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Comedy Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry… Right?

There it is. It’s been long enough for even those interested in comedy to forget, but a comedian said something controversial and offensive that begged for an apology from some special interest/rights group. The debate has long been fought as to what comedians can and can’t say, blurring the lines between what’s offensive, outright hate speech, etc., and will unfortunately continue because it is part of comedy to point out inconsistencies in things, which may be things that people may strongly identify with.

As I’ve personally written here before in regards to this matter, I take the side of comedy in regards to what was said as long as it was intended in a spirit of being funny as opposed to saying something shocking just to illicit a reaction. Recently, Doug Stanhope, surprisingly, didn’t generate any controversy for a recent video in which he supports PETA — see it above — that opens with a declaration of happiness over the death of the Sea World trainer attacked by a killer whale. Whatever shocking or graphic description and language he fills his act with, there’s something validly funny about that material. That’s why most special interest groups that get their Internet pitchforks out against him are being ludicrous.

The most high profile apology for comedy in the recent moment is that of Jason Alexander for highlighting the supposed gay aspects of the sport, cricket, on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. (It’s in the above video at the 8:57 mark) Seemingly offhand, Alexander mentioned cricket after talking about poker, then went on to give his opinion, complete with act out, on exactly why cricket is gay. It got laughs from the audience, but it obviously made more than a few people cringe as Alexander posted an eloquent apology online,

“…For these people,” Alexander wrote, “my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday. It is at the very heart of this whole ugly world of bullying that has been getting rightful and overdue attention in the media. And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments.”

Compared to Tracy Morgan’s homophobic meltdown at a comedy club, Alexander’s joke is incredibly tame, but, of course, that doesn’t satisfy either side of this debate. They’re both technically offensive. As a result, the word “offensive” has been stuck on anything that causes the slightest of groans, and it can be argued that we’re going backwards in terms of what can be talked about in comedy.

Andy Samberg’s cannibalism PSA on Jimmy Kimmel Live got quite the livid reaction from Laughspin, which claimed that it wasn’t funny and used an incredibly sensitive topic, made especially sensitive for all the news surrounding the man eating another man’s face, just to jolt people into laughs. If it only were as easy as calling out any comedy bit that exploits the sensitive nature of any such topic for a reaction rather than doing so because they found something legitimately funny and consequently not being funny, we wouldn’t have massive media storms, or have people say “…set Twitter afire,” on a regular basis.

Since we are not androids, such a simplistic process for deciding what to laugh or not laugh at or even deem what to make an attempt to laugh or not laugh at is impossible. The Hollywood Reporter felt it necessary to write an entire article about Don Rickles’ joke about President Obama being a janitor at a recent tribute event to Shirley Maclaine, despite Rickles’ entire act being based on insulting people. Not to mention that what he said was funnier, I think, than Alexander’s joke or Samberg’s PSA. He didn’t walk the room, and in fact got plenty of big laughs, like he usually does. Rickles is a perfect example of a comedian saying things that skirt the label of being offensive for the sake of being funny. He never tries to shock. Mr. Warmth only wants to make people laugh, much of the reason why he is still insulting audiences well into his late eighties.

The line past which comedians go too far is vastly different for every one. Who am I to say that Jason Alexander shouldn’t have had to apologize? I’m not a homosexual, though I’ve been called one several times in much more denigrating terms. Yet that experience shouldn’t validate my opinion over others, either. I can only conclude that there is no absolute line in an incredibly subjective art form. Even the beloved sketch group The Midnight Show, currently on tour with Drew Carey, is currently being protested by the Westboro Baptist Church for associating with Carey, “a proud fag supporter.”

But the burden here rests upon the shoulders of the comedians themselves. There does not so much need for curbing material for a specific room, as Patrice O’Neal proved that you can make people laugh that completely disagree with or even hate you.

Ask yourself why do you think what you’re saying about black people/AIDS/9-11/cannibalism/etc. is so funny? Ask yourself, do you even really think that thing is so funny? Do you just want to say something “fucked up”? The compulsion to “say some fucked up shit” is one that needs to be overcome, because just saying something that’s fucked up does not make it funny.

It’s just fucked up.

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21 comments

  • I think this thread has some great discussion points.

    @Caraz
    “It’s in the case where that same comedian is in a situation where they have less control over the audience that I think it’s reasonable for them to show consideration.
    The first case is like having a spider zoo, where people who like spiders can go to enjoy looking at them, and the second is like some asshole running around shoving a tarantula in peoples faces. Okay that analogy may not have worked 100% but you get the idea.”

    But this only works if people remove themselves from content they don’t agree with. Most of the time when a comic does a controversial joke, the people who are extremely offended will walk out. Good. That’s their right. Unfortunately, some people will take it one step further and try to punish the person for saying something they didn’t like. They try to make the person apologize for what was said, and if they don’t then they boycott that person. To use your analogy, that’s like somebody running a spider zoo and then somebody goes to that spider zoo, is disgusted, leaves, and then demands the spider zoo owner to apologize to her for her experience at the spider zoo. And then when the owner refuses, the disgruntled person protests in front of the zoo and tries to get it shut down. Despite the fact that many other people want to go in.

    I dislike watering down content in order to protect a few peoples’ sensibilities. We each deserve the right to choose what we listen to and we do not get the right to make that choice for other people. It would be great to say “Hey don’t go to the spider zoo if you don’t like spiders.” But people will still f-ing go! It’s impractical to say that would work because it doesn’t already… see: Tracy Morgan, Doug Stanhope, and Don Rickles. Nearly all of them warn their audiences beforehand but controversy still occurs!

  • Oh man, the points brought up in this great multi-media piece and comment thread are way to smart for me to add anything here. Just wanted to say that Pete’s Holmes’ most recent episode of YMIW with Ron Funches has a great discussion about this very issue. They basically get right into it too within the first few minutes (at, about, the 5:30 mark). So, you know, I’m not being a dick by not giving you the exact time for that discussion. 5:31? Something like that.

    Anywho, thanks for the great read!

  • I say fucked-up shit onstage. And ffind that I can ” get away” with just about anything I want onstage as long as I don’t try to pull the audience along w/me.
    People are pretty comfortable listening to & laughing at an inhuman monster who is speaking only his monstrous thoughts. But they get uncomfortable when that monster tries to openly implicate them by implying they share those thoughts ie “who’s with me, right?”

  • I don’t understand why I have to sit and listen to Religious radicals scream at the top of their lungs how gay people are going to hell and black people are all criminals and how everyone in the world is evil except for them, but ostracizing stand-up comedians for ANY sort of material is completely fine. Either we all have freedom of speech, or none of us do. If you dont like what someone is saying, dont listen to them, but freaking out at someone who’s entire job is to speak is just asinine.

  • A few of the comments here are completely of the wall and at the very least laughable. PTSD reaction due to a rape joke? So what other jokes might trigger an audience member? My Dad used to beat me with a large leather belt when I fucked up, so comedians should wear elastic waist pants so they won’t offend me and remind me of those horrible incidents. I’m also Black, so no jokes about us,hip-hop, slavery, etc. I also went to USC, so no jokes about rich people, South Central, or OJ. I hate people that try to isolate one person’s plight and make everyone cater to them, especially using ridiculous samples such as Cazaz did. Anyone that is so easily offended easily and worried about being PC is probably not all that funny themselves. Support comedians you like and avoid the ones you don’t instead of trying to be comedy cops and whining.

  • @Caraz I agree to an extent. A comedian should realize when he crossed a line and be able to pull back. But i think needing to issue ‘comedy retractions’ and apologizing is going a bit far.

    But that just goes back to my point i made in my first post. It really boils down to comedians trying things they don’t really have the chops for. Either that or, just saying things for the shock value. But there is even a place for “shock value” style comedy. It just gets worn thin when overused. It seems a lot of comedians rely too much on one gimmick, and when your gimmick is “saying things for the hell of it” it blows up fast.

  • @Bryan Sorry, didn’t mean to sound like I was accusing you of being racist or something, I just meant in general in my IRL interactions over the years with people who made a point of going on about how much they hated PC.

    I think comedians are partly there to push cultural boundaries and mess about in dark, troublesome areas. That’s an important social role. But they also shouldn’t be surprised to upset people as a result, or expect a total free pass for stuff they say

  • Of course you should know your audience, but humour is an extremely fickle thing. One man’s best joke of all time is another’s most heinous.

    It’s just so subjective.

    Something Danes have to learn the hard way. Because we are a pretty homogenized society, but small and open, we think we know other cultures, but we really don’t and we have cultivated a sense of humour that is very ironic, but mostly sarcastic in an almost caustic way.

    Immigrants find this type of humour very difficult to understand in the workplaces an can become very offended, but danes think it’s just for laughs.

    Lars von Trier discovered this at Cannes last year. Almost all danes understood the humour behind his “controversial” nazi comments, but noone else did.

  • @ColonelForbin Just for the record I’m perfectly fine with a comedian telling whatever jokes they like at gig where the audience has paid to see them under the assumption that the audience knows what to expect from them.

    It’s in the case where that same comedian is in a situation where they have less control over the audience that I think it’s reasonable for them to show consideration.

    The first case is like having a spider zoo, where people who like spiders can go to enjoy looking at them, and the second is like some asshole running around shoving a tarantula in peoples faces. Okay that analogy may not have worked 100% but you get the idea.

  • Caraz, while your point about PTSD is a valid one, it is a slippery slope. Using the logic that a comedian should watch what they say because of someone else’s experiences is completely asinine. Follow that logic and we should be tailoring the way we act to fit every single person that has a fear. I know PTSD is a lot more than ‘fear’ but i know people that are so arachnophobic they get are paralyzed by fear if they see the smallest, most harmless spider. Or what about the people that are so afraid of dogs they cry when they see one. Even the cutest, harmless, little korgi will send them crying and running the other direction. People with severe trauma like that have to take care of themselves. They shouldn’t hold their trauma over us like a guillotine and threaten to cut our heads off because someone dares to make a joke “about” rape.

  • @Liam

    “In my experience, the people who moan about political correctness are often the ones who are just angry that it’s not seen as being socially acceptable to be bigoted any more”

    I assume this was directed towards me since I was the one who brought it up, but I think I expressed myself well enough to not be seen as someone who is “just angry that it’s not seen as being socially acceptable to be bigoted any more”. If it wasn’t clear, I don’t think it’s cool for people to make intentionally hateful comments towards ANYONE. I do however think that the PC Police (see comments above by bastien for great examples!) need to realize that while they do have the right to disagree, and express that disagreement however they wish, be it a blog, a petition, a protest, they never have the right to tell someone what they can’t say.

    @Caraz

    “And whilst you may have free speech to say whatever you like… people also have the free speech to call you out over the hateful stuff. Free speech is not freedom from criticism and it’s not freedom from responsibility.”

    I totally agree! People absolutely have the right to respond and criticize just as much as anyone has the freedom to make a statement or express themselves in the first place. I will never defend intentional hate speech. I will however always defend the fact that people have the right to express their opinions, even if they are awful.

  • I’d just like to raise the point that it’s not just about ‘offense’. A joke about rape can genuinely trigger a a PTSD attack in a rape survivor. I’ve known people that have been triggered about their rape who were unable to leave the house for a week afterward. Recognise that what you see as an edgy joke and ‘dark humor’ can actually do real damage, and I don’t think you really want to be responsible for that. The same goes for jokes that target and mock minorities in a way that mimics actual abuse and slurs.

    But beyond that context is key. There is a difference between a racist joke and a joke about race. And whilst you may have free speech to say whatever you like… people also have the free speech to call you out over the hateful stuff. Free speech is not freedom from criticism and it’s not freedom from responsibility.

  • Comedy only exists because of context. So for people to claim that a joke is just a joke, as if it can be taken out of the context of who’s saying and how, is pretty disingenuous

    I don’t think people should be told what they can and can’t say. But I also think if someone chooses to say something shitty, they shouldn’t whine about other people calling them on it

    In my experience, the people who moan about political correctness are often the ones who are just angry that it’s not seen as being socially acceptable to be bigoted any more

  • Why is this controversial, the assholes at seaworld do horrible things to whales and dolphins for one thing there lifespan is cut by a third. Not that PETA is any better.

  • Wow, bastien, you must live a very sad life. The way you deal with something is by laughing at it. Making a joke about something IS NOT the same thing as making a joke of something. If that were true, there would be no jokes. If laughing at a joke is the same as laughing at the subject of the joke, it would be impossible to make any jokes. You’re saying that you’re against the ENTIRE CONCEPT OF HUMOR. Please, tell me a joke that doesn’t joke about something. Why the fuck are you even on the Nerdist site if you hate humor?

    We can joke about rape, or serial killers, or genocide, or dead babies, or abortion. Joking is not only a way to socialize, it’s a way of reasoning and coming to terms with things. Saying that ANYTHING is off-limits for jokes is saying that we can never possibly be able to cope with that thing, that we can never move on or learn to deal with it.

  • @Scott S

    No one should give a fuck what is an isn’t “normal” and should just be respectful just cause that’s the bare minimum of being a decent human being. People shouldn’t make fun of entire groups of down-trodden people, not because those people are different, but because to do so makes you A FUCKING ASSHOLE.

    They’re not asking for some big damn consolation prize. They’re just asking for the same rights and respect you would give to the person who looks like you. It’s really not a difficult concept. It doesn’t matter if you know what POC or LGBTQ means. All you need to know is that if you are not one of them, then you should shut the fuck up and stop making into a joke.

  • Its pretty fair to say what Jason Alexander said was fine, and what Tracy Morgan said wasn’t fine. I cant make a contextual statement about Doug Stanhope’s comments, because im not a huge fan of his. But chastising a comedian for anything said on a stage is pretty crazy in my opinion. There are lines, but even then, how many comedians have tried a new joke bombs? Or has taken something too far?

    They have talked about it so many times on Nerdist, when you enter a comedy club or a comedy show, you are entering a different world, where it IS okay to laugh about things you normally wouldnt laugh about. You are entering that performers world. If you think that just because you laugh at something in a comedy club, means you shouldn’t take it seriously in the outside world, you probably shouldn’t be going to a show.

    “You’re not just laughing at a joke, you’re laughing at every one of those people who have ever had to deal with those hardships. You’re telling the world that their plight should be ignored and made fun of. You’re taking something very real and turning it into a bit.”

    You are SO wrong here. You are looking at it the exact opposite way. YOU ARE laughing at the Joke. If a comedian is worth his salt, he isn’t making you laugh at the subject, but the crazy out of the world situation or premise surrounding the subject.

    Take a Louis CK bit, i dont remember it verbatim but its something along the lines of “You know..i dont agree with rape…but…if you wanna fuck someone..and they dont want you to, what other option do you have?” obviously it isnt funny texually, you need Louis’ cadence and style. But when you laugh at that joke YOU ARENT laughing at rape, you are laughing at how obviously ridiculous and fucked up the premise is, that Louis could possibly think that its how ‘normal’ human beings act. It also mocks people who frame their obviously terrible statements with “You know i dont hate gay people but…” or “you know im not racist but..”.

    Maybe the real jist is that shitty comedians shouldn’t be allowed to go near touchy subjects, but thats not fair at all, is it?

  • What is POC? What’s the Q in LGBTQ? People who are in groups that require all these special names and acronyms have to be considered outside of the norm, just by being in these special groups, and people who aren’t in any groups naturally find some things that aren’t normal to be funny. People may not be able choose if they’re gay or a minority, but telling everyone else to believe that they’re just like the majority is avoiding reality. It’s much easier to be normal, but if you want to be yourself you’re going to be looked at differently, because you aren’t part of the normal crowd. Complaining that you should be accepted for being different, then not allowing people to talk about how you are different makes you look like more of an outsider, not a normal person. What’s normal may grow to include more people as more variety mixes in with society, but right now special groups have quirks that most people don’t have, and that lends some humor to them.

  • What happens when you take a serious topic and make a joke about it is that you’re telling everyone listening that it’s OK to laugh at the serious topic, and thus telling them that they don’t have to take it seriously.

    When that serious topic is racism, LGBTQ rights, rape, etc, you’re telling people that the everyday pain and suffering that POC, LGBTQ, and rape victims go through is OK to laugh at. You’re not just laughing at a joke, you’re laughing at every one of those people who have ever had to deal with those hardships. You’re telling the world that their plight should be ignored and made fun of. You’re taking something very real and turning it into a bit.

    There is no such thing as completely free speech. Not even in the context of comedy, music, film, et al. The things you say, the things you joke about, have very real and very lasting effects. It doesn’t matter if you meant it. It only matters that you said it, and simply by saying it you’re excusing the people who really do mean it.

  • I’m all for free speech, but “political correctness is the heart of fascism” seems a bit silly. I think eugenics and totalitarian nationalism are probably more at the heart of fascism, but I guess being considerate in the way you phrase things could be shitty too.

    I’m no fan of censorship, but apologizing for hurting people is what I think of as being a decent person, not fascism.

  • Political Correctness is the very heart of fascism. For me this breaks down pretty simply.

    We all have the right to freedom of speech. No one has the right to never be offended. Everyone is never going to like every joke, or sketch, or bit. Pretty much everything could be offensive to someone.

    That being said I think it’s usually pretty clear when something is said in jest and when something is said with real hate. If instead of freaking out and writing blogs and articles and reposting them all over the meme-o-sphere and demanding apologies people would just roll their eyes and ignore whatever they consider bad/tasteless/offensive these people and these comments would fade away much quicker. Some people are just douchebags. Some good people make bad jokes sometimes. The culture of political correctness crucifies both under a spotlight and gives negative connotations their power.