“Be sure to check any and all political correctness at the door!” read the press release for one two-week running show at Montreal’s 35th annual Just For Laughs comedy festival. As though the industry has developed a reflex against audience members they perceive to be overly sensitive, it’s not uncommon to hear phrases at the beginning of comedy shows warning people against feeling offended by jokes that are frequently sexist, racist, or homophobic. Comedy has a problem with sensitivity, and rather than admitting it, many comics shift the blame onto viewers for being too delicate or attempting to stifle free speech.
This approach is wrongheaded. By turning the audience into the enemy, comics gloss over the fact that there is a wide range of people who are, at best, underrepresented on the stage, and at worst, mocked in jokes by members of dominant groups. Audiences have tremendous power to challenge this by choosing wisely which comics and material they support.
One clear reason that some stand-up comedians regularly use material that is offensive or off-colour is its shock value. While many comics pat themselves on the back for having the guts to blurt out what they perceive everyone to already be thinking, getting laughs at the expense of minority groups is a low stoop. Jimmy Carr’s holocaust jokes, Steve Byrne’s sarcastic praise of ‘fat white girls,’ and Angelah Johnson’s impressions of her asian manicurist are all examples of bits that can make a portion of the audience feel unwelcome at a show. Ignoring political correctness or basic sensitivity when writing and telling jokes perpetuates a vicious cycle that keeps marginalized folks excluded from the world of stand-up—both as audience members and performers.
The question of who stand-up comedy serves—the audience or the comic—is relevant to any debate over what’s appropriate material for the stage. Claiming that potentially triggering content is universally unacceptable to joke about is difficult because limits on acceptable speech are fuzzy. In some circumstances—if one has experienced trauma or injustice, for example—joking about the experience can provide a sense of release. For Emma Cooper and Heather Jordan Ross, sexual assault survivors and co-producers of Rape is Real and Everywhere: A Comedy Show, making jokes about their experiences is cathartic. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the comics discussed the thought they put into framing the sensitive content of their jokes so as to tackle the issue of sexual violence—not its survivors. Cooper and Jordan Ross recognize that regardless of intent, they never know who is attending their show that might feel hurt by what they say, so sensitivity is key.
What’s more, limiting subject matter can serve to push comedians creatively. Ryan Hamilton, for example, is a mormon comedian known for keeping his sets completely clean, opting to joke about his personal experiences with hot air balloon rides and growing up in Idaho rather than taking jabs at others. The number of topics that a comic can mention during a set that won’t alienate any viewers is far greater than the number of topics that will. Choosing boundaries is a good exercise in resourcefulness and forces the comic to delve more deeply and strategically into materials that they can use, rather than resorting to lazy stereotypes or offensive accents.
Much of the responsibility of challenging the status quo falls in the hands of audiences. Recognizing when it is and is not one’s place to laugh at a joke is valuable for any audience member. So is taking to task performers that don’t demonstrate that same sensitivity. The most simple solution is to boycott the performances—live or televised—of comedians whose material alienates subsects of viewers, and instead support comics whose work is more inclusive.
Another step audiences can take is to be mindful of how laughter at a live show reinforces what’s considered acceptable and what’s not. Comics typically pay attention to the volume of laughter they receive for each bit in their set, and may edit their jokes accordingly after a poorly-received performance. Choosing explicitly not to laugh at jokes that feel queasy and inappropriate, while laughing harder than normal at jokes that are inclusive and funny is an effective strategy for giving the performer feedback and maybe even changing their set.
For as many comedians who use the microphone to mock or criticize underprivileged groups, there are just as many comics who prioritize being inclusive and making audiences feel decidedly good at the end of a show. As comedy consumers continue to question what is acceptable for the stage, the industry must move towards being an inclusive space for all people.