What language relieves pain and what language causes it?

Rodney Dangerfield performing in 1972.

What a mess erupts these days when people start talking about what is, and what is not, funny. America’s funny bone has become a raw bone. In some circles, making a comedic faux-pas deserves life without parole and no thought of forgiveness.

Last month, David Weigel, a political reporter for The Washington Post retweeted something he found funny. The original Tweet was: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

The post was made by Cam Harless whose website “camharless.wordpress.com” describes him as: “Writer. Husband. Father. Follower of Jesus. Barbarian.” A puzzling farrago.

Never mind finding the joke funny, Felicia Sonmez, a colleague of Weigel at The Post went on Twitter and started to shout: are you kidding! that’s outrageous! NF! [My exclamations; my paraphrase.] When seeing her words in print, I feel the ire.

Then Sonmez started going at The Post in front of the world: She tweeted: what kind of paper allows a reporter to make fun of women like that! [More paraphrase.]

I wondered if anybody in management thought the joke funny.

Weigel saw what was going on; not wanting to get into anything, he went back on Twitter with: “I just removed a retweet of an offensive joke. I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm.”

And I wondered, because so many people make false apologies these days, if Weigel, despite his shared regret, still found the joke funny: he just wanted people off his back.

I see humor in the joke — from a certain cultural comedic frame of mind, it’s funny.

Of course The Post weighed in. The paper’s chief communications officer, Kristine Coratti Kelly, got on the tweeter-horn — the mind-shaping-instant-opinion-forming network — and said, “Editors have made clear to the staff that the tweet was reprehensible and demeaning language or actions like that will not be tolerated.”

Id est, management’s vote was: not funny.

But I haven’t seen where the paper spent time explaining to staff its position on funniness and laying out what it, as a political-economic institution, will not tolerate in its workers.

Those who have studied the nature of sincere apology would say The Post offered a standard by-the-book version, the best a capitalist institution can do, even one with a motto: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Before I accept the Post’s apology I want to see the results of a two-question questionnaire they’ve administered to every employee, the first question being: Did you find the joke funny? The second: Why did you say yes or no to the first question? And, as in math, show all work, your ethical thinking.

Did any boss at any level say to any staff member at the paper that keeping his job required him to espouse a particular comedic frame of mind — pointing out exactly where “the line” is, and what happens to those who cross it?

Here’s the update: Despite his remorse, Weigel was suspended for a month — no pay. [Where does a guy like that come up with next month’s rent?]

Sonmez kept at it, pulling her colleagues into the fray. They started tweeting their views on funniness, whether Weigel was right, and whether a paper is responsible for training its workers properly. For a day or two, Twitter was a Wapo warzone.

I had, and still have, no quibbles with Sonmez’s view. It’s worth discussing. It’s the means she took to deal with the hurt. She went to the world on Twitter to find relief rather than walk down to HR and demand a meeting of all staff — top to bottom — to discuss what is and what is not funny, what people at the paper can and cannot say, and what the paper’s responsibility is for worker deportment — even the guy in the mailroom.

That is, rather than deal with the issue structurally, Sonmetz blazoned her torch on Twitter. That’s not to say her point of view should not be available to everyone, it’s that she went for “the show” and not for policy elucidation and structural change.

And I have not seen anything that says The Post has taken action to delineate what people at the paper can and cannot say.

The other sad part of the story is that on June 9, The Post fired Felicia Sonmez. True. They said it was for, “misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your coworkers online and violating The Post's standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.”

Violating workplace collegiality means Sonmez, and those of her mind-set, failed the section of the Miss Manners course on “cooperative workplace.”

How will Sonmez come up with the rent for who knows how long? And, according to the book, canceling someone is not a show of collegiality, it’s a failure in leadership.

When she went on Twitter, the paper needed to call her in right away, slow her down, say they were ready to listen but wanted her first to sit down and write out all her thoughts. And because they needed it soon, she had time-off to do it — with pay.

And the paper needed to say it would convene a synod — to which every Post employee was invited — where there would be discussed the difference between a funny that relieves pain and a funny that causes it, at least more pain than it relieves.

Which is the measuring rod of ethical comedy: the relieving of pain versus causing it.

Here’s the joke again: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

Funny or not funny? Why? Show all work.

One of the greatest comedians of all time, Rodney Dangerfield — Comedy Central ranked him seventh best of all time, one behind Steve Martin and right before Chris Rock — was enamored with people’s idiosyncrasies.

Playing the sad sack he kept moaning, “I get no respect.” He was always getting the short end of the stick: with his kids, his doctor, lawyer wife, girlfriends — they all disappointed. He liked fat jokes and ugly jokes.

One night on Carson, he started in on the women he met. One of them, he said, “was no bargain … she was FAT!”

And Rodney’s fans in the audience, taking the bait, came right back: “HOW fat!?”

And he, loving the joust, looked in their direction and fired back: “HOW fat?  [I’ll tell you how fat] When she wears high heels, she strikes oil, OK!”

And you know what? “I met her at the Macy’s Parade, she was wearing ropes!”

HOW fat was she?! “She got on a scale, a card came out and said One at a Time.”

That’s right, “She was standing alone, a cop told her to break it up.”

Funny or not funny?  Pain-relieving or pain-causing?

Rodney went at “ugly” people too. What power does anyone, whose looks have veered far from the hub of beauty, have to tackle such a trope? They were already dismissed.

George Carlin is the best stand-up comedian ever — Dave Chapelle was wrong last month — sure, George berated Americans for being absolutely stupid, unable to wake even when hit with a two-by-four. But he turned the spotlight from the idiosyncratic to the powerful — people and ideas — and, like Jeremiah, began chanting “Converte, Jerusalem.”

He took on religion, God, child-rearing, education, play, drugs, imagination, personal responsibility — the meaning of life — and exposed “the line” of acceptance, letting everybody know what was waiting on the other side.

Indeed, in 1972 the Milwaukee police arrested him at Summerfest for using the English language on stage — seven words — like he was Al Capone.

I can’t figure out if George was brutally funny or funnily brutal.

Would Rodney play today? With the fat, ugly, and loser jokes? I recently realized he was dystopian.

In this next phase of our collective existence, we’ve been called to clarify what language relieves pain and what language causes it: and how much control anyone in the future will have over what he can say about how he truly feels.