The Wrong Joke in the Wrong Place: MILO and M*A*S*H

My father served as a surgeon in the US Air Force for two years during the Vietnam War. Stateside, he was stationed from 1970 to 1971 at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha; in Thailand, he was stationed from 1971 to 1972 at Udorn. We stayed in Omaha while he was abroad.

I was only five when we moved to Omaha, so my memories of those years consist primarily of swimming lessons, skating, giant snow drifts, and being baptized—but there is another memory that sticks out that is somewhat less usual.

There was a party for the doctors and their families out by a lake. After dinner, we kids—there were lots of us, all fairly young—had been shooed outside to play in the gloaming, but after exploring the grounds and exhausting the potentials of tag, we got curious about what the grown-ups were doing.

We snuck back inside. The lights were down. They were watching a movie! On screen, there were surgeons in their greens standing over a patient, a woman. As we watched, her belly started swelling and swelling under the sheet, until it was so big that it burst, spraying confetti!

As one kid, we ran horrified from the room, more terrified by what the grown-ups had done when the woman’s belly exploded than by what we had seen.

What had the grown-ups done that was so frightening?

They laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

Great big male laughs—most of the doctors were men—but the women laughed, too. They were laughing for eons before we could flee.

It was horrible!

I have no idea whether the grown-ups knew we were there. I have a vague memory of someone trying to comfort us, so maybe we screamed when we ran. But I am not sure. They were laughing so loud, all I remember is seeing the confetti burst and not understanding how—how!—the grown-ups could think it was funny to see someone suffering like that.

It was years before I could process what I had seen and realize the joke.

*

You have doubtless read some of the January 13, 2017 draft of Dangerous that Simon & Schuster’s lawyers have filed as evidence in the lawsuit that Milo has brought against the publishing house for cancelling their contract with him.

As Andrew Buncombe reported for The Independent,
There is barely a sheet among the 264-page draft that does not contain comments, edits, annotations and entire sections struck through. Written alongside the book’s prologue, titled The Art of the Troll, Mr Ivers wrote: “Careful that the egotistical boasting that your audience finds humorous doesn’t make you seem juvenile to other readers – especially here.”
 Over and over again in his editorial comments, Mitchell Ivers called Milo to task:
Avoid parenthetical insults—they just diminish your authority. Throughout the book you’re [sic] best points seem to be lost in a sea of self-aggrandizement and scattershot thinking.
In a book that will be read by people who don’t share your POV, avoid gratuitous insults. They detract from the overall point you’re making. In a lecture or a Breitbart column, the audience already shares your POV and sense of humor. 
This section is very well argued but dry. Mixing in humorous quips only works when the quip is genuinely funny to all readers—and not when it diminishes your authority.
This section is superfluous. After the long dry explanation of Gramsci, it would be better to go to the next section, which is “Why the Left Hates YOU [the reader].”
These points are stronger without gratuitous insult and teat reference. 
Too important a point to end in a crude quip.
When you discuss Leslie Jones in this book—AND YOU MUST—don’t resort to jokes about her looks.
Don’t start chapter with accusation that feminists=fat. It destroys any seriousness of purpose in a chapter that will (obviously) be closely scrutinized by your critics. If you troll them, they won’t listen. You will be speaking ONLY to the already initiated.
Three unfunny jokes in a row. DELETE.
This joke feels OLD.
Dumb joke.
Gratuitous. 
Inappropriate place for humor.
Deleting this. It’s clearly the wrong joke in the wrong place. At a certain point, you have to decide that the importance of your message is more important than your irreverent side. 
This chapter [“Why Black Lives Matter Hates Me”] is so well researched and well argued that you should reconsider the supercilious jokes in it. They detract from what might otherwise be your best chapter.
Sarcasm and sexual humor get in the way of your point here. DELETE.
This whole section has to go. Too much ego at a point when you’ve had truly eye-opening insights into contemporary media. The ego stuff just trivializes everything.
Too silly to sustain the serious argument you are making.
These abrupt changes in tone in this particularly [sic] chapter do NOT lighten your message with humor. They simply diminish your authority.
This is not the time or place for another black-dick joke.
And so on, for 598 comments in total. Not all of Ivers’s comments are critical:
Expand on the idea of trolling as truth-telling—that’s something your critics have never considered. 
This point about institutionalized racism is very important—it is a distinction that conservatives and liberals can agree on. Racism still exists, but it was legal then [before the Civil Rights Act].
This is a good point [about virtually all art as cultural appropriation]—maybe include in at a later point in the book.
But for the most part, Ivers seems to have seen his role as bringing Milo the Jokester to heel. The argument that Milo was wanting to make—and, therefore, presumably the reason that Simon & Schuster originally agreed to publish his book—was too serious. Joking would only diminish Milo’s authorial authority. Playing MILO too much would make it impossible for readers to absorb what Milo Yiannopoulos had to say.

*

I sometimes wonder what my father’s patients would think about that movie that made the doctors and their wives all laugh so hard. Would they be willing to go under his knife knowing that he—and his fellow surgeons—thought it was funny watching a woman’s belly explode?

Certainly, we kids thought it was “the wrong joke in the wrong place.” The last thing we wanted to believe was that our parents—our parents!—might find something so—let’s face it—mean cause for laughter. That woman was suffering! Her belly blew up!

Except, of course, it didn’t.

And, of course, my father and his colleagues had all seen much, much worse.

Dad never talked much with us kids about what he saw while he was in Thailand. He used to show us slides of the golden temple roofs in Thailand, and he brought back wonderful presents—statues of elephants, wicker-work balls, rice-patty hats, a dancing doll.

But only once did I catch a glimpse of the other slides that he had. Slides of hospital beds. Slides of the men whose bodies had actually blown up and whom he had operated on.

You tell me whether it was inappropriate for him and his fellow surgeons to be making jokes.

There was something my father did tell me. One evening when he was at Udorn, the medical staff got a treat. They were going to get to see a movie about—you guessed it—themselves!

Except it wasn’t exactly themselves. It was about the medical personnel serving a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, although of course everyone who watched the movie when it came out in 1970 knew it was about the Vietnam War.

As my father told it, everyone on the base was really excited when they heard they were going to get to see the movie. They had all been too busy in the operating room to see the movie in the theater stateside and were delighted that they were going to get to see it on screen. They knew it was a comedy, and they could use a good laugh, especially about the situation they were in.

And then the movie started.

And the helicopters flew in.

And everyone sobered up.

I bowdlerize, that is not quite what my father said, but it was close. NOTHING about the movie was in the least bit funny to the surgeons and nurses and other staff at Udorn.

Look at what the poster says: “M*A*S*H is what the new freedom of the screen is all about!” “The funniest...you will be bowled over by its wit!” “M*A*S*H is the best American war comedy since sound came in.” “M*A*S*H is a cockeyed masterpiece—see it twice.”

My siblings and I loved the television series M*A*S*H. We loved imagining our father as an alter Hawkeye, the heroic and principled surgeon joking his way through saving the soldiers’ lives and criticizing the blunders of his superior officers. (Dad was a bit like that.)

Dad hated the show. He hated Alan Alda, whom he saw as a poseur, perhaps for his support of the Equal Rights Amendment (can you say, “male feminist”?), although Dad never said. He hated the way in which the show criticized the war without making a proper argument about why the U.S. had gotten involved. And he hated the jokes, which he thought were unfunny.

And yet, he and his fellow surgeons had laughed when the woman’s belly blew up. What gives?

*

This time last January I read the same draft of Dangerous that Mitchell Ivers marked up. Milo’s more careful readers will recognize that the book published in July had gone through numerous revisions, many taking Ivers’s criticisms about Milo’s jokes on board. 

My criticisms were more stylistic. 

I made lots of suggestions about how better to frame the argument and to set up the narrative Milo wanted to tell. I could tell that what I was reading was a rough draft, and Milo had told me that Simon & Schuster would be doing the copy-editing, so I didn’t worry overmuch about his jokes. 

What I worried about was whether anyone would read his more substantive argument without them.

Do I find all of Milo’s jokes funny? Sometimes—I admit it—I cringe, but most of the time I laugh. Not because I think it would be funny if, say, a woman’s belly actually burst and spewed forth confetti, but because context matters. 

And in context, what Milo is saying is deadly serious.

As Ivers realized in his editorial comments, in humor audience POV is everything.

Test yourself. Did you think Alda’s character Hawkeye was funny? I did—until my father explained the argument behind Hawkeye’s jokes. That Hawkeye’s position was deeply anti-American, not generically compassionate. That the surgeon Alda played was telling only part of the story. That the men whom my father had been operating on included allies of the United States as well as our own soldiers who were depending on the United States to help them. 

Do you think it is funny living in North Korea now? Or that it was funny when the U.S. pulled out of Saigon and the North Vietnamese took over the South? 

Do you think it is funny when women who have had abortions find themselves plagued for life with guilt? Or when women who are morbidly obese die of the complications of being fat?

Do you think it is funny when certain young women ruin certain young men’s reputations with false accusations of rape? Or when some young black men shoot other young black men and there are no police to be found?

Do you think it is funny that all criticism of the United States as a country that focuses on the way in which it has failed to live up to its ideals is considered worthy of prime time television, but that any attempt to point to the way in which the United States has been instrumental in furthering those ideals is taken as proof of its systemic racism?

Milo doesn’t. Nor do I.

*

There is a word for the kind of jokes that my father and his fellow surgeons laughed at that night by the lake. 

Gallows humor.

A year ago, who knew what 2017 would bring? Not Milo. 

He had no idea that by February he would have lost his book contract, speaking engagement, and job thanks to a video that showed him making jokes about his own experience of abuse. 

He had no idea that by September he would have lost even some of his staunchest supporters thanks to an exposé of certain emails that he had written making jokes about issues that he considers deadly serious. 

He had no idea that by November all but one of his speaking engagements in the U.S. would be cancelled by threats of violence against the venues he had booked so that his fans could come hear him tell a few jokes about how difficult our cultural situation has become.

What he did know, and said even in that early draft of his book, was that somehow the Left had persuaded conservatives that it was too dangerous to laugh and that it was his purpose to give them license to push back.

Even Ivers seems to have believed that Milo had something serious to say. Why, then, didn’t he like Milo’s jokes?

You decide.

Here’s Ivers’s first comment, in context. 


What in Milo’s argument would you say is too serious for jokes?

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