Stand-up comedian Konstantin Kisin was recently expected to sign a contract promising to steer clear of a list of potentially “offensive” topics before playing a UK university gig. Meanwhile US comedian and Saturday Night Live writer Nimesh Patel was apparently “forced off stage” during a show at Columbia University for making “offensive” jokes.
Judging by the reactions, these incidents appear to be examples of comedians that are deemed too controversial for an audience of overly sensitive, “politically correct”, “snowflakes”.
From Lenny Bruce and Michael Richards in the US, to Julian Clary and Frankie Boyle in the UK, comedians have often been accused of going too far. But a comedian’s overarching intention is to amuse, not to offend. Some may intend to shock – but apart, perhaps, for an example such as Stewart Lee’s attack on Richard Hammond, it is hard to think of many mainstream instances these days where comedians deliberately set out to wound an individual with their words. No comedian has ever prospered by alienating their potential audience and, in general, the evidence suggests that few comedians seem to relish being accused of offence.
The fact is that truly offensive humour is seldom actually funny – and comedians are savvy enough to realise that unfunny acts with limited audience appeal get fewer bookings. Giving offence also invariably becomes a matter for repentance. Take, for example, US comedian Kathy Griffin’s apology over her Donald Trump/severed head controversy.
Playing the joker
They may just be being disingenuous, but when called out for being offensive, comedians tend to produce their “I was only joking” card – and this isn’t entirely unreasonable. The rules of the professional joker’s engagement are unambiguous and any taking of offence that is linked to a live comedy platform is misguided. Of course, material such as baldly racist or misogynistic “jokes” is understandably going to prove problematic for most audiences.
But it’s important to think about the comedian’s intent – there is, after all, some gap between a poorly judged gag and the making of deliberately derogatory statement masquerading as a humorous remark. This might explain the enforced premature retirement of acts such as that of the controversial British comedian “Dapper Laughs” whose attempts to joke about rape led to his ITV series being axed.
Consider the context of the discourse: there is an audience and a stage on which a joker is expected to tell jokes. The audience should always be equally aware of this. Punters expect to hear comedians tell jokes – not state truths. Even if they may be often be based on real experiences, jokes are merely fictions and jokers are usually only trying to make their public laugh.
Due to its subjectivity, comedy is far too ephemeral and open to multiple interpretations for it to function as a vehicle for causing offence as, by its very nature, it traditionally (and paradoxically) confirms and subverts. When we laugh at the comedian’s self-deprecating comment about their body, love life or general failures as a human being, to what extent are we actually laughing at them or with them?
Funny is as funny does
The Old Comedy of physicality, for example, draws from excess and carnival but – like the licensed fool of the medieval court, it undermines hegemony only ever within permitted parameters. Underneath its veneer of inclusion and celebration it defaults to the cruel mockery of stereotypes. Body shape, race, colour, creed and sexuality are all caricatured as difference and “othernesses” are lined up like sitting ducks to be laughed at. The comic servants of the Commedia delle'arte mock the other characters through racist, sexist and misogynistic jibes and actions.
The New Comedy of stand up, meanwhile, is verbal, cynical, smart and cerebral. But it also relies on superiority in identifying a target as the butt of the joke. Sometimes this is the comedians themselves. But, as a vehicle for expressing a viewpoint, comedy relies too much on fakery and fiction to ever be truly contentious. For that reason, too, it is unrealistic to expect any comedian’s words to be particularly fertile ground for “real-world” ideas.
When all is said and done, I don’t think comedy has the power to change people’s thinking for the worse. If we laugh at a joke we realise to be offensive, our laughter does not necessarily affect our opinion or feelings about the subject in any way. Nor does it fundamentally change us. This is possibly one reason why, as Sigmund Freud describes it: “Feeling ashamed over what one has been able to laugh at in a play.”
Moving with the times
That said, comedians and their discourse must always change with the mores of the time. The context of #MeToo, for instance, has changed everything about supposedly comic attitudes to men lusting after women. Moving with the times simply forces comedians to be cleverer and less lazy with their material. Sometimes the old ones aren’t the best.
But designated forums for comic commentary should not be seen as platforms for taking offence and nobody should go to listen to comedians speak if they cannot accept that there will be jokes – some of which they may not find funny. In any case, alternative forums for non-ironic commentary exist. The internet and social media provide arenas where, unlike the speaker in a comedy venue, jokes are often not clearly signalled. Offence can more legitimately be taken when and if applicable.
Increasingly, this is where comedians are more often actually coming a cropper in the offence stakes – it’s more difficult to signal – and to detect – their intent. As a result, Twitter storms can blow up, such as that experienced by the Australian comedian Becky Lucas after her online remark about beheading the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, that led to her being banned from Twitter.
Otherwise, offence related to comedy is irrelevant. Whatever you may think about the role of comedians using humour to make people think differently about serious issues, the bottom line is that comedians are there to make you laugh – not to be taken seriously.