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Are There Any Topics That Are Completely Off Limits In Comedy? Discuss...

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by Tambay A. Obenson
August 20, 2013 5:08 PM
14 Comments
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In light of the recent brouhaha over the ill-conceived Harriet Tubman comedy skit on Russell Simmons' YouTube channel, some commentary and a question for you all - the question being: are there any topics that are completely off-limits when it comes to comedy?

It’s an ongoing debate that comes up in the public sphere at least once a year it seems, usually when a comedian jokes about something or someone others deem seemingly exempt from being fodder for any comic's routine. Which is essentially what happened this time around, with Russell Simmons, who had to issue a public apology in reaction to swift and decisive criticism he found himself on the receiving end of.

It's practically a guaranteed annual (at least) occurrence: comedian says something controversial; people get outraged; comedian issues apology (sometimes); and then the debates begin, op-eds are written for and against, making the usual arguments about placing limits on comedy, versus that right that we call *free speech* - in this country (USA) anyway. There are countries where telling a risque joke can put the *offender* in very serious, potentially life-threatening trouble.

Although, here in the USA, while we supposedly have the right to speak freely, a constitutional right to free speech, some would argue that we are still very much constrained by certain laws as well as public opinion on what we can and cannot say publicly. Essentially - freedom of speech, but just watch what you say. 

Does this mean that comics should stay clear of what would widely be deemed offensive humor? Well, if they’re not prepared to handle any blowback, then yes. I believe that if you're going to go there, as the saying goes, be able to stay there, and stand your ground, and support your words. No apologies. Apologizing suggests that you obviously didn't think hard, long and critically enough about your joke before you made it public.

As you may have noticed, the more fearless comics amongst us tend to be intelligent, wise, thoughtful and articulate people who understand how powerful comedy and language can be in illuminating what ails societies, and helping to bring about an understanding that may not have been present previously. They know how to use comedy and language to get underneath the surface of things and make bold, subversive points, and not just blindly, thoughtlessly as a tool to shock.

Telling a joke about something or someone without some comprehensible underlying point to it all, isn’t comedy. That is, unless you're a comedian who's satisfied with what would amount to insults for the heck of it. And if you are, it's obviously your choice. But don’t be surprised nor feign shock and misunderstanding, nor run and hide, when others challenge and criticize you for it. You're free to speak, but not free from criticism.

So all that said, back to my original question: are there any subjects that you feel should be completely off-limits when it comes to comedy, no matter how smart and intelligently the joke is delivered? Or do you feel that nothing is exempt, and it is indeed all in the comic's delivery?

Discuss in the comments section below.

I recall Dave Chappelle's man-rape joke which sharply divided audiences a few years ago - some thought it was hilarious; others were deeply offended. And there was Louis C.K.'s appearance on The Daily Show discussing the limits of funny. Both clips embedded below.

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14 Comments

  • Michael Delzoppo | March 24, 2014 2:54 PMReply

    There should be nothing off limits in comedy. Everyone is going to have their line on what's appropriate and what's not and everyone's line is going to be different. Some people will be offended by racist jokes, some won't. Others will be put off by dark, gallows humor and some will love it. I'm mixed, black and white and I still love racist jokes about black people because I understand it's just comedy. I love dark humor but most people take it literally if I make a joke about murder or suicide. Comedians rely on stereotypes and some stereotypes are based in truth. I like all types, from smart comedy to silly sexist toilet humor to the blackest comedy that goes after disabilities, disease and death. But some of these genres of comedy are usually put on the fringes just like death metal and dismissed as not valid because they go beyond the pale. "How can someone laugh at a cancer joke? They're a horrible person." Sometimes laughing at tragic things is a way to cope with them and it's not always just to get a shock reaction. I think people label things like that as shock value because it's their way of dismissing it as beneath them.

  • frank | September 22, 2013 9:16 AMReply

    that last part is Why do you always have to laugh at a black actor in a tv show,why cant they be taken seriously.

  • frank | September 22, 2013 9:12 AMReply

    I dont think gay jokes or jokes about disalbed people,ethnic groups are funny,it just reinforces the stereotypes and people seeit as acceptable to keep insulting people in those groups as its just a joke.you got no sense of humour etc.you should laugh its a joke I dont think so,you can tell jokes without insulting peoples skin colour,you can swear but dont except insults as being Normal. like Nick Cannon in americas got talent,is his behaviour suppossed to be funny,acting sometimes like he aint got two braincells to rub togheter,his antics make me cringe some times i dont see it as funny,maybe others do,but its my opinion,nobody has to agree with me. But why do you have to always at a black actor in a tv show.

  • Donella | September 7, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    Comedy requires intelligence.

    Unfortunately, Simmons lacks the sharp intelligence of Paul Mooney, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle who regularly delve into "edgy" arenas.

    Simmons has revealed that he is not the equal of these other comics and so has become the joke himself.

  • LLC | September 7, 2013 1:16 PMReply

    Plain and simply, the point of comedy is to laugh. Every individual has a different sense of humor. In agreeing with Louis C.K's point of "No one is making you read something," no one is making you watch something you think is offense. If you don't like what a comedian is saying, turn the channel.

    There are thousands of comedian's out there folks, each with their own sense of humor and delivery. Most making jokes on their childhood, beliefs, cultural ideal's, and political stands. On the other hand, there are also Christan comedian's, feminist comedian's, gay comedian's, and so forth. What America needs to do is stop thinking it's all about a particular individual's ideals and beliefs, and simply respect the fact that it's not all about them, and everyone has a different sense of humor.

    Plain and simply people, nothing is off limits, it's not all about you. Don't take life so seriously.

  • Onyx | August 22, 2013 2:37 PMReply

    The goal in comedy, imho is to have the audience laugh with you, and not at you. Some comedians come from a place where their own self image is not the best, and far too often their jokes fall flat because there is no art to their comedy, but insults and curse words.

    That being said, there's a fine line between a comedian denigrating his or herself and denigrating their culture. Slavery and segregation had no regard for the beauty and uplifting of blacks. Far too often I've witnessed comedians who are lashing out at their culture, as if doing standup is a public therapy session, and their self-hate needs an outlet. It's during times like this that my heart breaks, because I don't think some of them realize what they're saying isn't funny, but mean spirited and hateful (one example is when the younger Wayans talked about Macy Gray so disrespectfully at an awards show, while Gray was in attendance, and most of their routine concerned what she looked like). I don't recall whether they offered an apology later, but by then the damage was done. The Quvenzhane Wallis incident with the Onion was already mentioned, but I would like to say that anyone who thinks calling a nine year old child the C word . . . well, I'm not sure what The Onion did to reprimand the person or persons who initiated that awful tweet. Then there's comedian Lisa Lampanelli, who decided to call Lena Dunham, the creator of the show GIRLS "My N***a" and after it blew up in her face, her explanation was weak.

    Yes, there are some subjects that aren't funny. And while Dave Chappelle is a comedian, somehow hearing jokes from his show being told by a nerdy guy at work using a pseudo "black" voice just isn't the same.

    Okay, I'll leave it at that. http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/when-good-liberals-go-bad-part-one/

  • Monique A. Williams | August 22, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    Nothing is off limits. Gallows/dark/black humor isn't new. Comedians are some of the darkest people, the deepest thinkers, the greatest philosophers. Their perspective can bring understanding in a way that makes us uncomfortable, reacting with uproarious laughter. What makes it transcend is whether or not it's funny. Do we laugh at the absurdity, blush at the honesty, or scowl at the attempt at humor? There is a fine line, and those who toe it are the very best. #imo

  • Adam Scott Thompson | August 21, 2013 12:23 AMReply

    We often don't know where the line is until someone's crossed it.

  • Jay | August 20, 2013 10:36 PMReply

    As August already stated the chief crime in comedy is not being offensive, it's being unfunny. Chappelle's joke does fit the criteria of rape not being funny. With that said people were laughing because much of what he said was true without being homophobic, sexist or misogynistic, As a man, discussion of being the victim of rape isn't easy. This is one of the reason that pedophiles target young boys because they know they are more likely to keep it a secret, protecting the perpetrators. Also I feel that he deflected the issue by drawing the humor toward the act of rape, but the response society, men in general and men as victims would have. If someone can explain to me what part of the Harriet Tubman video was funny, then feel free to explain.
    On the other hand, freedom of speech works both ways. You can't do and say anything you want and not expect people to say anything back. Freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom from consequences. I think the true problem is that too many people comedians included do not understand the difference.

  • JEFTCG | August 20, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    Creatively, nothing should be off limits, that is, if it's actually funny.

  • Vichus | August 20, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    No. The limitation should be self-imposed. If a comedian wants to be mass appeal, they have to cut out some controversial subjects. If you just want to speak about what's on your mind, people will avoid being part of your fanbase.

    It goes for any sort of comedy, not just stand-up.

    Now in the age of the internet, when your content could reach as little as 1 person and as much as 50 million, you have to take inventory of what response you might get from a divisive or controversial joke.

  • August Wasoba | August 20, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    I would say that there is nothing off-limits in comedy. you can joke about anything, but the question is whether or not your joke is funny. the thing with offensive humor is that it is a grand gamble, either you will receive much applause and laughter or you will be raked over hot coals.

    I watch shows like South Park and Family Guy, where they deal in nothing but offensive humor and most of the time they are successful. although, keep in mind that even then they will have their detractors. however, even those who usually handle offensive material well, will have their share of off-days. For example, there is the Onion and the controversy that came with their joke about Quvenzhané Wallis on Oscar night. Normally, the Onion masterfully handles offensive material (abortion fetuses, rape, religious intolerance, etc.) and makes it funny, biting, and satirical. However, on that day, they fucked up. They made a sloppy joke and caught the ire of the masses, lost followers, were raked over hot coals, and had to issue the first and only apology in the history of their publication.

    The point to all of this is that nothing is off-limits in comedy, but, if you're working with offensive material, it better be Laugh-out-loud funny or you will pay the consequences.

  • Motwngrl | August 20, 2013 5:56 PMReply

    I don't believe in censorship but that does not mean I can't be offended or speak out on what I construe as racist, misogynist or homophobic "humor". I found the H. Tubman clip sexist and racist, but the first offense was that it was not funny. Harriet Tubman is not off limits for humor but you had better make sure the material is funny. It was not funny and comedians sometimes want it both ways, they want to say whatever they want (fine) but then if they get critiqued for material that was first unfunny and worse yet racist, sexist or homophobic then they want to cry freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not just for comics, HANDLE YOUR BUSINESS! You can either upon reflection change your material or say bump this I am standing firm in my conviction that this was a valid comedy material.

    Tell your racist, sexist and homophobic jokes but don't punk out when someone calls you on it. IMO Seth McFarlane is of this ilk except he does not apologize he keeps going and blames the "victim" for not being able to take a joke.

  • Aaron O | August 20, 2013 5:28 PMReply

    I wouldn't say it's "off limits," but I'm sick of all the gay jokes. Even coming from people who aren't supposed to be homophobic (like Seth MacFarlane, Nick Swardson), being gay is still presented as if it is one big joke. Hasn't that joke gotten old yet?

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