Butt of the joke

Video Butt of the joke

Glancing at most male friendship groups today, there are a few things you’ll be likely to find: a handful of North Face puffer jackets, a guy who goes by his last name (and no one is quite sure why), a self-appointed film expert, a guy who wears turtlenecks in July, a guy who once went through a phase of dressing like an extra on Peaky Blinders and a guy who always hogs the aux cable at parties.

But you’ll probably find another guy too: the butt of the joke.

This is the guy who is made fun of, ridiculed, roasted and ripped more than any other — the group’s go-to punchline. Even if it doesn’t start off that way, all jokes lead back to him. Think: “cousin Greg” from Succession, Will from The Inbetweeners and (formerly) meek coach Nate from Ted Lasso.

Being the “butt of the joke” isn’t quite the same as a group targeting someone outside their ranks, because this guy fulfils a sometimes crucial role within a group. Psychologist Ian MacRae, the author of several books including the upcoming Dark Social, tells GQ that having someone who occupies this “punchline” role can be important for setting group boundaries. “Sometimes it helps to have a person in a group who is the butt of the joke, to define what the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are, and what the consequences are for breaking those boundaries,” he says. And how is this person chosen? That it comes down to status. “The question is: how does a group define status and express it?”

It seems like there’s a gender split, where one person being roasted more than any other is primarily associated with male friendship groups. I know from personal experience that groups of gay men can lean into it just as strongly as the straight “lads, lads, lads!!” we often judge from afar.

But why? Although there are notable exceptions (like Ross from Friends), there’s not a clear consensus on why it’s a stereotype of male groups. Some sociologists theorize that hierarchies are gendered. It’s been argued that men accept group hierarchies more easily, even if they’re not the “alpha male”, while studies have also suggested that women take longer to form hierarchies and are less comfortable in hierarchical structures. So the group’s “punchline” might take longer to be chosen in female friendship groups and change from person to person more often.

MacRae thinks there are clearer differences in how groups of men and women enforce hierarchies. “Status is policed in different ways,” he says. “Women tend to use relational aggression a lot more, so perhaps for men using humour in that type of constant targeted way, towards one person, as a way of policing the status of the group.”

Dan, 30, from Edinburgh, tells GQ that he has been the butt of most jokes in some groups, but not every group he’s a member of. It’s possible to be the person who gets continually “roasted” in one group, he says, but then roast someone else continually in another. We see this dynamic Succession, where Tom mocks Greg or junior employees constantly, but then becomes an easy target himself when he’s with the wider Roy clan.

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