Is a Hurtful Joke OK?

By Amy Dickinson | January 12th, 2024

Especially in a close relationship

A couple outside arguing. By Prostockstudio. Article on "Is a hurtful joke OK?"

Is a hurtful joke OK, especially in a marriage or other close relationship? A wife writes to Ask Amy for advice and gets a special response from a real comedian, Josh Gondelman.

Dear Amy:

I’ve been with my partner for almost 16 years. Throughout this time, he has said some ridiculously mean things to me, thinking he’s just being funny or making a joke.

Most recently, in the course of a conversation, he “jokingly” called me an “old bag,” thinking that how he said it was clever and “just a joke.” He’s always so proud of himself when he makes a “funny” statement.

I called him out on it, telling him that I thought that was a mean comment and not funny at all.

He said nothing in return.

We are currently on vacation out of the country and I’m having a hard time not thinking about this and how angry I am at him for saying this and “spoiling” our vacation from the start.

He gets this sense of humor from his family … I understand it intellectually, but it still hurts after all these years.

Am I being too sensitive? What should I do?

– Really Tired

Dear Tired:

To tackle your question about your partner’s hilarity, I shared your question with stand-up comedian and Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Josh Gondelman. His response follows:

As Mel Brooks famously said: ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.’

In plainer terms, it can be funny when someone else gets hurt.

I’m a pretty compassionate person, but I will laugh every time when someone talking loudly on a cellphone bonks their head on a tree branch while they’re walking down the street. (I’m only human, after all.)

The problem here is that your partner is laughing at the pain of someone (you) he has to sleep next to every night (presumably) until death.

So when you feel pain, it would (presumably, again) make a difference to him.

Are you being sensitive? Sure. Too sensitive? I don’t know about that! Maybe your partner is calling you an ‘old bag’ because the funny thing (to him) is that you’re so obviously NOT an old bag that it’s ironic.

But here’s the thing: When you tell a joke and there’s an audience of two (you and him), and half of that audience (you, again) doesn’t laugh, that joke has bombed.

And yes, as a professional joke teller, it can be fun to antagonize an audience, but not the one you plan to go on vacation with.

There’s a term in comedy for when someone continually makes a joke that hurts people’s feelings and doesn’t go over well. We call it: Being Annoying.

Your partner is being annoying. He’s not taking your feelings into account. And when a comic can’t read the room, he’s in danger of the crowd walking out.

I’ll add to Josh’s response: In terms of what you should do about this, I suggest that you should re-examine your sensitivities, share this professional comic’s answer with your partner, drop the mic, and (figuratively) “walk out” (disengage patiently) while he reworks his set.

Want to get even more life tips from Amy? Read more of her advice columns here!

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart – ranging from a hurtful joke to dark family secrets and DNA surprises. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. You can email Amy Dickinson at or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068.

©2023 by Amy Dickinson

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