In light of the recent brouhaha over the ill-conceived Harriet Tubman comedy skit on Russell Simmons’ YouTube channel, some commentary and a question for you all – the question being: are there any topics that are completely off-limits when it comes to comedy?
It’s an ongoing debate that comes up in the public sphere at least once a year it seems, usually when a comedian jokes about something or someone others deem seemingly exempt from being fodder for any comic’s routine. Which is essentially what happened this time around, with Russell Simmons, who had to issue a public apology in reaction to swift and decisive criticism he found himself on the receiving end of.
It’s practically a guaranteed annual (at least) occurrence: comedian says something controversial; people get outraged; comedian issues apology (sometimes); and then the debates begin, op-eds are written for and against, making the usual arguments about placing limits on comedy, versus that right that we call *free speech* – in this country (USA) anyway. There are countries where telling a risque joke can put the *offender* in very serious, potentially life-threatening trouble.
Although, here in the USA, while we supposedly have the right to speak freely, a constitutional right to free speech, some would argue that we are still very much constrained by certain laws as well as public opinion on what we can and cannot say publicly. Essentially – freedom of speech, but just watch what you say.
Does this mean that comics should stay clear of what would widely be deemed offensive humor? Well, if they’re not prepared to handle any blowback, then yes. I believe that if you’re going to go there, as the saying goes, be able to stay there, and stand your ground, and support your words. No apologies. Apologizing suggests that you obviously didn’t think hard, long and critically enough about your joke before you made it public.
As you may have noticed, the more fearless comics amongst us tend to be intelligent, wise, thoughtful and articulate people who understand how powerful comedy and language can be in illuminating what ails societies, and helping to bring about an understanding that may not have been present previously. They know how to use comedy and language to get underneath the surface of things and make bold, subversive points, and not just blindly, thoughtlessly as a tool to shock.
Telling a joke about something or someone without some comprehensible underlying point to it all, isn’t comedy. That is, unless you’re a comedian who’s satisfied with what would amount to insults for the heck of it. And if you are, it’s obviously your choice. But don’t be surprised nor feign shock and misunderstanding, nor run and hide, when others challenge and criticize you for it. You’re free to speak, but not free from criticism.
So all that said, back to my original question: are there any subjects that you feel should be completely off-limits when it comes to comedy, no matter how smart and intelligently the joke is delivered? Or do you feel that nothing is exempt, and it is indeed all in the comic’s delivery?
Discuss in the comments section below.
I recall Dave Chappelle’s man-rape joke which sharply divided audiences a few years ago – some thought it was hilarious; others were deeply offended. And there was Louis C.K.’s appearance on The Daily Show discussing the limits of funny. Both clips embedded below.