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Comedy Is Scared. Are You Happy Now, Internet?


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.

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  1. Jon says:

    There’s a knee jerk political correctness that’s seeped into our culture and it’s pretty disheartening. People are so afraid they might seem insensitive that they over correct.

  2. misuba says:

    If there were even one great comedian out there attacking people who have power, this would all get forgotten.

  3. MFDeitch says:

    I think as a comedy loving community we should all pledge to not tape shit at shows. There’s a good starting point.

  4. Jason says:

    Next trend: Comedy speakeasies. Pat down and tech confiscation before entering with the knowledge that you’re getting a show that no one else will ever see. All rights reserved.

  5. TJ says:

    I can’t take it anymore. I’m tired of hearing comedians whine and complain about people taking offense to their comedy. Don’t say offensive shit and people won’t be offended. And I’m not saying that every comedian should be like Bill Cosby and tell exclusively clean jokes. But if you do want to take the wilder route, and say things that could potentially piss people off then you should be ready for the consequences of that. “Everybody is mad at me and saying mean things about me on twitter, boohoo.” Big deal, get over yourselves.

  6. ShinyMonkeyManPants says:

    People: When you are listening to comedians doing their thing, you should expect to hear the things you’d never otherwise expect to hear. They’re words, not even directed at you, not even…

    Comedians: People who get offended at the mere words of others are people who choose to be offended for their own fucked-up reasons and are thus not your problem.

    World: Quit recording audio and video of everything you should be focusing on hearing and seeing for a goddamn second, and just hear and see it. If you want to see or hear it again later, buy the damn official release when it comes out. And for fucks sake, watch where you’re going.

    Protip: Install RF Blockers and fire them up when the gig starts. Blame the lack of cell service on the concrete & iron beams in the ceiling…

    Note to self. Install RF Blocker in car…

  7. Shannon says:

    Maybe it’s just that Jeff Ross isn’t funny. I didn’t laugh once during that whole set.

  8. Rebecca says:

    I think that there’s a way to joke about everything, but you have to do it the right way. The perfect example, I would think, would be the joke that Rob Delaney tweeted after the Sandusky verdict. In a moment where I was feeling a lot of intense emotions, Delaney tweeted something along the lines of “I think we should hold our reaction until we hear what Ashton Kutcher has to say about it”. Delaney found the perfect way to joke about a sensitive subject without joking about it. You just have to find the right angle

  9. Reed Solomon says:

    Would you go to a theatre to hear Bill Cosby just rehash all of his best old bits? Do you watch Seinfeld reruns? Do you listen to comedy albums you already know the punchline to? Eddie Murphy’s raw is still funny, isn’t it?

    A good comedian is like a good musician or any other performer. He/She is about more than just the punchline to the joke. The cadence, the way the joke is told, the interaction with the audience, it’s all a part of the show. It’s all part of the joke. The way Emo Phillips talks, Gilbert Gottfried’s voice.. Comedians are (or should be) skilled storytellers. Why do kids still want their parents to read them the same books when they could rewatch the movie instead? Over and over and over and over again? Are adults any different? No. We’re all idiots. A comedians job is to point that out until we stop being idiots or until the universe achieves heat death.

    The only people in any real danger are those one hit wonders out there. Like the “musicians” who for years got by with one good track on a CD full of crap, so too will many comedians have to adjust with the times. Some are thriving.

    Youtube and the rest of the internet are what you make of it. Except Facebook which is shit. As to the discussion about when it’s too soon to make a joke, you’d think people would have a rough idea that a week or two after a horrible event might just be pushing it. Complaining about it being too hard to be edgy without insulting some people is just laziness.

    That said, I’m sympathetic with the notion that performers don’t want to be recorded at every single show. And it’s only going to get worse once wearable computing/google glass type technology becomes popular. And you won’t even know it’s happening. But people will want to record their experiences and share them. Can it really be stopped? Should it be? I don’t think it can and it’s too much an encroachment on peoples right to do whatever they want than it is on a performers right to keep control of their medium.

    I suppose it’d at least be nice if those performances posted to youtube and such at least profited those performers in some way through advertising revenues or what not.

  10. John48221 says:

    Comics who don’t understand why people got upset over Aurora jokes are delusional.

  11. bastien says:

    Some comedians are now understandably concerned with the state of things. They are afraid to go on stage for the fear of being recorded saying something wrong, whether it be a bad joke or something insensitive.

    But it’s one thing to be taped while workshopping new, half-cooked material. That’s an unfortunate side effect of everyone carrying a camera in their pocket that harms the comedic process. It’s another thing to be caught saying hurtful, insensitive, and hateful things. The two should not be lumped together.

    Being a comedian does not give someone a free pass to say those things without potential consequences. If anyone in another profession said something racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, or otherwise bigoted–whether it was just a joke or not–they would lose their job, or their businesses would be boycotted. If politicians said such things, they would be raked over the coals for months.

    Likewise, being a popular comedian doesn’t give you a free pass. When Michael Richards was caught making racist remarks to audience members in a set, he was lambasted. But when Daniel Tosh said similarly hurtful and offensive things to audience members, it seems some people are trying their best to pussy foot around the subject, or even let it slide under the banner of “free speech”. Both comedians added to the hateful, insensitive culture in America. Both comedians wished for a culture of hate and violence–one a culture of racism, the other a culture of rape and misogyny. But only one of them was truly held accountable for the things he said.

    Whether or not they mean it in jest is not the point. Whether or not they say it simply because they are flustered is not the point. Whether or not they’re just workshopping something when it’s said is not the point.

    The point is that it *is* said, and that alone allows such cultures to continue to exist. Being a comedian doesn’t change that fact. Saying that comedians are allowed to make hate speech, for any reason, is saying that everyone is allowed to make hate speech. And if hate speech is OK, then actual hate is OK. And then comes the violence.

    The “sticks & stones” adage is a fallacy. Words can ALWAYS hurt, and it’s the words that inspire others to pick up the sticks and stones. Every time someone makes a rape joke in public, they’re making rape more acceptable. Every time someone calls someone a “tranny” or a “fag”, they’re making violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people more acceptable. Every time someone says something racist, sexist, etc–even in jest–they are making those acts a little less serious, and therefor a little more acceptable to society.

    Is it really so much to ask for some comedians to give up a few laughs in a room in order to help quell the acceptance of a culture that causes pain, humiliation–and even death–to millions of people?

  12. Tim C. says:

    Thank you for this essay. Part of the difficulty with this debate is everyone’s argument is true about someone, but there is a larger trend that is making it harder for standups to work out material, even if no one knows them and someone just happens to be recording in case something happens.

    I am someone who is very anti-Tosh, especially for his incident, so I hate that he is the framing device for talking about these things, because his body of work makes it hard to see him as being misrepresented by social media for the rape-culture enforcing threat he made. There should be a level of forgiveness for a joke that’s not quite there yet and ended up offensive because it came out wrong, and especially for comedians responding to a heckler. And social media can allow for that understanding to occur, as a comedian can respond to his critics. I agree that this shouldn’t be a requirement for every joke, but if you meant to make a joke about rapists and instead came off joking about rape victims, it can be a powerful tool for context and correction.

    Free speech is a tricky defense too, because free speech protects what you say, and most comedians have it. People criticizing your work is also free speech. And you should be allowed to say anything, and people can overreact. But there are some things you shouldn’t say, and the reason for that is a good one. You shouldn’t come out and do a 10-minute set on why blacks are clearly the inferior race. But, you should have the right to do so, and then to (hopefully) have no one want to see your comedy again. And you can do good racial comedy. And you can do bad racial comedy. Criticism can help root out why a particular joke or set is good or bad, or funny, or truly offensive, or only being blown out of proportion. Good comedy should be able to stand up to scrutiny just fine, and the dogpiling the Internet can do is able to make better comedy rise to the top (I fell in love with Tig Notaro in the wake of Tosh). But you also hit on a worrying trend, in that every joke being up for days of scrutiny can make comedy too daunting, and too impossible for fallible humans who can make mistakes and grow but have already lost the social media game with one mistake.