Why is Dumb Funny?

Somehow or other, I came across a news story this weekend about a coffee shop that had opened up in Los Angeles called “Dumb Starbucks.”  I cringed.


What the fuck is this?  I thought.  Is Starbucks behind this?  Is someone else?  What does it mean?  What’s the point?

As it turns out, it’s a parody of the real Starbucks chain, and comedian Nathan Fielder is behind it.  The point of it, apparently, besides publicity, is to make fun of Starbucks.  By calling it “dumb.”



You know, I really don’t want to be a cranky pain in the ass, constantly on the lookout for a hint of offensive.  I’m a fan of humor, of parody, of irreverence.  A HUGE fan!  Sarcasm is my second language.  But I don’t understand why it is still okay to use intelligence as a means to value people and things.

Intelligence seems to be the be-all end-all, the mother of all attributes.  Everyone wants to be a genius, or wants their kids to be geniuses.  Well, guess what?  The vast majority of us are not geniuses – and even those of us who may be very, very intelligent are unlikely to do really great things with that super intellect.  Most of us, regardless of our IQs, will live pretty average, unremarkable lives.   That is not to say meaningless lives – we each give our own lives meaning – but in the end, I don’t think intelligence has very much at all to do with how meaningful or fulfilling our lives are.

Even within the Down syndrome parenting community, there are many, many parents who reject the notion that their intellectually disabled child is not smart.  We build up our kids’ intelligence because, apparently, while we can deal with heart defects and celiac disease and leukemia, we cannot deal with low intellect.  A memoir I recently read by a young man with autism mentioned that people often assumed he was “retarded” because of his having autism, but, he insisted, he is not “retarded.”  Even within the disability community, being not smart seems to be the very worst trait a person can have.

I’ve written endlessly about the use of “retard” and “retarded” as slurs.  The truth is, though, that “retard” and “retarded” are only the most crude and obnoxious ways we insult and value people based upon their intellect.  Calling people and things “dumb,” “stupid,” “idiotic,” and “moronic” are similar reflections of how we view intellect and intelligence, and how we value people based on those things.

I doubt Nathan Fielder was thinking specifically of Down syndrome or any intellectual disability when he undertook this project – and yet, it does reflect a certain attitude that smart = good/superior, and not smart = bad/inferior.   After all, he didn’t call it “Smart Starbucks.”  What would be funny about that?

Imagine if he had decided to call his parody store “Fat Starbucks,” or “Gay Starbucks,” or “Poor Starbucks”?  Would that be as funny as “Dumb Starbucks”?



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25 Responses to Why is Dumb Funny?

  1. Deborah Mitchell February 11, 2014 at 3:25 am #

    I agree that this was a lazy attempt at humor. I think most folks just don’t give it much thought (that’s why you should set them straight). Words like dumb and stupid are also used to control and manipulate people….

  2. Debbie February 11, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now and this is the first time I’ve commented. On a general note; I love your perspective on things and absolutely love your no-hold-barred writing style. It’s real, it’s refreshing and it’s always spot on. Regarding this post…..amen. I can’t even add anything more because you said it all and said it so well. I agree with you 100% and have never seen it explained so well. You rock.

    • Lisa February 11, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

      Well, thank you, Debbie 🙂

  3. jisun February 11, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    Amen. I’m so glad you wrote this, I’ve had such similar things in my head lately. I feel like until we can have an honest conversation about our obsession with the idea of intelligence, then we will be righting about the word regard forever. It is the attitude that the word represents.

    • Lisa February 11, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

      “an honest conversation about our obsession with the idea of intelligence” – yes. Why are we so obsessed with intelligence? I have a theory. I might write about it.

      • jisun February 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

        Oy. Autocorrect. Not righting. Fighting about the word retard forever, is what I meant!

        I want to know your theory! Definitely, please write about it. 🙂

        • Lisa February 11, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

          Well, it’s nothing profound, but I think what it all boils down to is our fear of dependence.

          • jisun February 12, 2014 at 12:05 am #

            I’ve thought of the dependence angle, but can’t totally square it. Maybe because I grew up in a culture that was pretty comfortable with dependence, yet was obsessed with intelligence and achievement even more than what I saw in America. Makes me want to look back… were we always like this? Is it a more modern phenomenon?

          • Lisa February 12, 2014 at 4:59 am #

            Hmmm, that’s interesting . . . Will ponder further.

  4. Beth February 11, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

    I don’t know why dumb is funny, though I always make the distinction in my own mind about different kinds of intelligences. In “Praying with Lior” a documentary about a boy who has Down syndrome preparing for his bar mitzvah, his father makes the observation that “Lior is retarded (his word), but he’s not stupid”, which kind of oddly made sense to me.
    There’s “dumb”–ala Dumb and Dumber that does seem to be funny to people. And then there are people who do not have a high aptitude to learn in a strictly academic sense but who are by no means dumb.
    I live with one such boy who may never have much success at school, but he understands so many things. I never, never think of him as dumb.

    • Lisa February 11, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      You know, it’s funny that you mention “Dumb and Dumber” because that very movie crossed my mind as I was writing this post. I thought that movie was hilarious, and I probably still would. Maybe because the two guys portrayed in the movie are more “goofy”? I don’t know. I may be a hypocrite – that’s also a possibility.

  5. Kate February 11, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

    I appreciate your words of wisdom on this top. The word dumb is throw around so often. People may provide an explanation that “they didn’t mean it” but the people–so many people speak before thinking. We all should be more cognizant of what words mean to others. I appreciate your honest in this post.

  6. myblackfriendsays February 12, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    You make an excellent point. I think even people who consider themselves extremely progressive/compassionate/open-minded use these terms as a way to insult/things people without giving it a second thought.

    I think the most accurate negative comment someone can make about something is, “I don’t like that.” Everything else is just an opinion or value judgment. But I guess saying, “I don’t like Starbucks” isn’t really that exciting.

    • Lisa February 12, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

      Yeah, I guess it’s not ;/

  7. Extranjera February 12, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

    This is sort of what I was trying to get at with my recent post http://utterlyunpublishedauthorsdaughter.blogspot.com/2013/12/her-place-in-struggle.html

    Since I haven’t felt at home in the Ds parenting community (to put it politely, for a change 😀 ) I’ve really tried to get more into the Neurodiversity movement. On the surface it really does look good, so much more progressive than what I initially encountered. So inclusive and accepting. And yet, every once in a while there’s a caveat, a we-can-be-brilliant-you-know, we *can* contribute, and I get lost.

    I’m glad you’re thinking about this too.

    • Lisa February 12, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

      Oh, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. And for what it’s worth, I’ve always felt like something of a misfit in the Ds parenting community.

      Off to read your post . . .

  8. modernmessy February 13, 2014 at 3:42 am #

    A great discussion; I too have cringed over comments about a child with a disability not being “retarded,” like geez, c’mon, he may have his troubles but at least he’s not that. I’ve even had it said to me by a friend about her autistic son, knowing full well that my son is considered, from a medical standpoint, retarded.

    Of course though, I, like the commenter above, have never and would never consider my son dumb. In fact, in my opinion there isn’t a person in the world who should ever be called dumb. People learn differently, experience the world differently, and interact with the world differently, disability or not. Everyone learns how to navigate their own world pret

    I think maybe we value the wrong kind of intelligence in our society — the kind that shows up on tests and papers only. Why is it that we as a culture are so darn terrified of a Down syndrome diagnosis? You know, us, the same people who are misspelling our inane Facebook status updates and spilling bad coffee on ourselves while we watch cat videos at work.

    I’m curious when you talk about parents in the Ds community building up their children’s intelligence because they can’t deal with low intellect. I think there is a ring of truth there, and for myself, I really pushed some interventions when our son was younger that I have stepped away from in recent years. Early on I might have wanted to make sure no stone was unturned, but now I just want to do activities that he enjoys and that help satisfy his great sensory needs. But is it wrong for parents to want to find what works for their child’s unique learning style so they can absorb as much as possible, unlike in the past, when it was assumed children with Ds couldn’t learn? My son is a twin and he always wants to do and learn exactly the same things as his neurotypical twin because he sees her doing it, not because I say that he should.

    As for people being afraid of dependence, I’d agree with that too, because maybe I’m one of them a little. But is it wrong to strive for independence for a child? If our son ends up being dependent on us or another caregiver, so be it. (He, or any of the maniacs I’m raising, are welcome to live with us as adults, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to cook and clean for them if they are capable of doing it!!! And the will also pay rent if they’re able.) In the meantime though, I would like to teach him all the same things I”m teaching my other kids that will help them function in the outside world independently — and hopefully be of service to others in some capacity. He enjoys learning these things and always wants to do things himself and help around the house. So strive for independence, but accept dependence if that’s how it turns out. Is that something that you feel is wrongheaded?

    Thank you for letting me ramble, and I do apologize, but I guess this post struck a chord. Lastly,
    I will say that valuing intelligence is at least valuing something that is internal rather than superficial like appearance, popularity, money, status. Growing up, I knew my smarts would be the only ticket out of my house and my town, which I wanted desperately. I was unattractive, painfully shy, had no athletic talent and our family did not have money. The only things I had were internal — character and the ability to do well in school. I must have been a blast at parties, right?

    • Lisa February 13, 2014 at 5:46 am #

      I appreciate your comment – no need to apologize!

      I do value intelligence, and no, I don’t think it’s wrong to value intelligence. I guess what I see as wrong is valuing (or devaluing) people based on intelligence, or perceived intelligence, and valuing intelligence above other things, like character and contentment. I wrote more about that here: http://www.lisamorguess.com/2013/07/03/average-is-a-dirty-word/

      I want my kids to be independent, too – but I guess, although we strive to enable Finn to be as independent as possible, I expect that he will be dependent to some degree as an adult. But I don’t want that to diminish his value as a human being to anyone. The reality is, however, that it does diminish his value as a person in our society.

  9. modernmessy February 13, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    Ooops! Typo in post above. “Navigate their own world pretty well.” Thanks, and sorry.

  10. modernmessy February 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    Thank you for clarifying. I read that other post, it’s really thorough and interesting. Left a comment there.

    • Lisa February 13, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

      I saw it; thank you!

  11. New journeys February 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Why does dependence diminish value? Perceived value perhaps but we are all dependent on each other and especially say our spouses — we don’t say that diminishes our value? How dependent are famous & popular or determined scientists let’s say? People focused on one area of their skills DO rely on others to finish less “important” or unique aspects of their lives (buying take out more if you detest cooking/trader joes prepared food). Does everyone who buys take out become less valued? Maybe but not because they can’t cook but because society judges their eating choices.

    I’m not making sense but most geriatric aged advanced aged people are dependent on others in some way. Many cultures place extra value on this experience and wisdom. Because we don’t is our own cultures bias against AGAIN dependence (although we are ALL dependent!!) and intelligence and say mobility??

    Finns diminished value is perceived. Not real. His value to you in your home will likely be increased once you if needed arrange for help if he needs it so you can do other activities without him. With six siblings odds are this will unlikely be a huge issue for you. Meanwhile he will be a companion & help & comfort to your family like his other siblings but perhaps with less or different burdens & drama of the trappings of material & societal pressures…

  12. Alisha May 5, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    I’m sure I’ll hear all the back-lash on my opinion but I suppose I’ll preface by saying I agree nobody should say hurtful things to others or belittle them and make them inferior. It’s just the unwritten moral code of conduct of how u should treat people.

    Now! With that said, I completely feel people today are so hypersensitive over so many (too many things). Everybody is so worried about hurting other classes of people today that instead of race, color, creed, gender, age, religion, we are going to and so on we are going to start having class sub categories of who we have to worry about “oops, shit, I didn’t even realize they were a protected class!!!” Now all the sue-happy people are gonna sue because somebody was offended for being called a homosexual instead of a transgender make who identifies himself as a female. Ugh!!! Seriously?
    This is why kids today are unable to deal!
    “Oh Johnny was called retarded today at school and now I have to take him to the psychiatrist and get him on some psych drugs for depression and anxiety so he can confront going to school”. In my generation, u dealt with it or u shrugged it off. And we all survived just fine!
    We are not doing our children any favors by numbing them down with anti-depressants or anti-anxieties and allowing them to play sports where no team wins – they both win because boo-hoo a child might have there feelings hurt! Good, it teaches them that not everything is handed to u in life and that to win or be a winner or be successful u need to work hard, practice, be a team player.
    Oh geez, this country is gonna go to hell in a hand-basket when the kids today have the leash hold in 25 years if we keep coddling them.

    • Lisa May 5, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

      I agree with you to a point. I agree that generally, we are raising a coddled generation that expects accolades for every silly accomplishment, and who can’t do much without a lot of hand-holding. However, I think you vastly overstate things, too. I’m not aware of anyone ending up in therapy or on medication from being called “retarded.” Being continually bullied? Yes, but that’s different. And I also don’t think anyone sues over being mistakenly called “gay” instead of “transgender.”

      As far as not being mindful of how our words affect other people, and chalking it up to “oversensitivity” on the part of those hurt or offended – frankly, that’s just lazy.


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