Comedy is subjective. What’s funny to someone may or may not be funny to someone else. That being said, one would think a person could hear a joke and if it wasn’t funny, move on and wait for the next one. That’s not at all what happens in 2017. If a comedian is performing their set and a single joke is deemed offensive, the set is ruined and the career of that comedian may as well be over. While it’s slightly understandable that comedians have a higher sense of understanding when it comes to pushing boundaries with their performances, audiences today are entirely too sensitive and this widespread comedic illiteracy could be ruining comedy as a whole.
One of the worst things a comedian can experience is not getting a joke to land. In theory, the joke they planned and rehearsed was hilarious, but no one got it. No one understood. The performer didn’t “go too far.” They just weren’t relatable enough. This kind of comedic illiteracy is acceptable. But when a comic does, in fact, cross what the majority of an audience believes is “the line,” it can get ugly. At that point, the crowded becomes illiterate in the sense that they don’t understand that it was just a joke. This kind of illiteracy can be extremely frustrating for both the laugher and the laughee. It’s especially frustrating when you consider how, for lack of a better word, selfish this kind of sensitivity can be in a comedy club. Lenore Skenazy said it best when she wrote “When my idea of cruel is your idea of hilarious, my super-sensitivity automatically wins. I get to declare not just that the comic isn't funny, but that he is a bad person and needs to be punished.” Skenazy intends to put the reader into the mind of someone yelling about why whatever joke was said wasn’t funny and does a pretty good job of explaining the lack of consideration for the comic and anyone in the audience enjoying the piece.
It makes sense to be taken aback when you hear something that wouldn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t be said in a public setting. Something racist, something sexist, or some other kind of “ist,” etc. But never should you get up in the middle of the set and start booing and screaming your opinion of the material. Especially since you for some reason don’t understand that you came to hear comedy and that what your hearing may even be topical. A question that never gets answered when comedians come under fire for testing the limit is “Why is comedy the only form of the arts where people think they have to agree with, or approve the content,” a question comedian Jim Norton has very eloquently pondered aloud. Norton and many other comedians often ask this question because when a book gets “edgy” or when a painting is graphic, no one bats an eye. The object is either praised or given respectful criticism. Comedy gets no such treatment. Comedy is held at some higher standard and to many not even considered an art.
But the issue is more than fair criticism of this kind of art. This kind of comedic illiteracy is bigger than someone not understanding what a joke is or why they even came to hear it. The question that we should ask ourselves before this gets out of hand is: at what point does this become an attack on free speech? And maybe we should even ask, what role do offensive jokes play in bringing to light issues that are commonly avoided. A comedian should be some who plays “an important function in society by holding up a mirror and forcing us to confront realities that we would often prefer to ignore,” according to Roger Cohen and Ryan Richards of Humanity in Action. It makes sense to use comedy in this way. If you look at America today, you see more and more people getting informed from comedy programs as opposed to traditional news. If we can’t use comedy to bring to light real issues and laugh about them too, then why do we even need comedy?
This ever growing divide between the crowd and the standup comic very well may continue to grow. The issue of oversensitivity to jokes and comically illiterate audiences has ultimate changed the comedy and has done so for the worst. Comedians even have started to avoid performing on college campuses for Christ’s sake! It’s our responsibility to fight for free speech, ensure knowledge can spread in a comedic way, and find a way to desensitize our audiences. So much more is at stake than a few careers and some butthurt audiences.
- Skenazy, Lenore. “Who Decides What's Funny?,” August 4, 2016. www.creators.com/read/lenore-skenazy/08/16/who-decides-whats-funny.
- Cohen, Roger, and Ryan Richards. “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians.” Humanity In Action, 2006. www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/174-when-the-truth-hurts-tell-a-joke-why-america-needs-its-comedians.