Whenever I think about anime humour, the first thing that occurs to me is that it is very often self-deprecating. This is especially noticeable whenever a joke centers around a male character. He may be a brainless pervert, a loser geek, clueless about girls (and in many cases, all of the above), and he will often be teased by the female characters, sometimes even physically abused in a slapstick manner.
I’m not going to pretend that anything about “anime humour” is unique. If you’ve ever watched a Japanese variety show, you’ll understand that the tendency towards exaggeration and silly jokes is hardly confined to anime. And, of course, the gender bias in slapstick is a common media trope in general.
Still, I did get to thinking about how “anime humour” and “fandom humour” overlap. It certainly makes sense that fans of anime would engage in self-deprecating humour themselves. You can see this in words like “waifu” or the common fandom joke: “Your favorite anime is shit!”
In general, people use self-deprecating humour to create an aura of approachability. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with it. It’s good to have a sense of perspective and the ability to laugh at yourself.
Self-deprecating humour can also be indulgent and self-serving, though. In the fandom context, it can come across as a self-defense mechanism, a way of deflecting outside criticism while carving out a distinct identity for oneself. By making fun of themselves, fans establish themselves as an in-group. Outsiders can only laugh at them, not with them.
iblessall: It seems to me that the awareness of sexism might tie into this whole idea of the otaku with self-deprecating humor in a way that validates acknowledging it without doing anything about it or really caring at all. “Oh, haha I watch sexist stuff. Yeah, I’m trash haha.”
Frog-kun: I think that self-deprecating humour serves as a way for people to distance themselves from the harmful implications of their media. Yes, that can prevent people from grappling with serious issues, but it’s also partly the reason why most anime fans are harmless in real life. Fans tend to distance themselves from media by cracking jokes about it and having perspective about how they must look in front of other people.
iblessall: Yeah, it’s most definitely not as simple as “don’t use self-deprecating humor anymore!” Personally, I’m not a fan of it and generally avoid using it (“Chinese cartoons,” etc) because, for me, it’s important to acknowledge that, yes, I am the kind of person who likes these kinds of things. Of course, there is the matter of also acknowledging that I am the type of person who likes shows despite their sexist or otherwise troubling messages. I’m able to reconcile that all without self-deprecating humor, but that’s just my way of handling things. For others, self-deprecating humor might be that coping mechanism.
As I write this post, I think of the Twitter community I follow and the culture of “shitweeting”.
To put it simply, “shitweeting” is about posting silly, tongue-in-cheek tweets. Often, these tweets read like a series of absurdist in-jokes, purposefully designed to be amusing in a nonsensical way, sort of like the Jabberwocky poem of Alice in Wonderland. (dril’s tweets are the prime example.)
A good deal of the anime tweeters I follow cheerfully poke fun at silly anime cliches and at themselves for being amused by them. Underscoring all this irony is a genuine affection for anime for all its warts and oddities, I feel. After all, why would these people keep watching anime if they actually disliked it? Would they build communities and avidly tweet about new episodes week after week if they didn’t sincerely enjoy what they were doing?
Because anime humour itself tends to be so self-deprecating, I get the impression that the shows themselves reinforce this type of engagement from the viewers. You’re supposed to enjoy it, but in an ironic sort of way. It’s so easy for viewers to make fun of harem tropes when anime constantly makes fun of them too – while not actually challenging the formula in any meaningful way.
In the end, irony and self-deprecating humour become a way for the anime creator and viewer alike to rationalise the status quo. Those anime cliches are a feature, not a bug. If you can’t handle or at least tolerate them, you’re not truly part of the community. This probably goes a way towards explaining why anime critics tend to be scorned when they speak up against these sorts of issues.
Now, the reason I point out these things is not because I hate anime cliches. In fact, I frequently make the same sort of self-deprecating jokes I’ve described in this post. I like what I like, and I don’t see anything wrong with other people liking what they like.
But at the same time, I believe that there’s a social context behind these fandom interactions which can’t be ignored. The urge to make anime feel unique and special manifests in many different forms, and fandom humour is one of them.
Before I finish off this post, I feel I should mention Flawfinder’s recent post: Why I Can’t Find Anime Comedies Funny. Now, I very rarely ever agree with Flaw on anything, and that’s probably a good thing. With this particular post, I found myself raising eyebrows at ‘I think American comedy is the “standard” for laugh out loud humor’. But it also occurs to me that this sort of viewpoint tends to get shouted down in many online anime communities. I think the English-speaking anime fandom could very well benefit if people didn’t just compare anime to anime.
And in my view, anime comedy could certainly stand to have a bit more “bite”.