Political Correctness, Power and Privilege in Comedy

Or, as one of my Improv teachers puts it, 'Screw your dumb jokes'

Ever since Jerry Seinfeld made a lazy gay joke on a college campus and didn’t get a laugh – and then whined about it to Seth Meyers – there’s been renewed interest in the debate about whether political correctness is killing comedy. College campuses, which used to be primary tour destinations for stand-up comics, have been declared off-limits by the likes of Seinfeld and even Chris Rock for being too PC. Somehow, college audiences have lost their sense of humour. Or have they?

Comedy historian, writer and podcaster Kliph Nesteroff sees things differently. Speaking at Toronto's Comedy Bar, while promoting his recent book ‘The Comedians’ (a history of the personalities that have shaped comedy in North America), he was asked about Seinfeld's anti-PC lament. Nesteroff replied, sensibly, that comedy dates quickly – it’s generational, and tastes are always changing. Jerry Seinfeld, he pointed out, is 62 years old. And Rock is now in his 50s. They are comics from a previous generation, and college audiences are no more likely to find Seinfeld funny now than the young audiences that first embraced George Carlin or Eddie Murphy were likely to find Bob Hope funny.

There is of course growing diversity among the ranks of stand-up comics, and women, people of colour, and members of other under-represented groups suffer no lack of biting material to draw from. Part of the challenge white, male, presumably straight comics (who continue to be the majority) face on college campuses is that college audiences are less white and less male than they used to be. Much of comedy springs from a pool of shared cultural assumptions and social experiences between the comic and his (or her) audience, many of which simply can no longer be taken for granted. You are not necessarily just like them; and they certainly are not just like you.

In any case, blaming your audience for lacking a sense of humour may be reassuring to people who no longer have to do stand-up for a living, but it doesn’t help any younger would-be comic who’s just starting out. For them, the rule of thumb is the same as it’s ever been – if the audience doesn’t laugh, it's not funny. Your job is to read the audience and figure out what they will find funny. And these days, that requires more than a little awareness of where you stand relative to them in various relationships of power and privilege.

So how have tastes changed in the past generation, and how can comedians do a better job of speaking to this generation of comedy audiences?

Interestingly, as Benjamin K. Bergin documents in his book ‘What The F’, there’s been a reversal of what is likely to cause offence since the 50s and early 60s, when profanity was off limits, but sexism, homophobia and all manner of racial jokes were fair game. (This is what gave George Carlin’s classic routine about ‘The 7 Words You Can’t Say on Television’ it’s boundary-busting punch.)

Today, the reverse is true. Young people are not in the least fazed by profanity. They’ve grown up marinated in it thanks to cable TV and the Internet. The use of the F-word has gone from a form of emphasis to a form of punctuation, so ubiquitous it no longer has any impact. But slurs, for the most part, are no longer tolerated. And younger audiences rightly get their backs up at hackneyed racial stereotypes, homophobia, and blatant sexism.

All of this speaks to the generally understood rule that comedy should punch up, at the powerful, not down, at the vulnerable. This rule is needed because comedy does have a dark and a light side. The dark side consists of ridicule, insult and humiliation. This is the humour of schoolyard bullies, when directed at the weak; hopefully most people grow out of that. In adult life, however, these tools are mostly off limits, except when directed at the powerful, ideally in the hands of a skilled satirist.

The problem is that if you’re white, straight and male, there aren’t a lot of people to punch up towards. And if you’re rich and famous, like Seinfeld, there’s almost nobody above you. So what’s a comic who's not Aziz Ansari or Amy Schumer to do? We’ll get to that in a moment…

The lighter side of comedy is, of course, aimed at correcting our own bad behaviour, poking fun at our foibles and social gaffes, exposing our own bad manners. Making fun of ourselves is fertile ground, and unlikely to offend. Where it gets dicey is when those bad manners expose our ignorance, our unexamined prejudices and stereotypes. And yet, because nowadays we want humour to be edgy and boundary-pushing, that’s exactly where many comics want to go - at their own peril!

So how do you do that without slipping over to the dark side of ridicule and humiliation, and entertain audiences full of people who are not necessarily like you in privilege or power?

What comics need to do is the same things writers and other artists need to do when representing the Other, as laid out in an excellent Buzzfeed article by Daniel José Olderthey need to think more deeply about how power works in the world, and where they stand in that dynamic. They need, in short, to become aware of their own privilege, send it up and ridicule it if they can, and certainly not abuse their audiences with it, or expect the audience to find it funny when they are so abused. As a gay man, I am subjected to lazy gay jokes in comedy settings all the time. I'm not sure why someone as powerful and, to give him his due, talented as Jerry Seinfeld gets to tell me that I should find his dumb joke funny, rather than doing what he would have done as a young, hungry comic – reworked the joke until it actually was funny.

So who does it well, and how do they do it?

Louis C.K.’s brilliant routine about dating is, I think, a great example of making people laugh at a very delicate topic – the constant threat of sexual violence faced by women everywhere. How does he do it? By acknowledging the insanity of the power dynamic at work, and asking the men in his audience (gently, implicitly) to see and own up to their own role in perpetuating it. He can do this because he is a man – and he is treating the men in his audience as ‘playmates’ and equals (to use Henri Bergson's term) – creating a safe context (of comedy) in which he can force them to look at something unpleasant in themselves.

Louis C.K. says, “It takes courage to go on a date. Two very different kinds of courage.”

For men, he says, it’s merely fear of rejection, which he makes great sport of. The anxiety of approaching someone and being shot down is something anyone, male or female, can relate to. Again, he’s talking to his audience as playmates. The message is: ‘We’re the same.’ But then it turns.

“The courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine. A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane, and ill-advised. And the whole species’ existence counts on them doing it! I don’t know how women still go out with guys, when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men! We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We are the worst thing that happens to them. That’s true. You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease. That’s the whole thing. That’s it.”

Notice that he says, ‘we’ are the worst thing, not ‘you’, or ‘them’. He includes himself in the group that he is holding up for scrutiny. That’s one way comics can interrogate their privilege on stage, and have everyone laughing along with them.

Closer to home, a great Canadian comic, Peter White, has a routine (featured on CBC's Laugh Out Loud, Nov. 4, 2016) that touches on a similar theme: how straight men respond to the situation of being hit on in gay bars.

Again, he speaks to the – homophobic – men in his audience as peers, as playmates. He’s gently ribbing them about their absurd level of fear, and forcing them to recognize that the vulnerable person in that situation is the gay man, not you – the straight one.

After being hit on with an implicit, if very polite, offer of casual sex, White realizes, “ ‘Oh my god – that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!’ For real? You’re going to buy me shots first? What is this, my birthday? That’s amazing. Is this what being gay is, cause this is supercool. I mean the dude part I don’t love, but everything else. Oh my god, that’s insane. Like if a girl ever said that to me once, that would be the single greatest day of my life. It’s never happened, it’s never going to happen. So far it’s only been four dudes.”

But then he goes on to interrogate the homophobic response of many of his peers, which is no joke in a world where the ‘gay panic defense’ has been used in court – sometimes successfully – to justify straight men murdering gay men who they believe are hitting on them.

“ ‘Did you hear what that son of a bitch said?! Said he wanted to take me downstairs and ‘show me a good time!’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’re allowed to be mad at that. You can’t be mad at that. It’s such a friendly offer. I know it’s not exactly what you want, but you can’t be mad at that. It’s like being mad at somebody for trying to give you a bunch of money in the wrong currency.' ”

Really great, innovative, fresh comedy makes us laugh at things we’ve never thought funny before, because we’ve never seen them that way before. In other words, things we take for granted, things we don’t even notice. And what is more taken for granted than power and privilege by those who hold it?

Smart comedy can expose the workings – and the absurdities – of power and privilege, show us their outlines, mock their pretences – chiefly the pretence of weakness, when the would-be victimizer poses as a victim and demands our sympathy. It doesn’t need to go after people’s identities simply to ridicule them and get cheap laughs, or to go after people’s feelings simply to offend, shock or belittle them.

If the most recent U.S. election has reminded us of anything, it is that there is no security for minority rights in a democracy unless the majority supports them. That’s a chilling thought. That was the terrible lesson the highly assimilated Jews of Weimar Germany learned. And as long as the majority is a straight, white, patriarchal majority, those whose identities fall outside of that presumptive ‘norm’ will never be secure. Not even in as innocuous a setting as a comedy club.

Jerry Seinfeld doesn't get to decide if his gay joke is offensive or not. The gay members (and allies) in his audience do. Just as, in life generally, we don't get to decide what language to use when addressing members of vulnerable groups, or discussing issues relevant to their very dignity, survival and personhood. They decide, and using their preferred language is literally the least the majority can do—to show that we are on board, that we truly believe in the equality we profess to cherish and uphold.

That’s called checking your own privilege, showing yourself sensitive to how power really works, and doing what you can to make it work differently. And if that’s ‘politically correct’, then it’s hard to imagine what principled argument can be put forward for behaving any differently.

In other words, ‘Screw your dumb jokes.’



1) PC Makes Comedy Better

2) When Bigoted Humour Just Isn’t A Joke

3) Maybe Political Correctness Isn’t Ruining Comedy

4) CBC The 180: Is Political Correctness Killing Comedy?

This is an interesting discussion of the issue, but it doesn’t make a sufficiently clear distinction between poking fun at the beliefs and sacred cows of a group to which you belong, and poking fun at groups to which you don’t belong, and over whom you have a measure of power or privilege.