What makes a joke a joke? Or; What makes something funny?
On August 19, Mario Balotelli, Manchester City and Italian national team striker, came off the field after a Manchester City game. He slapped the hands of some kids and then approached a female photographer, Sharon Latham, who was crouched on the ground snapping photos. He grabbed her camera, pulled it up over her head and tried to dislodge it from her grasp. She held onto it for dear life and so he decided instead to pull off the lens and retreat into a part of the stadium where she could not go.
The people around them laughed and smiled along with Balotelli. Latham scrambled off the ground and went after him but was turned back by security without retrieving her lens. With a camera in her face and everyone around her laughing at her, she could do nothing other than laugh, too. The Daily Mail called this Balotelli’s “latest prank.” In fact, they dubbed him “the Premier League’s favourite prankster.” The YouTube video of it posted by CityTV is titled, “FUNNY Mario Balotelli v City Photographer.”
Now I ask again: what makes this a joke? [NOTE: I have a particular blindspot here: I am a lady and, therefore, genetically predisposed to not find anything humorous ever (science has proven this true, right?).]
Here’s my working theory about this. I think the funny is found in two places: first, laughing at Balotelli’s domination of the photographer and then Balotelli playing into the role that the media so loves to see him in, that of the bad boy.
Probably the question that springs to most people’s minds is: would this have been as funny if this had been a man that Balotelli had “pranked”? My instant response is: this wasn’t a man and we have to take it for who/what it actually was. My second thought: No. And that’s because the “joke” is Balotelli physically overpowering this woman out of nowhere and stealing something from her.
In my head, I imagine a man 1) would not have seemed like an easy target, 2) would have been more likely to pounce up, screaming and cursing at Balotelli, and 3) would have been more easy to identify with for most of the people writing about football (ie. dudez). It’s easier to laugh at someone with whom you don’t easily identify (science has also proven this, too, right?). Because if this had happened to you, maybe the joke isn’t such a joke after all.
Of course, we’ll probably never see this exact scenario played out with a male photographer so we can’t know how people would react. But that doesn’t mean that Latham’s gender counts for nothing in the response to this “prank.” I don’t need Balotelli to do this 400 times and compare examples like a scientific study in order to say that what happened is interesting and worth talking about precisely because of who was involved. Which leads me to…
The other person involved here at whom one can laugh is Balotelli himself. Here are things we know about Balotelli: 1) he is a black man from Italy whose parents were Ghanaian but who grew up in a white Sicilian family, 2) he is 22, and 3) he began his professional football career at the tender age of 15 and has faced incredible racism in his short life. For example, during this summer’s Euro Cup, Balotelli was the object of racial abuse from his opponent’s fans and there is nothing isolated about these incidents.
The final thing we know about him is that he’s a bad boy. The evidence for this seems endless. He has received many red cards, too-many-to-count yellow cards, received multiple suspensions, is famous for temper tantrums, has stamped on other players during games, has verbal spars with opponents, has been publicly criticized by coaches for his failure to work hard, crashes cars, sets off fireworks in his house, throws darts at people as “jokes,” etc.
On the one hand, it is easy to cluck your tongue and shake your head at Balotelli’s antics (plenty of his actions deserve censure). On the other, it is hard to imagine the kind of professional, cultural, and personal pressure under which Balotelli operates all the time. And out of his complicated life, the media has simplified it all down into a powerful narrative of Balotelli-as-a-troublemaker.
When his actions confirm that belief about his character, people tend to either find it funny (“Oh, that’s just Mario and he’s SO crazy! haha”) or they get very angry (“How dare he! Why does he do these things? rage”). In this case, he picked on a female photographer and ain’t that a laugh.
Eh. I’m sure after all of these words people who want to find that moment funny will (and there are lots of them, just Google “Balotelli photographer prank”).
Just be honest about who you are actually laughing at.