Decoder Ring

Truly Tasteless Jokes

The story of how this astonishingly tasteless bestseller became ubiquitous is wrapped up in decades of free speech politics.


Episode Notes

Truly Tasteless Jokes were a series of joke books that dominated the best-seller list during the 1980s. An equal opportunity joke book: Truly Tasteless Jokes were collections of jokes ranging from Helen Keller, to dead babies, to sexist and racist jokes that from the vantage of 2021 seem entirely abject. For readers in the 1980s, though, these books were ubiquitous.

On this episode we dig into the history of these books and their author Ashton Applewhite. It’s a story that involves the tangled history of 1960s free-speech politics, conservative backlash, and the strange moment in the 1980s when left- and right-wing speech politics converged to help make these books mainstream.

Some of the voices you’ll hear in this episode include author Ashton Applewhite, professor and essaying Louis Menand, author and editor Marilyn J. Abraham, and professor of Africana Studies J Finley.

This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.


About the Show

In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

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