Remember when Russell Brand caught heat from the Disability Alliance for referring to the Paralympic Games as a “novelty?” Comedians are infamous for their off-color jokes and crossing the line. Over this past year we have seen some of our favorites offend audiences with their well-intentioned jokes. Through the controversy, society is forced to grapple with their own thoughts, preconceptions and insecurities.
Last summer, comedians Tracy Morgan and Katt Williams issued apologies for anti-gay and racist statements they made while performing stand-up routines. According to multiple reports, Morgan said that if his son was gay, “he better talk to me like a man…or I’ll stab that little (n-word).”
Williams directed his rant at a Mexican-American audience member in Phoenix, Arizona, saying, “Mothaf*ckas think they can live in this country and pledge allegience to another country… do you remember when white people used to say go back to Africa? And we’d have to tell them we dont want to? So if you love Mexico, bitch, get the f*ck over there!”
While their apologies were important and usually well received, the controversial “quips” have already been said, and once uttered, are no longer in the control of the comedian, but rather society’s reaction to them.
A person’s reaction to a statement comes from the individual’s viewpoint . When Morgan went on an anti-gay rant during his show, making statements like he’d kill his son for coming home gay, he brings with it issues of hate crimes and intolerance. With these statements he definitely crossed lines, but he also brought to surface the issue of homophobia. As an audience, we are forced to come to terms with our own views of such issues, and whether we find any truth to Morgan’s or any other comedian’s statements.
The success of a comedian’s routine is based on a connection with an audience over common experiences and truth. As an audience we sit back and enjoy having our society and lives poked fun at in a harsh yet humorous way. Notice the popularity of comedians like Louis C.K or Bill Maher. But when focusing the content of a joke on experience or perceived truth, not every idea is common and universal to each person on the receiving end. Jokes are often made at the expense of others and can easily cross the line into hurtful material. This leads to controversy and inevitably audience members take offense.
Many times I’ve gritted my teeth at jokes made at the expense of women; jokes that couldn’t have been further from the truth. To me, those jokes just aren’t funny and are often times malicious. But just as I have the right to be offended and voice my opinion about it, comedians have the right to say what they want. While society tends to get into an uproar over a controversial statement made by a comedian, these statements also bring to surface issues within contemporary society.
There are many pros and cons to a controversial joke, but as a society we tend to focus on the negatives. The pros, on the other hand, bring self-awareness and insight into the controversy. Comedian Ricky Gervais, whose rising star comes from his tendency to offend, made a compelling argument in his BBC web blog when he said, “when dealing with a so-called taboo subject the angst and discomfort of the audience is what’s under the microscope. Our own preconceptions and prejudices are often what are being challenged.”
A comedian’s main job is to find humor wherever they can, but it’s also to challenge our own thoughts. Whether or not it was the comedian’s intent to do so, their controversial words are out there, and we’re all thinking about them.