The Trouble With Humor

“People are so politically correct now, you can’t even get away [with doing] a politically incorrect character, because that is seen as being politically incorrect.” - Jennifer Saunders (2021)

Artist Pro, K. (5 Aug 2019). Charlie Chapman Modern Times [Painting]. Pixels.


Humor is subjective to each and every individual. What one person finds funny, another person does not. Comedy can really be divisive. People become easily angered at others for liking a particular comedian or comedy show. It is a curious thing. And it is probably because comedians have a real say in cultural issues including political affairs. But should some topics be off-limits to comedians?


And if one thinks that there should be limits to what one can say, who decides? Who decides the right or wrong thing to say? The Internet has made it possible for everyone to have a voice. The fact that there is a digital footprint left by all who use social media or any online platform is both a good and bad thing, because it means, that in this case, comedians have a wider audience—unfortunately, it also means a performer will upset more people. Nowadays, people can demand a comedian to be canceled for a joke they may have made over a decade ago by going through a performer's Twitter feed. For example, US comedian, Kevin Hart lost the opportunity to host at the 2019 Oscars for a tweet that he wrote back in 2011. The joke was anti-gay and since then, Hart made a full apology and deleted it. The tweet read: "Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughter's doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say in my voice 'stop that’s gay'." The joke was clumsy and quite revealing about the comedian's views on homosexuality. In a free society, others would "cancel" Hart, but others would not mind his statement, thinking it's his own honest opinion.

Open Mic And Karaoke. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Bishop's Lounge.


Three of the UK's most controversial comedians have also experienced some kind of backlash from jokes that they have made in the past, namely Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, and Ricky Gervais. In 2009, Frankie Boyle was cleared by the BBC Trust for making a distasteful joke about the Queen. During an episode of Mock The Week, the red-headed comic impersonated Queen Elizabeth II, joking: "I’ve had a few medical problems this year. I am now so old, that my p***y is haunted." Meanwhile, Jimmy Carr made a joke about the British who served in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who lost limbs in battle saying, "Say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a f***ing good Paralympic team in 2012." Yet you have Ricky Gervais, who is probably one of the most recognizable names in comedy and manages to negotiate the comedy world fairly unscathed. Gervais manages to say things that he can defend from a moral standpoint. In one of his early stand-up shows, the comic made a joke about the anti-apartied and philanthropist Nelson Mandela, saying: “My greatest hero is Nelson Mandela. What a man. Incarcerated for 25 years, he was released in 1990 and he hasn’t reoffended. I think he’s going straight, which shows you prison does work.”


Yonhap, A. F. P. (2021, October 21). Protestors rally at Netflix in LA over ‘transphobic’ comedy show [Photo]. Korea Times.


These examples show that these days, a comedian has to be more careful than ever not to say the "wrong thing." Some argue that it is a comedian's job to stray beyond and constantly push the boundaries of taste and decency. It is a way of making social progress. But jokes have the power to keep people down. Humor can be used as a weapon to keep the oppressed, well, oppressed. Especially if jokes are targeted at a community or at a particular gender. The comedian is supposed to attack the rich and powerful, not the disenfranchised. But again, who decides on this rule? Should jokes just be solely aimed at the richest and most powerful people in society? Why? That could be deemed patronizing to people who do not have a platform or a voice to respond.

Comedy will always divide people and after making people laugh—perhaps it is comedy's job to split and divide opinion. But the question of whether comedians should be permitted to joke about anything may still be a straightforward issue. In order to live in a free and democratic society, perhaps there have to be spaces for people to say what they want to say. Be it tasteful or distasteful. Of course, if comedy shows are to be aired on television or radio, then watershed compliances have to be adhered to but that is a question of the timing of when the show is aired rather than whether it should be allowed to be aired. Perhaps it is just the case that the world should take itself less seriously.




References

Conlan, T. (2009, October 19). Frankie Boyle’s ‘sexist’ joke about Queen cleared by BBC Trust. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2009/oct/19/frankie-boyle-mock-the-week


Moss, S. (2009, November 5). Jimmy Carr: ‘I thought my Paralympics joke was totally acceptable’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/nov/05/jimmy-carr-paralympics-joke


Newton, C. (2018, December 8). How Kevin Hart tweeted himself out of a job hosting the Oscars. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/8/18131221/kevin-hart-oscar-hosting-homophobia-twitter-tweets


Images sources

  • Artist Pro, K. (5 Aug 2019). Charlie Chapman Modern Times [Painting]. Pixels. https://pixels.com/featured/charlie-chaplin-modern-times-kathleen-artist-pro.html

  • A. F. P. (2021, October 21). Protestors rally at Netflix in LA over ‘transphobic’ comedy show. Korea https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/art/2021/10/398_317399.html

  • Open Mic And Karaoke. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Bishop's Lounge. https://bishopsloungenoho.com/event/comedy-open-mic-karaoke/2021-09-26/


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Peter Terrence

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