The Blog

Is There a Line in Comedy? Here's a More Important Question

So, here's my question to you: Why do you think that your freedom to mock and dehumanize marginalized groups unchallenged is more important than not actively encouraging harm against those groups?

No doubt over Halloween you've seen your own fair share of disgusting costumes. Whether it's digs at rape victims, child sexual abuse victims, transphobic costumes or the good ol' traditional blackface costume, there's plenty of nonsense going around under the guise of comedy.

So, here's my question to you: Why do you think that your freedom to mock and dehumanize marginalized groups unchallenged is more important than not actively encouraging harm against those groups?

Now, here's a conversation I find myself in regularly.

I am a standup comedian, have been for just over a year, and you see these kinds of excuses and opinions fly around whenever anyone tries to address poor behavior and offensive material.

The excuse that I encounter most often by far is:

"It's just a joke."

No, it's not.

There are countless studies that show that when exposed to jokes about marginalized groups (in this study, misogynistic jokes) the percentage of the audience who have any kind of leaning towards a prejudice are more likely to actively discriminate against the target of the joke (and believe that other audience members would approve of that discrimination).

Not only that but the studies also showed that active discrimination was more likely to happen following jokes about marginalized groups than following neutral jokes or even outright prejudicial statements.

In stand up comedy, you don't know who your audience are, and with comedy that you broadcast online this is especially true. For every person who hears your misogynistic joke or racist joke or homophobic joke or transphobic joke or ableist joke or fat shaming joke or rape joke or pedophilia joke or joke about domestic violence, finds it funny and is unaffected by it whatsoever, I guarantee you there is at least one person who will go back into the world and make the lives of the punchline to your joke a little bit shittier than it already is.

"Don't censor me."

Criticism is not the same as censorship and neither is explaining the consequences to your chosen actions. There is no way to physically stop people from making jokes about whatever subject they choose to and I don't believe there should be and it's true that no subject should be untouchable in comedy but the way you approach it really matters.

None of the subjects I mentioned are impossible to make jokes about and address in your comedy but you should really be aware of who the target of derision is. Whether you believe it or not, there are power structures in place that other and disadvantage anyone who is not a cis white straight able-bodied man. What those power structures mean is that if your joke is at the expense of anyone but that particular group (with the exception of victims of violent crimes) then it is harmful. You can choose not to acknowledge that but you can't choose not to accept the consequences for that (whether it's criticism, scrutiny or even losing your platform).

Anyone can make a prejudicial joke that plays on stereotypes that already exist in our collective consciousness, that are already reinforced by various media, that will get a laugh from recognition and nothing more. That takes virtually no writing or performing ability to do; it's almost up there with farting to break a silence (although that does, at least, require good timing).

So, in conclusion, if you want to make prejudicial jokes then knock yourself out but you cannot claim to be ignorant to its effects and there's nothing stopping anyone from calling you out for it (and it does make you a bad person, not in a cool edgy way but more of a "this person clearly doesn't care about marginalized groups being murdered and raped because of the stereotypes they are perpetuating for the sake of a bad joke that clearly took them no time at all to write and is indicative of their inability to produce anything worthwhile" kinda way).