On the Morality of Schadenfreude in Entertainment

This evening my wife had Discovery on the TV as I was preparing to head out for work.  She was watching Dirty Jobs or it just happened to be on at that time, take your pick.  I watched bits and pieces and found myself amused and smiling.  Schadenfreude at its most basic.  But why was I enjoying this when I normally frown on other examples of schadenfreude?

I don’t like prank videos that are so common on male-oriented humor blogs like Break.  I also don’t like the comedy work Sacha Cohen is known for.  So why, then, did I get smiles from Dirty Jobs?  Heck, even the grandaddy of them all, Allan Funt’s Candid Camera, struck me as a little off.

I think it stems from the fact that, as noted in the Wikipedia entry, “Mike Rowe often makes jokes about his jobs and describes them as “dirty jokes”. But he almost never makes fun of the workers themselves. Indeed, Rowe and the show consistently respect these people…”  The humor isn’t at the expense of these people.  The humor comes from Mike Rowe subjecting himself to what they do for a living and finding out exactly how disgusting those jobs are.

By contrast the humor from pranks, Candid Camera and the Ali G/Borat characters is at the expense of an unsuspecting, often times unwilling, participant. I think that is the fundamental difference where I can enjoy one for what it is and look at the other and just think, “Dude, seriously, can you get any lower?  Not funny.”  I guess it boils down to whether one finds cruelty funny.


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