Scenario: that’s not funny!
Anya’s friend Tom had invited her and her boyfriend Jesse to the pub on Saturday night for Tom’s birthday. Jesse wasn’t that keen; he’d never got along well with Tom. But Anya wanted to go and promised they could leave early if Jesse was hating it. Also, she really felt like a pub-style chicken parma with thick cut chips!
Tom had reserved a long table out in the beer garden. It was a big crowd and Anya managed to get them seats far enough away from Tom that Jesse wouldn’t have to talk to him.
Jesse was sitting next to Joel and as soon as they started talking about bands, Anya knew Jesse would chill and they could have a good night. She leaned towards Tom’s end of the table—everyone was laughing at one of his stories.
Tom had been to see a show at the Comedy Festival. Anya was familiar with the comedian Tom was talking about—a Scottish guy, she’d seen some of his clips on YouTube. He was funny but also pretty crass, and he would do that awful thing where he tries to embarrass people sitting close to the stage.
Apparently, it had been raining just before the show, and people in the queue that didn’t have an umbrella all got drenched. There was one woman, sitting just in front of Tom, who looked like she’d just been for a swim, so Tom said.
‘Poor thing she must have been freezing’.
‘Never go out without an umbrella!’
‘Do you want me to finish the story or not?’
Tom told how the comedian got to the part of his act where he points out people in the audience. The comedian had looked to where Tom was sitting and Tom panicked, tried to slide down in the seat.
‘But he wasn’t looking at me, it was wet woman!’
The comedian started in on her—did she swim to the gig, had her date been washed away in a flood (she was by herself), the wet t-shirt competition was next door, she shouldn’t worry about walking home alone. Tom thought it was hilarious, but Anya became more and more cross.
‘How much were the tickets?’
‘Sixty-five bucks. It wasn’t cheap!
‘So, your funny story is a woman spent money to be entertained by a professional and ended up having a crap time because he couldn’t be bothered thinking up his own jokes?’
‘C’mon. It’s his act.’
‘It’s not even funny.
‘Everyone was laughing.’
Tom shrugged and reached for his beer. ‘Relax, it’s my birthday.’
‘Yeh, Happy Birthday’.
Anya tugs on Jesse’s arm. ‘I’m tired. Let’s go.’
Being an active bystander doesn’t have to mean intervening in an obviously abusive situation. It can mean calling out disrespectful or harassing behaviour that someone else finds funny. All it requires is empathy—how would you feel if it was you?
It’s not a good joke if it’s at the expense of someone else. Might Anya showing Tom how she felt about him laughing at the woman’s situation cause Tom to step in next time he’s a bystander to something similar?
Being an active bystander can mean calling out disrespectful behaviour, even after the fact. It can signal to others that an easy joke should never be more important than considering the other person’s feelings.