Yo mama so fat we did a whole podcast about her.
Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is “How We Do” by Nicholas Britell. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. Zac Schmidt and Austin Thompson mixed the episode.This episode was edited by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Rachel Ward and Kalila Holt. Isabel Angell, Jacob Cruz, James Green, Katie Klocksin and Tarek Fouda provided production assistance.
Here’s the lingonberry jank we wouldn’t play on the podcast.
Make up a jank or share yours! Use the hashtag #gimletjanks!
Jerome Neu’s book is Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults.
Tameka Bradley Hobbs’ book is Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida.
ANONYMOUS 1: I took a picture of your mom, got it developed. When I hung it up, the nail bent.
ANONYMOUS 2: Your mama’s so fat, when she wears yellow, people yell taxi.
ANONYMOUS 3: Your mama’s so fat, the back of her neck looks like a pack of hotdogs.
ANONYMOUS 4: Your mother’s so fat, her blood type is Ragu.
RACHEL WARD: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Rachel Ward.
ADAM MCKAY: And I’m Adam McKay.
RACHEL: And right off the bat here, we should say: parents, if you cannot tell from that beginning of this show, this episode is about insults. So if you do not want your kid learning about Yo Mama jokes, you should put your headphones on right now. We promise we’ll bleep any really bad words, but we CANNOT promise that your kid isn’t going to pick up some really sick burns from this episode. So you should take precautions. Adam, can you start us off? Do you have a favorite insult?
ADAM: Yeah, there’s one sort of legendary insult you’ll hear a lot of comedy writers talk about, from the great show Sanford and Son. Very popular in the 70s and in the 80s, and it involved Redd Foxx of course, would deal with Aunt Esther and she would insult him. He would insult her. They didn’t like each other. And at one point he dropped one of the great insult lines of all time on her.
AUNT ESTHER: Who are you calling ugly, sucker?
FRED SANFORD: I’m calling you ugly. I could stick your face in some dough and make some gorilla cookies.
ADAM: I’ve heard that line mentioned many times as sort of a perfect insult in the sense of its economy, the leap it takes. That his face is such a perfect replica of a gorilla that you just have to press it into dough. They’d obviously be big cookies, but that’s alright. Yeah, that’s an all time great.
RACHEL: I just don’t get. Like, I… guess I get it, but it …
ADAM: But you do have to watch it as a full episode to get the vibe of it because it pulls you in. And man oh man, there are some amazing lines from that. A lot of comedy writers talk about that.
RACHEL: Another thing that you brought up when we first started talking about insults was Don Rickles.
ADAM: In the comedy world, most people consider Don Rickles the master insult comic. And there are some good people out there. Jeffrey Ross has become really famous for the Comedy Central Roast. I think that Natasha Leggero is incredible. She’s been on fire lately, every time I see her on those. So there’s some fantastic insult comics. But I think the king of kings is Don Rickles.
DON RICKLES: This table down here, where are you from sir, if I may ask? New Jersey. Do you hear the crowd?
RACHEL: So this is from a roast—it’s Don Rickles roasting Jerry Lewis.
DON: What’s your last name sir? Anderson. I never heard of you. What’s your first name Mr. Anderson? Bill Anderson. Get out. 40 million people that are close to Jerry, we got dumbbell Bill Anderson from New Jersey. Jerry Lewis, Patti made the seating arrangements and this hockey puck Bill Anderson from Jersey who nobody knows is right in the front.
ADAM: That’s, by Rickles standard, that’s pretty tame, that clip. I remember seeing a clip of him, up onstage, looks at a rather large woman wearing a brightly colored dress, and goes hello ma’am, how are you, that’s a beautiful dress. [circus song] Crowd goes crazy.
RACHEL: I watched probably like an hour of Don Rickles stuff looking for something that I felt like one, I could play on a podcast that children do occasionally listen to. And I think for me one of the things that was challenging was just like, it is so specific to a time and a place, a lot of times. Like he’s doing a roast where he’s making jokes to Dean Martin about Frank Sinatra in 1974 about something that happened in Brooklyn in 1968 and like, it’s just flying over my head.
ADAM: That sounds awesome. I want to hear that.
RACHEL: That one was a tough one for me, but another one you brought up…
STEPHEN COLBERT: Wow, what an honor. The White House Correspondents Dinner…
RACHEL: So this is Stephen Colbert in 2006. He’s doing basically a roast of President George W. Bush.
STEPHEN: Everybody asked for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. And then you write, oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.
RACHEL: Ok, I thought that was very funny. I’d laugh at that.
ADAM: First off, it’s obviously a lot more current. So the context is easier for an audience to get into. But I would also say that’s one of the great historic comedy moments of all time.
ADAM: Because that was at a moment where Bush did have that popularity. He had the press cowed. And not only does Colbert roast him masterfully. But he does it from the perspective of loving him. I obviously come from an improv background, theater and writing and I remember teaching a bunch of kids on the Southside of Chicago at Marshall High improv. The first two weeks that we did it, they just insulted each other. And they were funny. They were good insults. But you can’t do anything with that, you kind of just stop. So we kept working and eventually the kids stopped insulting each other and started supporting each other and building scenes. But I never really thought of insults as having any substantive bottom to them or any kind of purpose. I am definitely open to being proven wrong on that, though.
RACHEL: Okay, well, so truly I do believe there is something more to be learned from insults. And that’s this whole episode is about. We’re going to go figure out who these insults are for, who they are against, and what are they for. And so, to get into that question I knew right away who I wanted to call. Because the thing we’re really focusing on in this episode is FUNNY insults. CLEVER ones. And I think your improv kids in Chicago would love these people.
JESSICA LANGLEY: I’m Jessica Langley.
BEN KINSLEY: I’m Ben Kinsley.
JESSICA: And we are part of the collective Janks Archive, along with a third member who’s not in this room. He’s a dad and lives in North Carolina with his baby and his wife and his full-time job.
BEN: His name’s Jerstin Crosby.
RACHEL: So Jessica, Ben and Jerstin, they are artists. And one day, Ben turned up these recordings from the 1970s of people singing really like, vulgar, vulgar nursery rhymes from when they were kids. And the three of them are listening to these recordings and just cracking up. But they also felt sort of wistful about them because they didn’t have any songs like this of their own.
ADAM: But then they realized there was something that they shared on the playground. Something that did pass from kid to kid, and that would jump from town to town when your cousins came through.
RACHEL: Yo mama jokes.
JESSICA: Because we’re children of the 90s. And Jerstin and I, we knew a bunch, right? And I said something like your mom’s so fat she jumped up in the air and got stuck. And then Jerstin said I’ll cut you down so low, you’ll have to hold a sign that says don’t spit, can’t swim. And then he had all these others that were totally weird, like…
BEN: He totally won. If this was a duel. Jerstin just won. And we just both sat there, like woah, he knows so many.
ADAM: Here’s a sample of some of Jerstin’s greatest hits, if you will.
JERSTIN CROSBY: When the Lord was giving out noses, you thought he said roses and asked for a big red one. I’ll cut you down so low that you could swing your feet off the curb. Your mom’s so poor she gets her milkshake on layaway. When the Lord was giving out brains, you thought he said rain and went and found shelter. Your house is so small the cockroaches walk humpback. Your mom is so tall that she did a cartwheel and kicked Jesus in the face.
JESSICA: We knew that he was from Alabama, but like, is this something that is specific to Alabama? And then he said that, “What do you guys call janks?” And we were like um, what? What is a… Excuse me? A jank? And so yeah, so that’s what he calls it, is a jank, is these like insult jokes. Then we started talking about, well what did we call them, and I think I remembered calling them disses.
ADAM: I grew up in the 70s, 80s. Yeah, we called them disses. They were definitely disses. Burns?
RACHEL: I grew up in Maryland and we called them snaps.
JESSICA: We were struck by how the structure of his jokes were really different. The idea that you could insult somebody for being tall is new, and… or I’ll cut you down so that dot dot dot, whatever.
BEN: Or when the Lord was giving out something. Woah, these were different jokes. I didn’t know any of these.
RACHEL: So this is how their project, the Janks Archive is born, and they start to go out and look for these jokes.
JESSICA: I usually explain that we do this, we have a world wide archive and basically an oral tradition. And usually no one, ah, I don’t remember, I don’t remember.
BEN: A good way of getting people is like, do you remember anything your grandma used to tell you? Grandmas are secretly the best, most insulting people on the planet I think.
RACHEL: Grandmothers are really filthy, their favorite jank they collected from a Finnish grandmother, and it has to do with a lingonberry and it is unbelieveable. You can go hear it at janksarchive.org.
ADAM: It’s one of many legendary lingonberry insults, which we’re all familiar with. The lingonberry slams. These guys, they actually went all over the world collecting these things. And they started to see that themes would crop up. Every place they went to collect janks—Mexico City, Pittsburgh, Berlin—every place has a different type of insult that came up really often.
RACHEL: So, for example, when they went to Belfast in Northern Ireland, a ton of the janks, they call them slaggins there, a ton of them are about people not being useful.
ANONYMOUS 1: You’re as a useful as a bag of cats.
ANONYMOUS 2: You’re as useful as chocolate teapot.
ANONYMOUS 3: You’re as useful as a pair of sunglasses on a guy with no ears.
RACHEL: And in Finland, a lot of the janks are about what we would probably here in the US call having a screw loose or not having all of your marbles. Jessica and Ben were collecting them in this part of Finland in the Southwest, right across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, and there’s a Swedish speaking population there, so they have their own set of Swedish screw loose janks. But they’re totally different from the Finnish language screws loose janks. So here’s one in Swedish.
ANONYMOUS: [speaking in Swedish]
RACHEL: That translates to he doesn’t have them all at home.
ADAM: And here’s one in Finnish.
ANONYMOUS: [speaking in Finnish]
ADAM: He doesn’t have all the Nazis in his bunker.
RACHEL: We can’t believe that one. Like, what?
ADAM: That’s real?
RACHEL: Yeah, that’s real.
ADAM: Wow. I love that that’s an indicator of a lack of sanity. Wouldn’t you want to say your bunker is Nazi-free, if you were sane?
RACHEL: I don’t know. I don’t know the justification. The Finns must have had a real bad time during World War II.
RACHEL: But so, another thing they noticed as they are collecting these is that in the US, a lot of the janks are about class. Like about how poor your are. That’s something uniquely American. And they said that when they’ve been out collecting in the rest of the world they have not found as many of those but in the US, we have tons of them.
ANONYMOUS 1: Your mama’s so broke, she can’t get into a free concert.
ANONYMOUS 2: You’re so poor, your house is so small, when you order a pizza you have to eat it outside.
ANONYMOUS 3: That’s why I went to your house, and I was hungry. I opened the refrigerator, there were a bunch of roaches in there singing, “We are the world, we are the children.”
RACHEL: So some of these types of janks, the categories of insults, like you’re not useful or you have a screw loose, those are very geographically specific. But then there are categories that you do find everywhere. So like, maternal insults, those are everywhere.
ANONYMOUS 1: [French speaking]
RACHEL: So that’s a French one, and it is, your mama’s so ugly, she has to wear makeup to go on the radio.
ADAM: That’s solid.
RACHEL: Here’s one they got that’s in Portuguese: your mama’s so fat, when you have to drive around her in the car, you run out of gas.
ANONYMOUS 2: [speaking Portuguese]
RACHEL: And this one’s in German.
ANONYMOUS 3: [German]
RACHEL: Your mother is so fat, her blood type is Nutella.
ADAM: Kind of incredible, people insulting each other’s moms everywhere you go. And it’s not always structured like an actual yo mama joke, but it seems like a lot of times it is. There’s also something oddly sweet about it. It kinda points to how much we all on planet Earth love our mothers.
RACHEL: Right, you know for sure you can go after somebody’s mom and it’s going to be like, kind of hard for them.
ADAM: Should we do a your mother joke, let’s make one up on the spot. How about your mama’s so hairy. Your mama’s so hairy, the wolfman borrowed hair gel from her! Not great. I’m going to judge myself honestly.
RACHEL: I just got my haircut so I should be able to do this… Yo mama’s back is so hairy that the salon assistant tried to sweep it.
ADAM: That’s not bad.
RACHEL: I feel like you’re just humoring me. But what we’re doing here, making up yo mama jokes, it’s part of this larger tradition: an African-American tradition in the U.S. called the dozens. Kids basically make up insults on the spot and then throw them at each other. It’s like a duel—that’s the dozens. So, here’s Ben again.
BEN: We started doing a lot of research on traditions of, insulting traditions like this. And the dozens is really fascinating. We ended up going to Mexico City and we learned about something there called the albur, which is a rhyming game like the dozens, and again that’s like, in the moment, flinging it back and forth.
RACHEL: And it turns out these insult games appear in a lot of cultures—not just the US and Mexico, but in Inuit culture, and Turkish culture—and these back and forth things are called “insult rituals.” That’s according to Jerry Neu. He wrote Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults. And he says these rituals are used in some places to settle debts, or disputes. Jerry says it’s a way to win, without actual physical violence.
JEROME NEU: Well, it goes back to insults being concerned with power and who dominates whom.
RACHEL: So this is a new idea here. The idea that insults are about power. And when Jerry told us this, we got really excited. Because it made us realize how important insults are to the dynamics between people. They’re about who’s got the upper hand in a given situation. And how you can insult that person to take that upper hand away from them.
JERRY: There is a difference between what I would call ritual insults, or playful or friendly insults, and insults which are more direct forms of aggression and attempts at domination.
RACHEL: What defines that line? What sets the parameters there?
JERRY: Well, I think it has to do with the intention that people see behind them. That is, if someone sees a joking friendly intention, that’s different from seeing an attempt to denigrate, lessen, put down, and so on.
RACHEL: What makes that feel good? That seems on its face kind of counterintuitive. Like it feels good to be insulted by these, certain people in a certain way.
JERRY: There’s a kind of controlled aggression. That is, you get to vent, to express feelings that because they’re not received as true assaults, are acceptable.
ADAM: Jerry really drove home the point that insults are this way of keeping things in check. It’s like how when you’re a kid, the guidance counselor is like, you know, if you’re mad, punch a pillow instead of punching someone in the face. It’s words.
RACHEL: Do you have a favorite insult?
JERRY: Well, I guess the one that pops into mind is, took place during a party in the 1970s when Gore Vidal made some sort of nasty comment about the most recent book by Norman Mailer. And they were literary rivals over many years. Anyway, this remark somehow really got to Norman Mailer and he punched him. He punched old Gore Vidal, and decked him so that Vidal was on the floor. And the bit that I like is that Gore Vidal had the presence of mind as he got up from the floor to say, “Once again, words have failed Norman.”
ADAM: That’s good. To be that composed. To get popped in the mouth at a party and get up and hit him with that line. That’s impressive. Good for Gore Vidal, man.
JERRY: Which, again, is sort of a model of the insult rituals like the dozens where one way of losing is precisely by running out of words and resorting to your fists, instead of giving a clever insulting response to whatever your opponent just said. So it’s a nice illustration of that I think, among sort of literary giants, not teenage boys, but still.
RACHEL: I feel like Jerry has a pretty compelling case. Insults have a clear cultural value.
ADAM: Well, I mean, let’s say this, for starters. I mean, if you’re talking about people getting aggression out and dealing with hostility through clever insults, it almost becomes beautiful at that point.
RACHEL: Yeah. And how insults have helped people deal with some pretty intense, systemic hostility throughout history—that’s coming up after the break.
E. PATRICK JOHNSON: The library is open. And so we are going to read you for filth.
RACHEL: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Rachel Ward.
ADAM: And I am Adam McKay.
RACHEL: And so far we’ve been talking about insults in terms of people insulting each other face to face. But I think, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, the place where insults really thrive…
ADAM: We all know the answer to this—the internet.
RACHEL: Adam, what’s the worst thing that anyone’s ever said to you on the internet?
ADAM: Oh god, you’re really going to make me… I mean, I have read stuff that looks like someone was possessed by a demon and really wanted to make me cry on the internet. It’s usually for physical, just… It’s like a violent intent. Because I don’t care. Someone can criticize my movies, my writing. Someone can say something I did isn’t funny or interesting. That’s all fine. But when it’s just that kind of dark, blunt attack… I remember when we were at SNL, very early on with the internet, Will Ferrell was like, I’m never reading any of that. And I was like, I like to read it sometimes. And it took me about ten years to finally get where he’s at. Where like, I’m never reading the comment section again. All I can say is, it is not helpful.
RACHEL: Yeah, I mean trolls are absolutely—they’re the worst, they’re lazy, it’s like they’re barely trying, they go for the lowest, easiest blow. But that’s not what this episode is about, this episode is not about weaksauce insults. This episode is about good insults, really funny stuff, artful stuff.
TAMEKA BRADLEY HOBBS: Look what they’ve done to poor Kermit. Kermit was my childhood friend with the Muppets. Now he’s sipping tea everywhere.
RACHEL: So this is Tameka Bradley Hobbs. She’s a history professor at Florida Memorial University, and you have probably seen the image that she’s talking about. It’s a picture of Kermit the Frog from The Muppets, and he’s just very genteelly sipping a mug of tea. And a lot of the times when you see this image, it’s got the phrase, “But that’s none of my business,” written across the bottom of it in that meme font.
ADAM: That font is called Impact, and it’s been around since 1965.
RACHEL: More facts like that in our newsletter. Subscribe at gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/awesome.
ADAM: But back to Kermit drinking this mug of tea.
RACHEL: Right, so, here’s how Tameka explains what sipping tea is.
TAMEKA: There’s something foul going on but i’m not going to say anything because i’m so busy enjoying my hot beverage that I’m not going to get involved. That’s what Black Twitter has given us, which… What a brilliant contribution to American culture.
RACHEL: I’m imagining like half of our listeners just went like ugh, not another description of Black Twitter on a podcast. And then the other half of our listeners were just like, what Twitter? So if you know what I’m talking about, please be patient with us while everyone gets on the same page.
TAMEKA: It’s the black voices on Twitter, when black people congregate via hashtag on Twitter and have a conversation about whatever is happening in pop culture or politics.
ADAM: Tameka’s book is called Democracy Abroad, Lynching At Home: Racial Violence In Florida. Her research for it was going around the state collecting oral histories about lynching. Really, really, intense stuff.
RACHEL: So you can maybe understand why she needs this pressure valve on Twitter—this community of like-minded people who are all trying to process their experiences in kind of a similar way.
TAMEKA: We have had a very long history of being denigrated ourselves and trying to turn that denigration into something that we could live with by laughing at it. But also mastering it as a weapon has been part of our birthright in this country in particular. There have been some wonderful evenings that I have been able to spend laughing myself to sleep by watching my timeline or the newsfeed in Twitter. It is a comfort that is born of a lot of discomfort if you look at black history and the things that we’ve had to endure in this country. So yeah, it’s bittersweet, but it is hella fun.
RACHEL: It is really fun. When we were talking to Tameka, we could just hear in her voice how much she loves this part of the internet and how much sense of community she feels there. For example, she told us about Starbucks trying to get people to use the hashtag “race together.” They wanted people to go by a coffee and then sit down and then talk through the racial situation in America. Like, right as the world was trying to process a bunch of incidents where black people had been shot by the police. It was a nice idea, but…
ADAM: It didn’t go over great.
TAMEKA: The Black Twitter response in that hashtag was a way to really point out how foolish the idea was, but also have a little bit of fun at Starbucks’ expense.
RACHEL: Right. They wanted a conversation. They got a conversation.
TAMEKA: Not the one they were hoping for, but yeah, they got a conversation. Just the names that were coming across. Malcolm Xpresso. Latte My People Go was another one I just thought was hilarious. And this of course was during the time that Ferguson was still a very hot topic, and there was one that had a picture of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed MIke Brown, and it said “feared for my safe-tea.” Like the drink, tea, T-E-A. And it’s tragic, it’s bringing in something that’s happening in the real world, but it’s also using it to… I mean, it was kind of perfect. It was tragic and perfect at the same time.
ADAM: So you can hear some caution there from Tameka. She says it’s fine when people keep it on the internet. The risk is when insults spill over in the real world.
RACHEL: Yeah. Her concern is that sometimes stuff on Twitter escalates instead of relieving pressure. So to bring back the idea of punching a pillow. So if punching a pillow doesn’t make you feel any less angry. Instead it just gets all you riled up and you go out and start punching a bunch of random strangers on the street.
TAMEKA: There’s an interesting interplay between what happens virtually and what happens when there’s flesh and blood involved. Because we’re humans with real feelings. And many of our urban communities, it’s a life or death thing. I have nothing but respect. My name and people fearing me, or thinking of me in a certain way, is all I have to hold onto. And that’s something that’s very old. Even going back to dueling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Particularly in the American south.
RACHEL: So we’re about to travel a very long distance in not a lot time here, so stick with us. This respect culture that Tameka is talking about, is coming from a very, very heavy place in American history. We’re about to go from memes on the internet, to slavery.
E PATRICK JOHNSON: When you’re talking about African American culture, I think it goes back to slavery and the use of indirection where in a slave environment, you could never say anything explicitly…
RACHEL: This is E. Patrick Johnson. He’s a professor of African American Studies and Performance Studies at Northwestern University. And he introduced us to this idea of indirection.
ADAM: It’s basically plausible deniability.
RACHEL: Yeah, when you’re in a situation where someone has a lot of power over you, you have to cut them down indirectly. So for example, during slavery…
E PATRICK: Talking back to a master in a direct way could actually get you killed, lynched or beaten. And so slaves developed indirect forms of communicating, such as not looking a slave master in the eye. So how something like that then gets to become a part of African-American culture is my mother would never allow me to look her directly in the eye if she were chastising me. Because that was seen as a form of disrespect and it also is a survival strategy… For instance, again to bring in a very contemporary example, when you’re pulled over. When you’re a black person, you know not to talk back, not to resist because you might get killed.
RACHEL: So the tactic that people have developed to express their displeasure—how indirection relates to insults—that’s actually the same thing Tameka was describing on Twitter. It’s shade. It’s insults that are so restrained and so clever that sometimes the target doesn’t even realize that they’re being insulted.
ADAM: Here’s how E. Patrick uses shade. He’s also a performer. So he gets invited to see a lot of other people’s performances.
E PATRICK: And so I’ve been in situations in which I have been invited to a friend’s show or someone, acquaintance, and I really, really thought it was bad. Just really bad. So after the show, rather than lying, I will say something like, “Oh my god, you were on that stage. Oh my god, you were there, you were just on that stage. “
ADAM: I’ve had the same experience he’s talking about where you have to go to plays and it’s always tough. And I’ve certainly done things or been in things where I can tell someone doesn’t like it. they’ll usually say something like “Wow, that must have taken a lot of work.” That’s a good one. You praise the work effort.
RACHEL: Yeah, so that’s indirection. Here’s another example from E. Patrick. If you have friends who are pregnant, you should listen up, you might need this one.
E PATRICK: When one of my nephews was born, we went to the hospital to see him. And he was really tragically ugly, he was just a really hideous baby. And so my brother was just beaming with pride, and of course we couldn’t say anything. And so all my aunt says is, “Oh look, it’s a baby. Just look at it.” So for me that’s what’s awesome about insults. How creative you can get with communicating something in a way that sounds so pleasant, but you’re just cutting somebody and they don’t even know they’re bleeding.
RACHEL: So, when E. Patrick and Tameka talk about this, they’re talking specifically about the black southern experience. But E. Patrick says pretty much every minority has come up with their own forms of verbal play. Even minorities within minorities. The Irish, Yiddish speakers, even kids have their own strategies for insult.
ADAM: Right, E. Patrick’s work is informed by gay culture.
RACHEL: And he was saying that if you’ve ever heard someone say something like, ooh, girl, he just read you for filth. That’s coming from gay vernacular, a read or get read, that’s an insult. That’s another insider term. It’s more language that is special for your community.
ADAM: So insults make you feel like you’re part of a group, and that group is protecting you.
RACHEL: Hashtag squad.
ADAM: My daughters were just saying that the other day. Then there’s the other side of this coin, getting insulted in front of a group.
RACHEL: Right. How power dynamics change when there are other people watching. And that brings us to the Netherlands.
MARTE OTTEN: Okay, I am Marte Otten. I am a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and I think my title is PhD. Or Doctor Otten perhaps, I don’t know. Sounds really weird and official but I guess that’s it.
RACHEL: You earned it, you deserve it.
RACHEL: Marte is a psycholinguist in the Netherlands, and one of the things she studies is humiliation. And she was interested in how humiliation and shame play into insults.
MARTE: What I wanted to know was if you know that you’re being observed by a larger group of people, does that change your perception of insults.
ADAM: So Marte and her team decided to measure this. They used an EEG, an electroencephalogram. Basically they put a shower cap full of electrodes on their research subjects’ heads, and then they insulted them. A lot.
MARTE: So we actually used insulting sentences. Insulting in Dutch, used as personal insults, they’re very gendered. So there are specific curse words that only work women, and other curse words that only work for men, and we needed sentences that would work for both genders. So I can read some out if you want to.
RACHEL: Yeah, totally.
MARTE: I find you too vulgar to take seriously. Hanging out with you is so terrible that I would rather not see you again. Your life is worthless and devoid of content.
RACHEL: That’s a great insult.
MARTE: In the company of others, you often behave completely inappropriately and weird. When I hear you, I feel disgust and revolt. The way you handle things makes me sick. It was quite horrible.
RACHEL: Can you say some of these to me in Dutch?
MARTE: Yeah, sure. [speaking Dutch] Just a few.
RACHEL: So while people are hearing these insults, they’re wearing the electrode shower cap and Marte’s team is measuring how quickly their brain’s processing activity is responding to the insults.
ADAM: And then they play them a bunch more insults but this time the insult is accompanied by the image and the sound of a bunch of people laughing, on a computer screen.
RACHEL: Marte sent us a clip of the laughing and it is straight up maniacal.
ADAM: Basically my entire 8th, 9th, and 10th grade years of school summed up perfectly. And as a control for this research, they also did the same thing with compliments. Play a bunch of compliments, then play them with the laughter.
RACHEL: And here’s what they learned.
MARTE: What we found is, I guess not surprisingly, when people know that they’re being laughed at, when people know that they’re being observed, the processing of the insult is increased.
RACHEL: Can you tell me about why we perceive insults more intensely when we are being laughed at?
MARTE: As a person, we need other people to respect us and protect us. Being insulted publicly is worse because we can lose the peer group. As humans we feel unsafe and I guess this intrinsic need to belong combined with an existential fear of losing our peer group. That’s what makes humiliation so bad.
RACHEL: And so this is the thing. It’s a double edged sword. A really snappy, witty, insult can make us belong that we belong to a group, we get it, like how Tameka has this community on Black Twitter.
ADAM: But if we feel like the group is turning against us, insults feel even worse. We feel like we’re losing power, like we’re not safe.
RACHEL: Okay, so Adam, do you want to hear the insult expert’s favorite insult?
ADAM: By all means.
MARTE: Yeah, so I was thinking about this… I think though, a**wipe, I think I like that one.
RACHEL: Why do you like that one in particular.
MARTE: I don’t know. It’s kind of funny. I like to insult my husband when I’m being nice to him. I don’t know why. That’s really awful. This is the way that we express our love for each other.
ADAM: I would actually argue that’s beautiful. Keeping our bums clean is something that saves lives, it’s something that’s courteous. I never looked at it that way, but actually calling someone an a**wipe is a very beautiful thing, Rachel. Will you call me an a**wipe and I’ll respond appropriately?
RACHEL: That feels like a trick question. But what Marte is saying about having this specific thing, when she says it to her husband it’s very endearing, it’s part of their culture as a husband/wife unit. It’d be way different if she said that to somebody else. So that’s kind of the essence of this topic. Insults are born out of a specific contexts. And that’s why what is clever, what constitutes a clever insult, is different for different people.
ADAM: It seems to me that really what the line is on the insults: Are the insults something that you’re laughing at because your group bond is so strong that you can let your ego down to laugh at yourself, to laugh at other people, because you know what, we’re super tight with each other. And no matter what’s said, we’re going to be tight.
RACHEL: That’s the thing. Insults can show people hey i’m really smart, i’m funny, we’re like, kin to each other. But they can also be kind of dangerous. They can demonstrate, I will burn you.
ADAM: It’s funny, you can almost trace everything, especially when we talk about comedy, are we part of the pack, are we part of the group, or are we being kicked out of the group. And if we’re being kicked out of the group, it’s not fun. If it’s solidifying us in the group, it’s awesome. And you can laugh at Don Rickles, because you know they’re all cool and they’re tight with each other and they’re joking around.
RACHEL: So when we started this episode, we both agreed insults are hilarious, but you weren’t quite sure if they had a value. Where are you now with that idea?
ADAM: Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt they have a value. Hearing all this, at the least, all of us, taking ourselves down a peg or taking ourselves less seriously, that’s always good. When you get to the level of Colbert challenging a questionable government, the leader of the country right to his face, it can become heroic. When you hear the story of a culture that’s been through a trauma and racism finding a way to communicate with each other in a way that’s unique to each other so they can have a shared experience, that almost becomes beautiful. There’s definitely an incredible amount of value to it, and then when they are really good, they’re just funny and let’s face it, there is nothing better than laughing really hard.
ADAM: Hey, Rachel.
ADAM: Your credit-reading is so stiff, Madame Tussauds called.
RACHEL: She wants her credits back?
ADAM: That was a credits snap!
RACHEL: Oh McKay, you were ON that mic today. You were just ON it.
MCKAY: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme song is by Nicholas Britell. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser. We were produced by Kalila Holt and Rachel Ward. Isabel Angel, Jacob Cruz, James Green, Katie Klocksin, and Tarek Fouda provided production assistance.
RACHEL: We were mixed this week by Zac Schmidt and Austin Thompson. Last week we were also mixed by Austin Thompson, but we screwed up and we told you that we were mixed by Matthew Boll. So that was perhaps the ultimate insult—though unintentional—and we are very very sorry.
MCKAY: If you want to hear more janks, or disses, they’re at janksarchive.org. Janks is spelled J-A-N-K-S. And if you want to share your janks with us, or disses or yo momma jokes or insults, we’d love to see them on Twitter. Use the hashtag gimlet janks. Feel free to janks us. We have thick skin and only one out of three of them will actually make us tear up and have to leave the room. Actually, we’d love it if you’d make up some janks about Gimlet. That’s even better. Oh my god, a big company that makes podcasts? To hell with them, go after them.
RW: Also, here’s a thing we’re looking for some help on. We’d like to hear your stories of “I told you so.” Of a time you were right, but nobody believed you. If you’ve got a good I told you so, record a voice memo on your phone very quickly, keep it to around a minute, and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We might use it on an upcoming episode.
MCKAY: You can also tweet us @surprisingshow, email us at email@example.com. We’re on Facebook. And our Tumblr is TrueSharkAttackStories.tumblr.com.
RACHEL: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.
ADAM: Can I tell you Rachel, now that we’re completely done, that podcast was so bad, I’m gonna go listen to AM radio.
E PATRICK: I’m hearing a siren right now, so we might want to hold for just a sec. We live right behind a hospital, so it’s… I wouldn’t go there, but from time to time we hear an ambulance taking somebody over there.
RACHEL: Was that shade regarding that hospital?
E PATRICK: That was shade. That was shade. That definitely was shade.