Joan Rivers and April Fools: Teach your kids the difference between funny and hurtful

Joan Rivers has never taken it easy on Adele and recently poked at the Oscar-award winning star for her weight. For our kids, knowing the difference between a mean barb and harmless April Fools' Day joke can be difficult without guidance. 

Dan Hallman/Associated Press
Joan Rivers, left, and her daughter Melissa Rivers in New York. Ms. Rivers' humor oftentimes comes at another's expense. How are kids supposed to pick up the subtle differences between a barb and a tease?

Society encourages wicked little untruths to make fools of others on April Fools' Day for the sake of a laugh, but attacks comedian Joan Rivers for telling the unvarnished truth and hurting the feelings of wealthy public figures. Today is a good day to take a moment to examine the mixed messages we send children about truth, it’s temporary suspension, and when jokes go too far.

This is the day, April Fools' Day, when little kids try to pass off Cheerios as “Donut Seeds” and foolish employees lose their jobs because they thought it hilarious to advertise the boss’ job in the local newspaper. It’s what I like to call Judgment Day, as in good or bad, your judgment is put to the test. It’s also an important day to fine tune parenting on truth, lies, and what’s not funny and why.

For Ms. Rivers, and comedians in general, Judgment Day is every day because they judge the world and their remarks either make us laugh, or want to throttle them. Dealing with very young kids isn’t so very different from working with comedians because kids are straight shooters and hilarity often is the result.

I recently stumbled across three vital questions, first asked by comedian Craig Ferguson, that I now ask myself regularly in order to keep out of trouble. I keep a printed copy taped beside my computer, by the phone, and on the white board in the kitchen. Yes, I need it that much and so do my kids.

It reads:

Does this need to be said?

Does this need to be said by me?

Does this need to be said by me, right now?”

For comedians, the answer is always a resounding “Yes!” to all three questions. For kids, we need to tell them that the answer will generally be, “Nope.” Now I’ll tell you why that is.

Art Linkletter made his early career by asking children basic questions and getting funny, honest, politically incorrect answers on the show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Yet, we really don’t celebrate honesty when a child tells grandma on the phone, “I really don’t feel like talking to you right now because I’d rather play with the cat.”

I was raised in New York City under the code of, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, I now live in the South where you can verbally kill someone with kindness and a smile. As author Isaac Goldberg once said, “Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way.”  

Of course, the vital difference here is the intent of what’s said. Is it mean, or does it mean well? Rivers has always claimed her japes are well intentioned and that the celebrity victims aren’t bothered by the attacks. That seems unlikely. Maybe they’re just telling that socially correct little white lie and need to tell the truth about how celebrity bullying makes them feel.

It really does become a vicious social lie-cycle as people hide the truth about hurt feelings in order to avoid further conflict with the one inflicting the emotional pain. If you are a celebrity and someone says you’re “fat” and justifies it by adding that your wealth and celebrity make you “fair game,” perhaps it’s time to let the truth set you and others free. What is the real tangible difference between a kid in the school yard calling a girl “fatso” versus one wealthy celebrity doing so to another?

When my neighbor, also my doctor, sees me out jogging and says, “Good to see you finally addressing the weight issue. Good for you!” she gets points for honesty, but now I jog in the other direction, away from her house. That actually happened. Ultimately though, I know the doc means well and since I’m her sole audience, I take it in stride. In fact I stride a bit harder, and it makes it that much easier to avoid the next donut.

I love Adele and wince every time Rivers skewers her or anyone else on weight issues. I’m not laughing, but I must admit she’s telling the truth, even if it is with what feels like a malevolent spin.

Rivers is called “mean,” but when you take a closer look, she’s being just as shockingly, flatly rational, and straight in her observations as any child.

“Mom, that kid on TV told his mom she’s fat,” My son Quin, 9, said with indignation. “I would never tell you that even if you are fat now because it would hurt your feelings. That’s why I never tell you.” That little feel-good moment happened over a month ago, but it was both unforgettable and motivational.  

Quin, while unintentionally funny, is not seeking a career on the stage and needs the three question guide so people outside our home don’t think he’s being intentionally unpleasant.

On the one hand, I like it that comics don’t have a three-question axiom, because I think there's a place for honest people who annoy us with their candor, keep it real, and get us to lighten up. While we may dislike honesty about our body image, it is necessary in small doses.

Just watching Rivers and her daughter Melissa, on their We TV reality show “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows best?” gives insight into a no-holds-barred approach to parenting, grand parenting, and life in general. Rivers is true to her own unvarnished style with her own family.

We get angry at Rivers and those like her because they tell us the Emperor has no clothes, or that the ones they’re wearing make them look like something the cat dragged in. And in doing so they remind us just how much we like to fool ourselves and others.

What Rivers really does is work toward freeing us of our lying addiction with a spoonful of lemon rather than sugar. Hearing the truth isn't always sweet, yet it does make others laugh when we make a face at the bitter taste.

Rivers forces us to recognize and deal with that truth through the lens of humor. Reality check: That’s what comedians do, but perhaps as society has evolved, we are outgrowing the pleasure we once took in meanness.

When the host of HLN’s Showbiz Tonight took her to task about making a Holocaust joke about an Oscar night dress worn by Heidi Klum, Rivers, who is of Jewish ancestry as was her late husband, answered, “That’s how we get through life. If you laugh you can deal with it. Done!”

In the final analysis we get the same conclusion that comedian Steve Martin came to in the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen" when his daughter pulls a nasty prank on Ashton Kutcher’s character by soaking his underwear in meat and then releasing the dog on him. “Funny, but wrong!”

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