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'Yo Mama' Still Draws Laughs, Wrath

You want to spark a fella’s fury fast? Go after his mama. Young or old, nothing roils a guy’s ire like snarky jabs at Dear Old Mom. Miami Heat forward LeBron James demonstrated this during a recent match against the Pistons in Detroit.

It was late in the first quarter when a Pistons fan shouted, “LeBron, is your mom going to Boston for Valentine’s Day?” James paused on the sidelines and looked as if he might ignore it — as he does most of the smack-talk he hears on the road — but then spun around and got in the heckler’s face.

“I don’t give a [bleep] what you say,” James told the rude dude. “But don’t be disrespectful.”

But then, disrespect is sort of the point, isn’t it? Infantile but effective, matriarchal mockery has been tweaking tempers for generations. “Yo mama” invectives have their roots in slavery, when African-Americans exchanged the swipes as verbal sport, or good-natured battles of social one-upmanship.

Funny that after all these years, such low-brow put-downs can still whip up powerful emotions. Are we genetically programmed to chafe at mommy slander?

My son says “yo mama” jokes are circulating, and inciting predictable outrage, at his junior high, thanks to popular iPhone apps that generate the digs at random:

Yo mama so dumb, it took her two hours to watch 60 Minutes.

Yo mama so fat, she’s on both sides of the family.

Yo mama so ugly, she made an onion cry.

“‘Yo mama’ jokes definitely belong to the just-post-pubescent period of our lives. This is the first time we really begin distancing ourselves from our parents in a meaningful way,” says my friend Mott Smith, who studies vernaculars and confesses to still relishing a good “yo mama” quip despite being post-post-post-pubescent. “‘Yo mama’ jokes require us to view mothers in general — a population that had always been implicitly beyond reproach — as ugly, stupid, fat, promiscuous, etc. When we laugh at a really good ‘yo mama’ joke, it signals our allegiance to our friends, and it means that, however we may act at home, and for that moment at least, we aren’t mama’s boys anymore.”

Which makes this mama kind of sad. Now that I’m a mom, in fact, I find the ridicule rough. (“Your friends said what about me?!” I recently asked my snickering son. “That is not only rude but inaccurate. I am not nearly that stupid.”) But I have to admit that the crass cracks can be wickedly funny — even artful. After all, there’s comedic freedom in crossing etiquette lines and just plowing flagrantly forward.

My friend Kendra Wise, whose name says almost all you need to know about her, chortles every time she hears the classic, if dated, “Yo mama so fat that when her pager goes off, people think she’s backing up.”

She deconstructs the funny: “It’s a little unexpected,” she says. “I mean, why is this very large woman wearing a pager? What does she do that is so important that she has to get the message right away?”

And what it lacks in decorum, it makes up for in wit. “Calling someone’s mama fat is asking for it,” Kendra concedes. “But creating a metaphor in which she is a large vehicle, complete with audio effects, is clever. We like clever, even when it is insulting.”

I suppose if such centuries-old derision still holds the power to both enrage and amuse us, we moms ought to be flattered. It means we’re sacred — or at least once were.

These cracks may be cheap and stupid, but sometimes they’re good for a laugh.

Just like yo mama.

Published inColumnsParenting

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