Where is the Line Between Comedy and Controversy?

By Rosie Alger
Elm Staff Writer

“Tosh.O,” “South Park,” Louis C.K., Amy Schumer. We are familiar with comedy that pushes the limit on controversial material, but when does it stop being funny? Is there a place for raunchy subject matter or is it just plain offensive? When it comes to entertainment media, the words that we say and publish matter, even if they are only meant to be taken lightly.
We’ve all heard comedians get up and start a set with a joke about race, or maybe lazy, fat Americans, or sexuality stereotypes, or even rape. In fact, some shows and stand up performers seem to rely on these subjects as the bread and butter of their set. Not that long ago, Youtube star Nicole Arbour received a lot of attention and backlash for her now infamous “Dear Fat People” and subsequent “Dear Black People” videos. These kinds of vulgar jokes often leave people offended, off-put, or even down-right angry. Shows like Comedy Central’s “South Park” and “Tosh.O” in particular seem to have made a reputation for themselves in pulling from the most taboo of subjects, and often make rape jokes. If these jokes are deemed inappropriate, should we avoid the topic completely?
I am not in the business of censorship. I am not here to argue that topics of race, gender and sexuality, or any other injustices should be left out of comedy. In fact, I think that comedy can be an incredibly useful and entertaining platform to get awareness out for these subjects and to get a conversation going. Laci Green, YouTube sex positive educator and activist, posted a video entitled “It’s Just a Joke,” in which she spoke brilliantly about the subject. “Criticism doesn’t mean that the subject matter is a problem, it’s not necessarily the topic, it’s the approach,” she said. “Humor is a type of communication. All humor has an underlying message. And that message, whether or not we consciously process it, is the reason why we’re laughing.”
Performers, writers, and anyone who makes a business out of producing media for the masses has a moral obligation to think about the message that their work is sending. It is true that the United States has laws protecting freedom of speech, and anyone has the right to publish whatever material they wish. That doesn’t mean that listeners will not critique or hold them morally responsible. So what is so horrible about an off color joke? Green explained, “Things like rape jokes, fat jokes, police brutality jokes that come at the victim’s expense, and that’s a key, normalize inequalities that already exist in the world. People with less power are seen as acceptable targets for cruelty, so when we laugh at someone’s suffering, we’re participating in a broader cultural phenomenon where we don’t take those injustices seriously.”
There definitely are really good ways to approach these topics, to do the opposite and use comedy inform people about injustices and to maybe even change their minds about them. Louis C.K. has never been one to shy away from serious topics in his work. Take this quote from one of his stand up bits about gay rights: “It doesn’t have any effect on your life. What do you care?! People try to talk about it like it’s a social issue. Like when you see someone stand up on a talk show and say, ‘How am I supposed to explain to my children that two men are getting married?’… I dunno. It’s your sh*tty kid. You f*ckin’ tell ’em. Why is that anyone else’s problem? Two guys are in love, and they can’t get married because you don’t want to talk to your ugly child for five f*ckin’ minutes?”
His jokes are vulgar and abrasive, but instead of tearing down already marginalized groups, they use humor to point out the absurdity of prejudice. He is not the only one, either. Amy Schumer is breaking ground with her show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” which regularly tackles feminist issues and even petitioned Comedy Central for the right to use the word “pussy.” The Huffington Post wrote about the incident. “When [Schumer] and executive producer Dan Powell realized that she couldn’t say the word “pussy” on the show without it being censored, she pushed back, citing the fact that other genitalia words, particularly ‘dick’ doesn’t get the bleep,” they said. “Citing the show’s embracement of women’s issues and skewering of gender politics, Powell let Comedy Central know that being free to say “pussy” without a censor was something important to Amy and the show.”
In this case, vulgarity is being used to the advantage of the oppressed group, not to belittle them. There are many examples of great comedians out there who are using these techniques to talk about difficult topics in funny ways. The problem lies with people who don’t seem to know which side of the joke to be on. “What we choose to say and do with our platforms, with the stage, with the mic, with the YouTube channel, [etc.] speaks volumes about our character. We can choose to punch up at abuses of power, or we can continue to punch at those who are already down,” said Green. And how do you know where you should draw the line with your comedy? Green said, “Just ask, ‘who finds this funny?’ Jokes by no means need to be universal, but who’s in the group that’s laughing? ‘Are abusers, date rapists, the KKK, high school bullies, laughing with me? Who is being validated by the message that I’m communicating?’”
Let’s make sure that we’re validating the people whose voices really do need to be heard, and lifting them up, instead of the people who continue to abuse power over others. Not all comedy has to be 100 percent activism, and it’s okay to just want to get a good laugh. “Not everyone needs to reach that pinnacle of perfection and change the world with their comedy, but at the very least, we can be good to each other,” said Green.
I’d like to leave with a line from a truly wonderful and hilarious episode of “Louie,” Louis C.K.’s FX TV show. In the episode, the main story line is that Louis is being pursued by a teen who has threatened to beat him up. The butt of the joke is that this middle aged man is afraid of a kid. In a beautiful moment, Louis confronts the kid and says, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.” Stay kind, folks.

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