When it comes to comedy, “offensive” is a word that’s used rather loosely. The difference between a distasteful and well-calculated joke can be subtle, and a good comedian usually has to straddle that line. The first time you see an episode of South Park or Chris Rock’s stand up comedy, you may be struck by the excessive use of the f-word. But underneath the cursing, there lies valid social commentary that’s just as relevant as any op-ed column.

Individuals are usually offended by a joke if they feel it treats a particular group (ethnic, religious, gender, etc.) unfairly. Such unfair treatment can come as a result of blatant misinformation or hateful language. The problem is that many people become offended before they think about the intent of the joke. Jokes that use false stereotypes to make a point about prejudice can be funny — they just have to be executed in a smart way. When it’s done right, comedy is a very useful tool for revealing flaws in a society, and any joke that does so successfully should not be considered offensive.

The other night, my grandma complained about Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”) giving Conan O’Brien (“The Tonight Show”) a lap dance at the end of an interview promoting his upcoming movie “Bruno.” I explained that I found such a stunt completely acceptable.

Here’s why. Bruno is a fictional, gay fashion reporter who flouts his sexuality and overly flamboyant character in front of real people. His purpose is not to mock the gay community, but to mock the way that society thinks about the gay community. The stereotype he encapsulates is merely an exaggerated version of the gay stereotype that is already very common in the media. Watching Bruno do ridiculous stunts in real life reminds us that real people do not behave like he does, and that real gay men talk about more than just sex and celebrities, contrary to what “Sex and the City” would lead you to believe.

Cohen is accustomed to making people angry through his work. In 2006, he released “Borat,” a movie that received press, good and bad, for about a month after it was released.

As a Jewish kid from a mostly Jewish neighborhood, I saw the release of “Borat” raise a lot of questions about anti-Semitism. Borat, another fictional character, is casually anti-Semitic, and in his exchanges with real people, he sometimes finds that they are anti-Semitic as well. Most people understood the irony, but not everyone approved. When the movie came out, I had Hebrew teachers who loved it and others who refused to see it.

The Anti-Defamation League represented Jews who found the movie offensive. They feared it would only encourage anti-Semitism among people who were not “sophisticated enough to get the joke.” However, such a fear was baseless. If an anti-Semite was watching “Borat,” he would realize he was being made fun of somewhere between Borat’s inability to comprehend any aspect of American culture and his immature sexual perversion. For the record, the ADL said they weren’t aware of any increase in anti-Semetic incidents as a result of the movie.

By the ADL’s logic, the Jewish community should also have a problem with Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” The film features a musical number, “Spring Time For Hitler,” that jokingly celebrates Hitler’s rise to power. As in “Borat,” the irony of the scene is very clear. But “The Producers” is pretty well accepted by everyone, including the Jewish community. It would be contradictory to approve of “The Producers” and be offended by “Borat.”

A joke that makes you laugh is one that resonates with your sense of reality. Comedy such as Tina Fey’s “30 Rock,” which introduces us to some of the realities of being a female worker at a corporation, or John Stewart’s “The Daily Show”, which shows how crappy our news networks are, do a good job exposing what our culture is actually like. Individuals who fret about comedy’s seemingly offensive nature should be relieved that Fey, Stewart and Cohen make up some of the most prominent comedians of today. I would be much more worried if next month’s cover of Esquire featured Larry the Cable Guy, who coined the phrase, “Git-R-Done!”

You should see “Bruno” when it comes out tomorrow. If it offends you, I challenge you to give me a good reason why.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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