Out of curiosity, I watched the rest of High School High. It was thoroughly mediocre at best. However, as I watched joke after joke about poverty and crime rates, I began to wonder what makes some humor and jokes OK and what makes others not.
Now before I really get into this, no, I don’t think that jokes automatically get a pass because the person was “only joking,” and ESPECIALLY not if they’re a person of some fame or influence. Humor and jokes are another facet of socialization; telling us what is and is not funny guides our understanding of what is and is not unexpected, normal, or worthy of being taken seriously. This is why jokes about marginalized groups are a really tricky thing to make jokes about, and why a number of people consider that humor taboo unless you are a part of that group. So when, say, a white guy makes a joke about the black community, it’s usually a very ugly, messy fiasco.
You can see why I started thinking about this as I watched High School High. It’s a spoof of those movies about idealistic teachers trying to inspire poor inner-city children to succeed. These movies typically deal with the issue of poverty themselves; in fact, the poverty of the students is typically a major focus of the story. One could even say that these films use poverty to glorify the typically white teachers.
Obviously, as a spoof, High School High takes this trope and runs wild with it. The kids aren’t just violent, they’re SUPER violent. They’re not just rowdy, they’re kidnapping the vice principal. They’re not just behind due to a biased system of school zoning and funding, they don’t even know how to open books. And how, ultimately, does the teacher reach them? Why, by incorporating street crime and references to gang violence in his lectures!
I suppose it was somewhat amusing, and I recognize it was for the sake of satire, but I found myself wondering if this was all OK. The film was literally written, produced, and directed by a bunch of middle aged white guys. Was it really OK for them to make jokes about how inner city public high schools need to be treated as prisons, holding the children until they’re old enough to go to jail themselves? Sure, the character that makes this joke is ultimately foiled and proven wrong, but does that make it much better when the valedictorian’s achievements are a joke because he only had a GPA of 2.6? When the movie says that the only reason a clerk at a convenience store didn’t die in a robbery is because he was wearing a “bulletproof turban”?
Fine, this is all for the sake of satire, but the problem with this is that the movie itself is doing the very same thing that the thing it’s satirizing is doing. Just as serious entries in this teacher genre use poverty to further glorify the (typically white) teacher, the satire is using poverty for cheap punchlines. Is that any better?
So where does that leave us? What does it say about our society that movies like this can be made? Is it OK that this movies exists, and what is and isn’t OK to joke about? Well… I’m not sure. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules about this, and it’s something that creators and audiences have to decide for themselves.
It’s funny how a stupid little comedy movie can really make you think sometimes.