S1: Before we begin, I want to give you a heads up, this episode not only contains foul and offensive language. It’s about foul and offensive language. One of the bestselling books of 1983 is a slim paperback that could fit in the back pocket of a pair of jeans. It’s all black on the front, on the back, on the spine. The only splash of color comes from the title, which is written in a simple red font from the author’s name, which is in a florid white cursive, the kind you might see on a wedding invitation. The cursive is a joke, though it’s a gesture about to read something elegant and refined, but you’re not. You are really not because the book is called Truly Tasteless Jokes in its 116 page compendium of corny, crass, sick, dirty, sexist, ethnic and racist jokes. The chapters have titles like Dead Baby, Helen Keller, Polish Jewish, Wasp, Black Ethnic Jokes, Variegated, Homosexual, Handicapped, and so on. Most of the jokes are a sentence or two. Some are a few paragraphs, and they run the gamut from relatives of the dad joke to much stronger stuff. On the tamer side are cracks like why does a dog lick his balls? Because he cab in the mid-range? You get jokes like this. What do old women have between their tits that young women don’t? A belly button. And then there are the ethnic and racist jokes which deliver endless, dehumanizing stereotypes. Polish is a synonym for stupid. Jews are greedy. Mexicans are lazy. The chapter of jokes about black people contains just about every racist trope you’ve ever heard, and every slur to most of the jokes in the book are still in circulation. In private conversations and on the internet. But in the early 1980s, you could buy them for 599 at the bookstore, at the drugstore, at the airport. And millions and millions and millions of Americans did. The book sold so well, in fact, that the author, Blanche Not was the first writer to have. Four books appear on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously. But Blanche, not is not the author’s real name.
S2: My improbable name is Ashton Applewhite.
S1: This is Decoder ring. I’m Willa Paskin right now in 2021. Soon to be 2022, the truly Tasteless joke books are kind of familiar. Offensive jokes are a regular player in the culture wars, the weapons of online trolls and outraged comics. The subject of constant polarised political debate. But in the 1980s, these books were smack in the middle of the mainstream. Truly, Tasteless Jokes was the best selling mass market paperback of 1983, and it spawned an empire of joke books. In today’s episode, we’re going to be looking closely at these books and the cultural context in which they became blockbusters. In doing so, we’re going to see how the political valence of the Tasteless joke has almost completely flipped around and consider what that means for the person who wrote them. So today on Decoder ring. How do you explain the phenomenon that was truly tasteless jokes?
S2: My go to to tell people, you know, tell me your Tasteless joke is what are the first words Adam said to Eve? What are the first words Adam said to you? Stand back. I don’t know how big this thing is going to get.
S1: That’s Ashton Applewhite again. She was talking with me from her home in Brooklyn. I visited her there this past summer with Benjamin Frisch, Decoder Ring’s producer.
S2: Another one I always tell. This is cruder when I’m chopping parsley. Yeah. What’s the difference between parsley and pussy? Nobody, it’s parsley.
S1: She’s 69 now, and she’s a writer and speaker. But in the 1980s, under the pen name Blanche, not, she wrote the truly Tasteless joke books. That’s not a secret. You can find her name on the book’s Wikipedia page. And she had agreed to talk to us, but she was still a little nervous. What I’m hoping to do is like, do just like the story of
S2: you all got that call? I will find out.
S1: She knows that the books are highly problematic, and I think she was wondering what was going to happen. What were you going to say about the books about her? But that’s actually why we were there to start to try and figure that out. We wanted to start with how the books came to be at all. Ashton was born in the early 1950s, and she grew up in Washington, D.C., one of four siblings. She describes her parents as pretty standard liberals for the time and also as wasps, which is typically shorthand for privileged and ostentatious and emotionally remote Protestant white people.
S2: I am not introspective. I like to think a lot about the outside world, but I’m a wasp. You know, I’m sort of I am thick skinned. I am really kind of a clod
S1: in the mid-1970s when Ashton was in her early 20s. She did a very normal liberal wasp thing to do. She moved to New York City and went into publishing. She was hired as an assistant editor at St. Martin’s Press for $8500 a year.
S2: It was still enough to have an apartment of my own in Manhattan, a cruddy, dark, roach infested apartment. But it was not enough to, you know, to not count your every dollar
S1: Ashton know quite when it started. But by then, she was really into jokes and especially one particular kind.
S2: I just had a weakness for the kind of joke that is doubly funny because, you know, you shouldn’t be laughing at it.
S1: That’s about as good a definition of a Tasteless joke as you’re going to get. It encompasses jokes that you’ve laughed at and jokes you’ve been horrified by and everything in between. Ashton loved them all, and people made a point of sharing them with her. Like, for example, one day in November 1981, it was announced that the actress, Natalie Wood, had drowned, Ashton’s phone rang.
S2: I picked it up and someone said, What kind of wood doesn’t float? And the answer, of course, is Natalie. And you know, you know, it’s it’s it’s twisted. It’s sick, but it’s funny. And it’s a it’s I’ll be honest here. It’s really funny. The morning, you know, five minutes after you hear that she’s dead. And so people would call me and tell me that stuff
S1: at a certain point, her boss, the head of a book imprint, told her she should start collecting all of these jokes. Maybe there was something in it. So she did.
S2: I remember just just writing jokes down on napkins from bars and on these while you were out pads. It was, I think it was before the Post-it and just just cramming my desk drawer with these pieces of paper.
S1: After a while, she had enough of these slips of paper for a manuscript. She typed them up on her IBM Selectric. She wasn’t writing the jokes from scratch. These are jokes that were already out there. Comedians call them street jokes, but she was editing them.
S2: I was not making them up, right? I was collating and I was telling them well and I was avoiding, you know, overlaps and stuff. I mean, I did. I really did have criteria. They had to be funny
S1: when she was done. She gave the book a title.
S2: What’s the difference between garbage and a girl from New Jersey? The Book of Tasteless jokes.
S3: What is the difference in garbage and a girl from New Jersey garbage gets picked up.
S1: She also chose a pen name
S2: because I worked in publishing. I thought, that’s probably not the smartest move to publish it under your name, although I never made any effort to hide it. So I came up with the name Blanche, not which I thought was a good play on words. And there was something funny about being blanche, you know, and pure and Snow White
S1: Ashton agents and the book out to publishers. And it didn’t go well. What’s the difference between garbage? And a girl from New Jersey was rejected a dozen times and not gently.
S2: Penguin said If we publish this, the little bird would have to hide its head under its wing in shame. Which I thought was inspired. And someone at Simon and Schuster said, Publish this. We can’t even Xerox this.
S1: And actually 20 years before, they might not have been legally allowed to Xerox it. So these books are, among other things, a lens through which to see large scale cultural changes. And one of those changes has to do with what kind of speech is considered offensive from the 1870s through the 1960s. The kind of speech the U.S. law was fixated on had to do with sex and obscenity. American obscenity statutes were based on a British ruling from 1868. It came in a case involving a Protestant pamphlet that made fun of what supposedly happened in Catholic confessionals in pretty Randee terms. Louis Menand is a writer and professor at Harvard, who recently wrote The Free World Art and Thought in the Cold War.
S3: The court ruled that this pamphlet was obscene on the grounds that if it fell into the hands of a young woman, essentially it could corrupt her.
S1: In this ruling, it didn’t matter who the intended audience for the pamphlet was. What mattered was the potential impact on an innocent who might stumble upon it. What the courts would go on to call the most susceptible person and considering the most susceptible person, just makes a lot of stuff off limits.
S3: Just certain kinds of words we would be prima fascia offensive.
S1: This meant adults could not legally publish, purchase or enjoy a lot of cultural material, including pornography, but also novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. In 1961, the comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges for using the word cock sucker in his stand up set. And if this sounds about right to you, it was starting to seem uptight then, too.
S3: The big issue that liberals and progressives coalesced around in the 50s and 60s was obscenity. It had to do with whether you could say fuck in public and whether you could buy Tropic of Cancer or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, go see certain movies and so on. So there was a big push to expand First Amendment freedoms to cover what traditionally had been considered to be obscene.
S1: And just as the fight to overturn these laws, to let people say and hear offensive things heated up, so did another fight. But this one was about political speech.
S3: The Berkeley Free Speech Movement begins in the fall of 1964 and the time when the operation of the machine becomes so obvious.
S1: Political speech, unlike obscene speech, is protected even in a strict reading of the First Amendment. You have to be able to talk politics in a democracy. But at the University of California, Berkeley, the administration decided that students would no longer be allowed to display pamphlets and buttons about political causes, particularly civil rights ones. The students pushed back.
S4: We’re asking that there be no no restrictions on the content of speech safe those provided by the courts. And that’s that’s an enormous amount of freedom.
S1: Ultimately, the students staged a huge sit in, with over 1500 of them taking over the main administration building, only for the administration to call the cops on them.
S3: And they rested over 700 people, which is the largest mass arrest in California state history.
S1: Soon after the administration backed down, the free speech movement was triumphant and it became a celebrated bit of American history, a forerunner to the student protests against the Vietnam War. But what happened at Berkeley next is not as well known. In March of 1965, a couple months after the university had retreated, a young man arrived on the steps of the student union, wearing a sign that said simply fuck. The word fuck is not political speech, it’s obscene speech. But this man was connecting the two he got picked up by the campus cops and thus began a lesser known internally controversial movement at Berkeley.
S3: It’s called the Filthy Speech Movement, and it became an issue on campus because it had to do with going from political speech to obscene speech.
S1: This was right around the same time as the courts began to change the rigid obscenity laws I mentioned earlier. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that it was OK to publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and to screen Louis Miles erotic French film The Lovers, both of which were explicit about sex. And after that, the floodgates opened. This is one of the big structural changes that made the 1960s the decade when it feels like the world got recognizably modern when history flips into color because our cultural products are records of that time can now contain cursing and fornicating on all the things that people actually do. America gets bluer, crosser more profane in a hurry. Eight years after the Supreme Court says you can see a sexy French movie like The Lovers, Deep Throat is playing in theaters and getting reviewed in the New York Times. A decade after Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying Cock Sucker, another comedian, George Carlin, records a bit about the seven dirty words you can’t say on television.
S4: You know the seven, don’t you? That you can’t say on television should piss fucking cocksucker motherfucker and tits, huh?
S1: The album gets a number 22 on the Billboard chart, but there was something else happening at the same time. A countermovement, something that’s also connected to the Berkeley protests. In 1965, a Hollywood actor who was getting into politics saw the protest and had an idea his name was Ronald Reagan.
S3: They ran for governor of California on the platform of Let’s Clean Up the Mess at Berkeley. That was explicitly his platform.
S1: Here, Reagan is taking questions about the protests.
S4: All of it began the first time some of you who know better and are old enough to know better. Let young people think that they have the right to choose the laws they would obey as long as they were doing it in the name of social protest.
S1: Reagan won the governor’s race in 1966. Two years later, Richard Nixon would become president, using a similar strategy. Speaking to the silent majority about the rabble rousing students and activists who are disgracing America by pushing for political change in provocative and sometimes obscene terms like Fuck the draft 12 years after that, Reagan himself would be elected president and then a year into his first term. The publishing house Ballantine gets a submission that would have been unpublished, viable a generation earlier, a joke book that contained corny jokes, gross jokes, dirty jokes, bigoted jokes and was titled What’s the difference between garbage and a Girl from New Jersey?
S3: I think I was the last editor on her agent’s list who hadn’t seen it in New York and everybody else had turned it down thinking, you know, you can’t do this.
S1: Marilyn Abraham was an editor at Ballantine at this time.
S3: And I read the manuscript and I thought it was hilarious. And I passed it around to a couple of people, my colleagues in the editorial department, and everybody thought it was funny as it got to the higher ups. They didn’t think it was so funny. The guy at the time, who was president, took took an ink pen, which as an editor, you know you never do. And started, just you can’t say this, you know, cross this out. You can’t say that
S1: they had a lot of conversations about whether or not to do it.
S3: It was a big discussion. I mean, we couldn’t do it without talking to the chairman of the corporation. I mean, that’s not something that happens ever. And one of the things we said from the beginning was that the book had to be. Equally divided. I mean, it couldn’t it couldn’t list one way or the other, it had to be equally obnoxious to everyone, and that appeased some people.
S1: Ultimately, even though some of the staff members had reservations, Ballantine decided to buy it for $5000, a modest sum. Even then, they also changed the title to try and head off any backlash.
S3: The marketing director at the time, who was just a very practical person, she said. That’s a terrible title for a book. What? What is it, really? And I said, Well, it’s just a bunch of truly tasteless jokes. And she said, Well, that’s the title of the book, then. So no one will be surprised. No one who picks it up will expect anything different. You know, she was thinking ahead to the the buyer in the store, both the buyer of the store and the buyer in the store, that no one should be caught by surprise that we were fooling anybody about what this was.
S1: The book was published in August of 1982 with a small initial print run and very little fanfare. But pretty quickly it became clear it was selling Ashton Applewhite again because
S2: I worked at a publishing company. We would get these insider printouts from Barnes and Noble and Walden Books, and there it was. Were you surprised? I had no expectations whatsoever. I was super happy to get $5000 and run all the way to the bank without. I had no idea they would sell.
S1: Truly, Tasteless jokes was not the first joke book to push the boundaries of taste. In the 1950s, with the obscenity laws still in effect, there were so-called sick joke books full of sadistic jokes and dead baby jokes. In the 1970s, Ballantine had published the world’s best dirty jokes, an assembly of sex jokes, and a comedian named Larry Wilde had started writing a line of ethnic joke books for Pinnacle Press. Dedicated to Polish jokes and Italian jokes, Jewish jokes and black folks jokes and white folks jokes were truly tasteless. Jokes did was to put all of these together the sick jokes, the dirty jokes, the racist jokes and combine them in a package that emphasized what they had in common. They were jokes that violated the rules of polite society. The overt appeal of the collection was not Do you like dirty jokes or do you like to laugh at Jews? It was Do you like jokes that say things you’re not supposed to say and a lot of people did. The book sold so well, in fact, that six months after printing the first one, Ballantine asked Ashton put together a second volume of jokes for another $5000, she wrote at the exact same way, just compiling jokes she’d collected. By this point. She was newly married and she and her new husband had quit their jobs to backpack around Asia.
S2: And we were on the West Coast, heading to Japan, China, Malaysia all over. When the first book hit the bestseller list,
S1: it was April of 1983. Two months later, in June, Ballantine published truly Tasteless jokes until it hit the New York Times bestseller list as well at the back of the book. They sought to include a request for submissions. Want to see your favorite joke in print? Send it in! Hundreds of people did when Ballantine signed Ashton up for a third book. They sent her the jokes they’d received in the mail.
S2: They said, We want another joke book. So we decided to treat ourselves to a weekend at raffles in Singapore, rented a typewriter and they shipped us the bags of mail. I put together jug book number three in a week of hard typing Senate by Courier back to New York and off we went on our travels.
S1: Truly? Tasteless Jokes three was published in November of 1983 and was on the bestseller list by December. In February of 1984, the first three volumes of the truly Tasteless joke books all appeared on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. By this point, the first book had sold almost two million copies. Whatever else they were. They were a phenomenon. So to us now, the most jarring notable thing about these books is the bigoted humor I said before that I’m uncomfortable reading some of these jokes out loud. I am. But I think it’s important for you to have a sense of them. I’m not going to read any of the ones with slurs in them, but some of the ones with out are bad enough. I’m talking about jokes like Why is money green? Because the Jews pick it before it’s ripe and know what gay stands for got aids yet? And how many Mexicans does it take to grease a car? One. If you hit them right? And what do you call a black boy with a bicycle?
S5: The answer is thief.
S1: At risk of sounding like a broken record, I just want to say again, the books containing these jokes and worse were immensely popular, and I want to try and explain that sheer popularity in two ways. The first is from the vantage of now. Looking back on these books with historical perspective and what they look like now, in hindsight, is part of a larger backlash ripping through the culture in the 1980s. You know how previously I said in the years leading up to the 1980s, America was getting more profane, more obscene, more offensive? Well, there were exceptions to this. And one had to do with racist language. Jay Finley is a professor of africana studies at Pomona College, whose work focuses on humor.
S3: There was like sort of a different atmosphere after the civil rights movement had supposedly like, you know, one equal rights for black people. Most people would not say the things that they used to say in polite company anymore, i.e. racist jokes.
S1: And then in 1980, Ronald Reagan swept into the presidency while presenting himself as a model of decency. The 1950s sitcom Dad We Needed, he presided over a pugnacious, swaggering Anything goes because the 60s are over and it’s the 80s now zeitgeisty, and the Tasteless joke books fit right into that era, shamelessly brushing off things from the 1950s for this new moment.
S3: The thing about these books is they are a conglomerate of a lot of racist discourse that had already been circulating before sort of the the civil rights period. So it’s like there’s this nostalgia about remember when we were the ones who were superior.
S1: So that’s a historical understanding of these books, a way for us to make sense of them now. They were part of a larger cultural conservative retrenchment. They were thinly veiled bigotry, basically a jocular way for white people in particular to express resentments and anxieties about social change that were lurking right under the surface. But the thing I kept wondering was how were people making sense of them then? Something that really struck me was that the books were not even particularly controversial when they came out. Plenty of people in publishing disdained the books, and there’s a rumor that their success caused the New York Times to create a list just for advice, How-To and miscellaneous books. But the outcry, the publisher feared, never arrived. Booksellers didn’t send them back. There was barely any hate mail. Instead, there were a number of copycats which became bestsellers in their own right. Ashton says personally, she only ever heard from people who liked them. The most public critique of the books came in a front page New York Times article that led with the scholar saying the book represented a break down of decency and of the standards of taste. But then included plenty of quotes like this one from a buyer at a bookstore chain who said any books that sell this well half do appeal to everyone. Of course, the books didn’t appeal to everyone, but they did appeal to all kinds of people and lots of them. So what I wanted to know was how come those people didn’t see what we see in these books and what were they seeing instead?
S3: Today, if you introduce this Tasteless humor book to people, the young people in my class, they’re going to say, this is, you know, a hetero, patriarchal white supremacist power and no, like none of this is funny and it’s doing like actual real harm. Whereas when this comes out in 1980 to 1983, it’s exactly the opposite.
S1: That’s Jay Finley again. And what she’s referring to here is how the books at the time look to some people like a perverse kind of progress. This is all tied up with the idea of the equal opportunity offender. Remember, that’s how Ballantine made sure to frame the book. It was a book that had joked about everyone. It made fun of everyone. And it’s true. It bundled together jokes about black people and wasps, gay men and dead babies, Puerto Ricans and Helen Keller. These kinds of jokes are not the same. The idea that they are that they are equally offensive, painful, harmful is predicated on the fantasy that all social groups are equal. It’s suggesting that the Wasp jokes, which revel in painless stereotypes about how they’re really rich and love golden retrievers, could possibly sting or perpetuate hateful ideas as much as the jokes about how black people are inferior in every way. But despite the differences in these jokes, collecting them in one book, a book from a respectable publisher insinuated that they were the same and that by extension, we might have gotten some real traction on the matter of equality.
S3: Racist humor is not something that’s new, but what was new about these books was that they were this seemingly like, you know, harmless. And so this book enters trying to be this sort of like neutral, hey, where we’re making fun of everybody.
S1: This line of thinking gave the books a lot of cover, masked them for people who got a jolt from transgressing. But there was something else, too. And it’s that offending people saying things you weren’t supposed to say was entering a transitional phase, a liminal zone as it moved across the political spectrum. Up until then, the idea of taboo busting speech had long been associated with the left, not the right with the Berkeley students, not with Ronald Reagan. But that was starting to change. The Republican Party had defined itself as the party of patriotism, probity, decorum in opposition to the social movements of the 60s. But by 1982, it was increasingly willing to tolerate indecorous, rude, offensive behavior so long as it was camouflaged and directed at what it considered to be the right targets. Meanwhile, on the left, things had been going in the other direction. The feminist movement in particular, had been arguing for a decade that sexist tropes and ideas, even when presented humorously, do real damage to women. And as feminists and civil rights activists argued that racist and sexist jokes were harmful. You start to see something new taboos on the left being broken from the right. But this idea of something being just a joke, being just harmless talk was still potent. You only have to look at the feminists who insisted jokes were harmful to see that they themselves were turned into a punch line of the humorless feminist. When truly Tasteless jokes comes out, it taps into all of this. It arrives at a moment of change and crossed over when the tactic of provocation was passing from the left to the right. When dirty sex jokes could no longer outrage, many conservatives and sexist, racist jokes were not yet seen as out of bounds by mainstream liberals. And so these books that look now like they should have been radioactive instead sell to just about everyone. The timing worked out very well for Ashton Applewhite over the course of the 1980s, she wrote three dozen more joke books for a variety of publishers truly Tasteless jokes vol. four through 15, a series of best of compilations and some specialty titles like Truly Tasteless, Blonde Jokes, Doctor Jokes, Kennedy Jokes and disadvantaged white male jokes. There was even a straight to VHS special in 1985, also called Truly Tasteless Jokes, featuring a lineup of comedians doing their best tasteless material like the book itself. Some of it is pretty mild, and some is not.
S4: I don’t want to call them any more anyway. First, they were queers and homosexuals, gays, fags, congressmen. You never know what they’re going to buy.
S1: 1990’S sales of the books were petering out. But Ashton had made well over a million dollars and been able to buy an apartment and spend a lot of time with her two young children. She says she was pretty conflicted about the whole thing. Were you proud of them?
S2: I was delighted. I thought it was funny as hell. I thought the jokes were funny, and it’s just a hilarious way to make money. I mean, we are sitting in my little house because I made money in my 30s from these joke books, which put my kids through college.
S1: The money from the books helped with something else, too.
S2: After 11 years of marriage, I realized I couldn’t stay married, and the joke books allowed me to buy my way out of my marriage.
S1: When she met with a divorce lawyer, he mentioned that most divorces were initiated by women. Ashton had always assumed it was the other way around. She started to wonder what else she didn’t know about divorce. In 1997, she wrote a book called Cutting Loose Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well. Cutting Loose contains interviews with over 50 women. And it got a lot of positive press, but it also got blasted by the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, whose audit undermined traditional values. Ashton says writing the book Change How She Sees the world and made her a feminist.
S2: I’m a slow learner. I’m very sort of Claude ish and and determined. I like dig away. I research research. It did not occur to me till a year after cutting loose was published that I had had my consciousness raised for real.
S1: Throughout the 2000s, she worked on various writing projects and eventually started interviewing octogenarians, which led her to a new cause. She became a writer and advocate against ageism. This is from a TED talk she gave in 2017.
S2: We know it’s not OK to allocate resources by race or by sex. Why should it be OK to weigh the needs of the young against the old? All prejudice relies on othering seeing a group of people as other than ourselves, other race, other religion, other nationality. The strange thing
S1: about the idea that Blanche, not the author of a book of grotesquely offensive jokes, is now an activist who works to combat stereotypes can seem kind of surprising. But if she’s been on a journey, she’s made that journey in lockstep with mainstream white, liberal politics from the civil libertarian free speech genus of the joke book to the emancipatory feminism of the divorced book to a social justice inflected perspective on the experience of aging. But in saying that, I’m not trying to let her off the hook, she put these books together. They would not have existed without her and she made a lot of money off of them, and she still sells the e-book versions online through her own LLC. The jokes in them have been widely disseminated. Anecdotally, they seem to have taught a generation of pre-teen boys stereotypes they didn’t know yet, and verifiably they can now be found on white supremacist web sites. That’s a heavy legacy. And it was not clear to me during our first conversation that Ashton had grappled with it in a meaningful way. She says she was clueless and ignorant then, and she regrets some of the jokes, particularly about black people.
S2: The only jokes I feel bad about are the racist ones. I do think because of the way racism is embedded in our history and our society, that we do need to deal with it differently and more forcefully. But otherwise, no regrets. You know, I mean, I did crack up the other night when I realized like, Oh gee, my books were truly intersectional, you know, 30 years before we knew they make fun of everyone.
S1: This sounded pretty similar to what she said in an essay she published in Harper’s in 2012, in which she publicly came out as blanche. Not when we spoke. She suggested that I might take a look at it because it was a well articulated expression of her thoughts about authoring the
S2: books I really synthesized like my ambivalence looking from my current point in, you know, in in what I understand about prejudice and oppression that I didn’t know
S1: then. The thing is, if you read that piece, it doesn’t seem ambivalent. It doesn’t address prejudice and oppression in any significant way. Her response to the incongruity between her politics and her jokes is simply Blanche and I inhabit a messy, complex world, and we like it that way. You know, it’s interesting because you say, like, I’m ambivalent, you’re like, I’m I feel ambivalent about it. But then when you actually talk about it, you do do really push the ambivalence away, right? You’re just like, I don’t. I just I’m just curious, have you feel a little defensive in a way that I
S2: don’t think so. I mean, I’m really I’m super proud of being a clue on Jeopardy, and I’m proud of being the first person to have four books on the New York Times bestseller list. You know, I changed the culture if there’s only one.
S1: As you can hear at the time, I did not press her, but not because I didn’t have follow up questions or perceptions of. So a few months later, I asked to talk to her again virtually this time. I had been paging through the first volume of truly Tasteless jokes right before the call.
S2: The first one is.
S1: It’s worse. It’s really hard. And there are
S2: jokes that are not so hard.
S1: But there is a lot that are and it’s like a cumulative.
S3: And I guess I just. Just like why stop at the black jokes, like why not disavow it?
S2: I just it seems hypocritical to disavow them. I mean, what I do it now, no, no fucking way. But it’s part of my trajectory. You could make a case that by opening up sort of every category of humanness to ridicule that you. Expose this universal human tendency, but I can’t even say that with a straight face, I mean, I think it’s true
S1: this equal opportunity thing, what other people have said and like, I suppose, is that people have an equal
S3: opportunity to respond
S1: and that we know that’s not true.
S3: And I know I did not know that then.
S1: I know, but you know it now. So now it’s like. That’s not really good enough.
S2: Well, I can’t take it back. I can act more righteously in the world now, and I’m trying to
S1: for Ashton, this idea of taking the books back seem really tangled up with something else. The idea of having to take back the life the books gave her a life that she wanted a life of financial and domestic freedom.
S2: You know, would the world be a better place if the books hadn’t existed?
S3: What do you think? I mean, yes. And what if, if we’re going to get philosophical? I had never had the money. To become a self-employed writer. But these are difficult, I can’t even finish that sentence without throwing up. That’s just disgusting. We don’t have to get that philosophical.
S1: You can’t go back and change your life. You are the writer who had that money. But to say, like,
S3: I can’t regret that because I
S1: got to live the life that I want,
S3: you see, that’s a little like, if I don’t regret them, then
S2: my self that I haven’t really done the hard work on myself.
S1: I think if you can think
S3: about them more critically than like,
S1: they’re just a bunch of funny jokes, but some of the other
S3: things you think don’t make sense. No, I hear you.
S2: I listen. I really appreciate you. You being so straightforward.
S1: We ended the call and she was going to think about it some more. I did, too. I kept thinking of this exchange we had during our first conversation after I asked her what some of her favorite jokes in the books were. She started with the ones you heard earlier about Adam and Eve and Parsley. And then she said there was this other one that she never tells anyone. I pushed her for it. And she agreed to say it off the record. Later, she gave me permission to include it.
S2: Why do women have cancer? Why so men will talk to them? As a feminist, that is to me, as dark as it gets.
S1: So when people say, like what? When people ask you for and you tell
S2: them that one? No, I never tell you, never. I haven’t. That that joke does not come out of my mouth. It did now because you were off the rack.
S1: We are all there. But that you don’t tell because it’s too.
S2: Because because the truth that it reveals is so disturbing to me. Right? I got you
S1: that. You find that moving.
S3: I do.
S1: I could see it in her face. I just kept talking, but her eyes had gotten wide and glassy like she was on the verge of tears. She had picked that joke from a book of hundreds of jokes that are supposed to be funny and shocking, and that are now mostly just miserable and tedious. And she had picked it as a favorite, not because it made her laugh, but because it hurt. And it does this by saying directly what the other jokes imply if this time about a group she belongs to. The joke, it’s the beating heart underneath all the reflexive, taboo breaking and repetitive stereotypes. This is how people see other people, especially people who have less power than them. Reading the book is so awful. Exactly, because it seems written by someone who revels in this, who thinks this kind of rote dehumanization is nothing is funny. But Ashton, the person who actually wrote those books, can’t see that clearly. Instead, I think for her, it’s more like if this job cuts me to the quick, then there’s stuff in this book that cuts everyone to the quick, and that’s life. She was still holding on to the idea that we’re all the same. It’s a hard idea to let go of. It’d be wonderful, but also for Ashton, so much easier if it were true. A couple of days later, we got back on Zoom.
S2: Of course, no one wants to think of themselves as a racist, bigoted, horrible person. But I was certainly ignorant and I did harm. You know, they made a lot of people laugh, but they also hurt a lot of people. And I’m that would have happened if I hadn’t made the books and put them out in the world. So I can say honestly for the first time
S3: that I’m sorry I did.
S1: You can still buy truly Tasteless jokes second hand or as an e-book. And even though in concrete ways, nothing about the books has changed, everything about them has changed. Along with the way we think about bigotry, humor, offensiveness, political identity and their interplay. When these books arrive, they could pass as a harmless amusement for edgy people, a perverse sign of progress. Now they seem like a hateful retrograde phenomenon from the blinkered past. But if the books themselves have faded from the cultural memory, their example has not. Offensive jokes are no longer shocking. Now they’re exhaustingly familiar tired provocations, instantly recognizable weapons like so much of the past. They’re still with us, whether we know how to face up to them or not. This is Decoder Singh and Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin and if you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode. You can email us at Decoder ring at Slate.com if you haven’t yet, subscribe and read our feed and Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin. It was edited by Benjamin Frisch and Gabriel Roth. Decoder is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. I want to give a very special thank you to Hari Kondabolu for speaking with me for this episode. I’d also like to thank Joel Anderson, Ian Brody, Madeleine Ducharme, Jim Holt, Andrew Kohn, Cliff Nazaroff, Elliot O-ring, David Saradha, Mark Joseph, Stern Talk Thompson and Jeff Surreally and Matt Ritter. The last two made a documentary about truly tasteless jokes called Tasteless that you can find on streaming services. See you next week.