah, but you had time to yell, ‘Oh darn!?’ Probaby not.

When George Carlin used to open his act with, “Did you ever notice that most women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?” That is one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard from a comic. Could you use any other word to get the same impact? The use of the word “fuck” gives it flash and power. It’s a lightning strike. The line also defines the performer immediately. Is there any question the type of comedian George Carlin is after he says this line? No! He’s a social satirist. Since humor is defined as a veiled attack or disguised hostility, then vulgar language can be a device to communicate genuine feelings.