In my opinion the best comedy is almost always surprising. A really great joke takes a well-worn premise and drives it off a cliff when we’re least expecting it, or connects two places we never knew were even close to each other. I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I think we like to have our expectations subverted in a relatively safe way. It keeps our brains nimble, always looking for new or overlooked connections — after all, it’s our ability to adapt that’s driven our success as a species, and play often serves the purpose of sharpening skills that are necessary for our survival. I admire comics who are constantly testing the world around them, looking for ways things fit differently than they should or don’t fit at all. It’s that perpetual, witty inspection that both inspires and exhausts me. It’s not all that’s required to be a good comic, though. You have to be able to read an audience, work with the mood of the room you’re in, figure out how to manipulate and control it. The best comics are quick on their feet but patient and stubborn; they work hard, are constantly perceptive, and test their own material with the same fervor they test the world around them.
One of the ways comics work to surprise their audience is through shock humor. This is a very specific subset of a comedian’s bag of tools, and it’s a son of a bitch to use. You’re surprising your audience by saying blatantly offensive, politically incorrect things; this either exposes the flaws in those thoughts or allows us to release the tension we generate when WE have those thoughts. Good shock comics (again, only my opinion) tell us “It’s OK, other people think this way. It’s stupid and awful, but we’re only human. Let yourself off the hook, you’re not that bad.” It can be cathartic to hear someone saying the worst things and being allowed to laugh at them; with that lingering shame or tension surrounding sensitive topics gone, it can free us to give them a fresh look, to talk about them openly. Shock humor can make unsafe topics a little bit safer by dropping our defenses around them. It’s an incredibly useful thing, but only if handled in a shrewd and sensitive way.
There’s been a couple of controversies recently around shock humor that got me thinking about just why it’s so tricky to pull off shock humor, and how easily it can be done wrong. There seems to be an increasing tide of opinion that certain subjects should never be joked about, are never safe for comedy and that making light of those topics in any context is disrespectful or dismissive. I consider myself a pretty sensitive guy, and I definitely sympathize with the perspective of the beleaguered minority. I’m gay, black, Buddhist, and spend far too much of my time expressing my inner lapine nature on the Internet. I run up against the dominant culture quite often, and in ways that most people who land in the majority just a few other ways can’t really grasp. In other words, being a gay black Buddhist is harder still than being a straight black Christian.
Still, I recognize the miraculous way a good racial joke can lower the tension in the room whenever race comes up and pave the way for an honest, meaningful conversation. Never underestimate the power of laughing at yourself; it tells the room that anger and judgement doesn’t come swift, that it’s all right to make mistakes while trying to figure out the briar patch of racial relations. And trust me, people WILL make mistakes with this stuff. But it’s OK. Most people are well-meaning and ignorant of the reality of being a minority in any way. And most of us in the minority are still struggling with learning how to express our perspective in a way that they’ll understand. There will be a lot of mistakes on both sides, and we have to be patient with each other as we make and learn from them.
But sure, you might say, it’s all right for you to make a joke about black people. You’re black! Good point, I say. Is it ever all right for someone in a position of cultural power to make a joke about someone in a minority? I may be a gay black man, but I’m still a man. Could I make a shocking joke about a woman and expect to get away with it?
That’s a thornier issue. As we all know, there are no hard and fast rules for comedy. Comics will get called out one day on a joke they’ve made countless times before, for no other reason than the fact that someone got offended and voiced that offense in a way or platform that allowed it to catch fire. I think it’s very easy for the comic to be confused by the sudden backlash; it’s something he’s written and tested, by himself and with other comics, with countless audiences, and it passed with a variety of audiences. Why is it suddenly not OK?
I think it’s easy for a comic (or anyone who’s being attacked) to say “Chill out, relax, everyone else can take a joke, why are you so sensitive?” I don’t need to tell you that this is the absolutely wrong thing to say, but I’ll do it anyway. THIS IS ABSOLUTELY THE WRONG THING TO SAY. Shock comics work with material dangerously close (or probably over) the line with a lot of people as a matter of trade. The law of averages states that one of these jokes, no matter how well you proof for it, is going to go too far. When it does, you’re going to catch hell for it. And when you do, it’s important to understand that the person/people giving you hell are individuals with their own histories and stories that contribute to their reaction. Dismissing their offense as ‘over-sensitivity’ IS disrespectful, far more so than the original joke.
Every time a comic walks into a room with a new audience, he’s walking into a new minefield. It’s like playing an entirely new game of minesweeper, every time; you never know when you’re going to step in something that sets off an explosion. While you might be aces at minesweeper, and have never lost yet, there’s bound to be one time where something blows up in your face. And that’s because people are individuals, with their own experiences and history. They interact with that history in different ways, and you never can tell when something is too raw for someone to laugh at. If you’re dealing with touchy subjects, or shocking humor, the chances of you stumbling across a fresh wound dramatically increase.
These people aren’t being over-sensitive when they call out a comic on a joke that’s more offensive than funny. They’re just being themselves, and for the most part that deserves a measure of sympathy and thought. These people should be dealt with honestly and respectfully; comics should be secure enough in themselves and their material to resist the temptation to discount someone’s offended reaction. This could be the door to speak openly about these topics, just presented in a different way. In an ideal world, the comic would engage with criticism, discuss the joke and the reaction without ego, remove himself from the equation entirely. Unless the comic really believes what they’re saying, the reaction isn’t against the person (no matter how personal the response gets), it’s against the things the person said.
I think that comedy should be inclusive, like any other form of storytelling. When someone uses shock to surprise the audience, it’s important to set a tone of “we’re all in this together; let’s see what’s on the other side of this line of decency.” Even if the comedian is making jokes at the expense of a group that’s in the room, there should be an atmosphere of camaraderie. This is incredibly difficult to do, and not everyone can manage to simultaneously engender good will while essentially making fun of an entire group of people. The shock comic can’t be lazy with his humor, or let too many false notes drop. He must constantly engage with the temperature of the room, and adjust his material to suit it.
At least, that’s my platonic ideal of shock comedy. Most comics who deal with shock for laughs don’t do this, or they make frequent mis-steps and find themselves in trouble. Unable or unwilling to deal honestly and respectfully with the people they offend, they end up cultivating the attitude that “I’m just telling jokes, you don’t have a sense of humor, this fun-bus is leaving without you.” And that’s a shame; it makes the comedian look more like an asshole with a genuine disrespect for the groups he’s telling offensive jokes about, and it makes it that much harder for them to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere when they’re telling them. It’s why, say, Seth MacFarlane generated this groundswell of outrage over his Oscars stint last month; he brushes off criticism, fails to engage with legitimate grievances of a group who feels marginalized and excluded, and makes them believe that his party is not for them. His shock humor has the exact opposite effect that it should — it divides when it should unite, and it hardens our thinking when it should make our opinions more pliable, subject to scrutiny.
Yet, I don’t think MacFarlane or most other shock comics are actually callous, dismissive people. I think there’s only so much outrage you can legitimately handle before you start to get worn down, and the reactions of most shock comics to a seemingly endless chorus of offense is to dismiss it. Legitimate grievance or no, it all starts to look like the same after a while. There are some corners of the public who simply live to be offended, and to express their feelings as loudly and as often as possible. I think a lot of people who feel marginalized by public figures assume that these celebrities don’t have feelings and reactions of their own, and should be treated as something other than a person doing a job. Think about it; if you were called up publicly for a risque joke you’ve made, called a coward or a monster and had your talent questioned, wouldn’t your first instinct be a defensive one? Why should it be any different for another person, no matter how famous, rich or successful?
That’s one thing that our culture of outrage has taken from us; the ability to see one another as people, to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If a comedian is sometimes guilty of dismissing their audience as overly sensitive or politically correct, then the audience is also guilty of dismissing a comic as heartless or arrogant. People of all stripes will make mistakes when they’re trying to open up honestly about touchy subjects, and the best response they could be given is a patient and graceful one. If you feel affronted by what someone says, the key to convincing them to change their opinions or apologize for what they’ve said isn’t railing at them and making personal attacks. It’s to attack the ideas represented by their words and actions, speak about the effect they’ve had on you and how it prevents you from laughing about it. Because, really, honestly, I believe that’s what most comedians actually want you to do. No one goes on stage, or posts a joke, or makes a comment, with the idea that they want to alienate a large percentage of the people who might be listening.
And if they do, they’re genuinely not worth your time. They’re most likely bad people who thrive on attention more than anything, so the key response there is to not give them what they’re asking for.
Again, there really aren’t hard and fast rules for comedy, but I think that this is a good guideline for navigating the thornier aspects of the relationship between a comedian and his audience. I could be wrong; I’m not a comedian. And really, this all comes down to assuming more of the people you have a disagreement with, not just dismissing them with your worst ideas of who they are. If we could all just check that impulsive reaction and consciously change it for something better, the outrage would die down a little and actual conversation would spring up in its place.