Just Kidding: Where do we Draw the Line?

Why This Matters | Jen Semler | March 3, 2016

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“I’m going to be nice tonight. I’ve changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, but you can’t do everything.” –Ricky Gervais, in his Golden Globes monologue

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now?” –Daniel Tosh, in response to a woman who heckled him about a rape joke

There is no worse life available to a human than being a caught child molester, and yet they still do it! Which from you could only really surmise that it must be really good—I mean from their point of view, not ours. But from their point of view it must be amazing—for them to risk so much.” –Louis C.K., in his SNL monologue

In Poor Taste

What do these jokes have in common? For starters, they were all received pretty poorly from the audience. Some people laughed hesitantly, some booed, some groaned. The jokes made headlines and had people calling for public apologies. But why is that? Why are certain jokes so appalling and offensive to us, while other jokes are not? Do we have the right to say what’s funny and what shouldn’t be said? One thing is for sure: with the growing awareness of LGBTQ rights and sexual abuse and the increasing PC attitude throughout society, comedians are becoming more and more scrutinized for the jokes they tell.

The Timing

Anthony Jeselnik, a dark comedian known for his offensive jokes that push the boundary, prefaced his joke about transgendered people:

“I get really mad when people get sensitive about comedy. It’s the dumbest thing you can do. I call them the joke police. They always have one rule; one rule they have. You can’t make fun of this right now. After a couple years, they move on to something else, which is why it’s so hypocritical.”

So maybe people are outraged at jokes about sexual abuse, the gay community, and the transgender community because we are in a time of fighting for more rights for these victims of violence, discrimination, and inequality. So, a joke that marginalizes these issues or writes them off as comical can get on our nerves because it goes directly against the change we are trying to achieve in public perception.

It’s Offensive

Isn’t comedy, to some extent, designed to be offensive and controversial? For whatever reason, we enjoy laughing at the expense of others—whether they be individuals or groups. So whether or not people are offended by a particular joke can’t really give a good gauge of the acceptability of a joke. The question becomes where to draw the line. In many cases, it is not clear cut. We have individual differences in our sense of humor, and comedians have differences regarding the types of jokes they tell.

I, for example, as a Jewish person, sometimes get this weird feeling of discomfort/awkwardness when I hear jokes about the Holocaust. Even if the joke is funny, there is part of me that feels wrong laughing because some comedian is making a joke out of the horrible tragedy that ‘my people’ went through. I can only assume that, to some extent, this is how homosexual people, transgender people, and victims of sexual assault feel when they hear jokes about ‘their people.’ Being offended isn’t necessarily a conscious choice on our part; it just happens.

This puts the comedian in a tough position. In many ways, comedy is like acting. I highly doubt that Daniel Tosh supports rape in any way or that he would actually stand there laughing if that woman he called out got attacked by 5 guys. But it’s about the persona, the joke, not about his personal opinions. Part of the comedian’s job is trying things out and testing the waters. They can say things that we can’t because there is already a pre-understood notion that what they are saying is not to be taken seriously.

At the end of the day, comedy is not a black-and-white industry. But when you sign up to hear jokes told by a professional comedian, you have to expect that some of them might rub people the wrong way. Comedians don’t deserve to be dragged through the dirt and publically scrutinized for one joke that they tested out and people didn’t find funny. The audience’s reaction will help determine whether or not a comedian will tell that joke again. And that should be enough–because ultimately, it is in the hands of the comedians. They are the ones who decide what to say and which risks to take. Right now, it takes a lot of cojones for a comedian to try to poke fun at the LGBTQ community or the idea of sexual assault. Maybe in 20 years from now, when these issues are not at the forefront of society, these jokes will be ‘safer’ to tell. After all, comedy is all about timing.