Last week, the New York Times posted an interview with Chris Rock on comedy in which he explained that with all the Internet policing that’s happening, “The sad thing, with all this taping and stuff, no one’s going to do stand-up. And every big stand-up I talk to says: ‘How do I work out new material? Where can you go, if I have a half an idea and then it’s on the Internet next week?’ Just look at some of my material.”
Before that, the very funny Jen Kirkman tweeted, “As a comedian, I am sorry for all things I may say in the future that someone will record in a small club and release on the internet.”
While at a show in New York City, I personally heard Aziz Ansari ask if anyone was going to “Tosh” him, implying that someone in the audience would write about his set in a way that was overblown and out of context. So many comedians are now on edge these days that even quoting a single word that Aziz says into a mic might be suspect.
While the Internet posting endlessly about comedians and what they do, whether they are working out material or not, is nothing new, this discourse about what should and shouldn’t be said is happening at a capacity and frequency that hasn’t happened in quite some time. Tosh, Cook, Rock, Doug Stanhope, and more have come under more fire for their jokes because of the vast reach of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks, along with the out-of-context form that those jokes take when posted in printed form on the Internet rather than verbally spoken at a live venue within a comedy performance.
Certainly, it’s not my place to censor people, much less tell the Internet how it should behave. No single person or entity should be given such power without it being checked. However, in an increasing amount of shows, comedians are tense and nervous, especially if they have any sort of fame or Internet presence so that they’ll be painted in a negative light for something they didn’t intend. It might be a surprise to a lot of people, but the intention of comedy is always laughter. Jon Stewart tried to explain this in an interview last year where he asserted that comedy always comes before politics because he is a comedian first.
In pursuing the response of laughter, exaggeration, hyperbole, and lying are all tactics used to accomplish that goal. Simply put, comedians say things that they don’t necessarily believe in. If everyone was held to the letter of what they said, the world would be an undeniably morose place with no room for humor.
Comedy Central recently wrapped its taping of the Roseanne Roast that is set to air next week and it has been widely reported that a joke Jeff Ross told referencing the Aurora shootings, “Seth [Green], you haven’t gotten this much attention since you shot all those people in Aurora. You’re actually not like James Holmes. He was doing things in a theater that people remember,” was edited from the final broadcast version.
The joke is here, in a clip from Howard Stern’s show, at about the 3:11 mark:
Comedy Central may have just cut that joke because they didn’t think it was that great rather than the potential for it being offensive. Yet, people might immediately decry that as a joke about Aurora, when it really is a joke about Seth Green, and start a whole essay-fire blazing its way across the blogosphere on freedom of speech rights.
Thus, comedy feels weird at the moment, because there are fewer and fewer places where the stakes are low. When there is nothing to lose: that’s when comedy is literally the best (sadly, that’s something you will never on TV). Some of the best comedians working today can be seen in back rooms of bars and basements and in compact black box theaters free of the pressures of a gigantic paying audience or the expectations of a network, and you’ll likely laugh harder than you ever have. However, that’s not free of the all seeing eye of social networking/media, and, again, I can’t stop what people are going to write and say online, but be aware that the overwhelming transparency on the Internet is what might restrict comedy to being PG-13 when it should only be… funny.