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.