Caught In The Crosshairs Of The Culture Wars: Comedy fights for survival

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When I was younger, an insult comic performed at an event I attended. I remember gripping the edge of my seat in fear, terrified that he was going to see me in the crowd and make fun of my hair, my weight, my nose and the other inconsequential things I was insecure about as a thirteen year old. And I was right. He saw me and cracked a (bad) joke about my frizzy, curly hair and my round face. The crowd found it funny and the ensuing cheering and hooting rang in my ears. 

It was a rough night. 

I remember being against offensive comedy for many years after that. I agreed with articles like the one in the Huffington Post that said, “We are living in a time where we have to consider the feelings of all people because of an increase in diversity in our communities.” I disregarded the experiences of comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry the Cable Guy, Trevor Noah and Chris Rock who refused to perform on college campuses, citing excessive political correctness as the primary reason for their distaste.  

I thought of these comedians as behind the times, as people grumbling about being unable to adapt to our rapidly changing cultural norms. Mentally stuck in the ‘60s, before the advent of our current politically correct climate, these comedians were unhappy that jokes about smelly Indians, sassy Black people and slutty women were no longer as popular as they used to be. To me, it seemed obvious that comedians need to tailor their content to their audiences, and as cultural and social mores among college students changed, jokes need to change too. 

However, my opinions changed dramatically after I realized the danger that the future of comedy was in. The art of mocking day-to-day struggles and ridiculing different communities is crucial to our society. Forcing comedians to tiptoe around “contentious” topics like sexuality, race, ethnicities and class makes all of us weaker.  

The futility of cultural sensitivity in comedy is exacerbated by the “stay in your lane” argument. Minorities are implicitly asked to restrict their jokes to their own experiences, forcing comedians who are people of color to crack jokes about their own lives, families and societies, thus making them “un-relatable” and unpopular to wider audiences. The good intentions that make college students shun “offensive” comedians that dare to mock the characteristics of communities to which they do not belong, creates the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of popular comedians overall. 

There are studies that prove that offensive comedy has been used as a form of resistance to undermine racism, and as a “releaser of existing prejudice.” Despite the benefits of unrestrained comedy, jokes are inextricably linked to the identity of comedians. Straight, white men (an erstwhile mainstay of American comedy) have a narrower range of “acceptable” comedy topics available to them, even though statistically the virtues of comedy often override the potential offense caused by its content. 

Furthermore, making certain topics taboo gives these stereotypes and ideologies power. We help facilitate the creation of a society where people cannot speak their mind, for fear of being labelled a bigot. Comedians should be allowed to make jokes that make us mildly uncomfortable (with obvious exceptions for hate speech which isn’t protected under the First Amendment). Moral regulation of comedy could put all of us on a slippery slope, and could have dangerous implications for the kind of discourse we tolerate as a society. After all, who gets to draw the line? Who decides what is acceptable in comedy today?  

So the next time you hear a joke that targets your in-group, laugh it off. Don’t assume malicious intent and don’t try to be the guy who wants to censor comedy. Our society can only benefit from having more people with thicker skin. 

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