Take a Joke: The Sweeping Politicization of Comedy

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Sat, Feb 13 - 4:50 pm EDT | 1 year ago by
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    Stop Political Correctness

    Everything – EVERYTHING – is political in the United States right now. People don’t agree with the Oscar nominations? It’s a political issue. College students want fried chicken for dinner every week? It’s a political issue. Your work air conditioner is too cold? It’s a political issue. Kermit’s new muppet girlfriend is skinny? It’s a political issue. So, it’s unsurprising that people would turn comedy into a political issue.

    There is currently a hefty expectation of comedy – an idea that there is inherent social responsibility tied to it. It often is on the receiving end of criticism for “perpetuating stereotypes” or “being offensive” or, my personal favorite, “punching down.” There are these unwritten laws of comedy which serve as the lens through which self-appointed progressive judges determine the innocence or guilt of any particular comedian, based off naught but a joke and some feelings. An invisible roadmap which dictates acceptable jokes and acceptable behavior. An expectation that comedy should make a profound political statement – as long as it is pre-approved by these unwritten guidelines, of course.

    Comedians causing outrage is nothing new, of course. The comedy world is filled to the brim with people explaining, and apologizing for, jokes that were seen as insensitive. However, plenty more have refused to cave to the pressure placed on them to be “socially responsible.”

    Chris Rock
    Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

    In a 2014 interview in New York Magazine, Chris Rock said he stopped performing at colleges because they’re “way too conservative. Not in their political views – not like they’re voting Republican – but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.” Jerry Seinfeld also began avoiding campuses, citing political correctness as the primary reason. “They just want to use these words,” Seinfeld said. “‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what the [bleep] they’re talking about.”

    In June 2014, Gilbert Gottfried penned a piece for Playboy where he argued that apology culture has gone too far, pointing to the internet as the platform of choice for the collective outraged. “It’s the modern equivalent of ringing someone’s doorbell and running away. We’re more vindictive than we’ve ever been, but we’re also cowards.” Meanwhile, in an interview with Net-A-Porter in December, Tina Fey joined the growing list of comedians who are fed up with the expectation of apologies over controversial material, stating that she is “opting out” of apology culture. “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

    And, most recently and arguably most publicly, Ricky Gervais has taken on the perpetually offended following outrage over his Golden Globes jokes, most specifically ones pertaining to Caitlyn Jenner.

    Ricky Gervais
    Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

    “But as I said, I’m going to be nice tonight — I’ve changed,” said Gervais during his opening monologue. “Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes … She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, but you can’t have everything, can you?”

    People were upset not because Gervais joked about a situation in which a woman lost her life, but rather that he was a little bit mean to the person who killed that woman. Instead of apologizing, Gervais spent days doubling down on Twitter, using some of the most colorful language I’ve ever seen – and it was amazing.

    Yes, much of the comedy world is “offensive.” However, it is in this offense that comedians are pushing social boundaries – perhaps just not the ones the progressive public want them to. Much like tasting the forbidden fruit of Eden, through comedy people are free to explore thoughts and emotions that are otherwise deemed unacceptable. Like a sugar coating to bitter medicine, comedy has the ability to strip power from “offensive” words and thoughts. And this isn’t restricted to “punching up,” either.

    Punching up, for anyone lucky enough to be unaware of such buzzwords, is the rule of “hitting” perpetrators, not victims, when joking about edgy topics. This punch theory is built on the idea that “true” satire is an outlet for the disenfranchised to take on the powerful, and that any jokes about minorities is akin to hate speech. Some will point to rape jokes – you “CAN” joke about rape culture, but “never” about actual rape – while some will immediately pre-condemn jokes about “types” of people – including women, racial minorities, homosexuals, and Caitlyn Jenner. Oh, and Muslims.

    Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, online publications worldwide rightly lined up to condemn the senseless murder of twelve people over satirical cartoons. But many also lined up to condemn the publication itself, for the “crime” of punching down.

    One response stated that while “an armed attack on a newspaper is shocking,” that the editorial staff of Hebdo “ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out.”

    “I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would,” reads a column on NPR. “It is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world; it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods.”

    Looking at comedy and satire in this way removes nuance and personal interpretations of identity. French Muslims can be viewed as a minority group, but Islam as a whole is the second largest religion in the world, as well as an oppressive form of government. By the logic of punch theorists, any non-Christian criticizing Islam and Muslims is “punching up.” It is virtually impossible to argue that organized religions and the government are not both powerful institutions, right?

    There is an unwritten, but frequently preached, moral test assigned to satirists and comics by super-progressives. An idea that sexist or racist humor must have some sort of profound underlying context in order to spur dialogue and dismantle perceived systems of oppression. That comedy has a responsibility to do more than make people laugh. That those practicing comedy have an obligation to spur political change, when so frequently people turn to comedy in order to escape what is serious, and often what is moral, in real life.

    With that said, I will leave you with this:

    “Humor is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”
    ~ Mary Hirsch, humorist

    Top photo by Jim Vallee/Getty Images

    Liz Finnegan is a soulless ginger with no political leanings. Pun enthusiast. Self-proclaimed “World’s Okayest Person.” Retro gaming contributor for The Escapist.

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