When Does a Joke Go Too Far?
September 8, 2015
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic, I remember it so you don't have to. We live in an interesting time because of our internet culture, don't we?
NC (vo): Most of us just go online for either business or pleasure, but then there's another two groups of people we're all too familiar with: those looking to offend (OFFENDERS), and those looking to be offended (OFFENDIES).
NC: And admit it, we've all come across these people and they're both PAINS in the ass.
NC (vo): Extremist trolls looking to get attention by pissing people off, and extremist cry babies looking to get attention by acting like everything, everywhere is an insult. We usually shrug or laugh them off and then go on with our lives.
NC: But the combination of the two extremes has led to an interesting issue being addressed: our humor.
NC (vo): Some would argue humor has gone way too far, driving too much into bad taste and harsh stereotypes. Others would say humor has gone too soft; afraid to anger the politically correct sensitivities of the world.
NC: Are either of them right? Do any of them hold any water?
NC (vo): Well first of all, offensive comedy is nothing new. Comedians have been censored, harassed, even sent to jail for jokes that today would be seen as pretty common place. That's because, as mentioned by myself and others, all comedy is based on some form of misery. So you'll always have to address something unpleasant in order to get a laugh. George Carlin, one of the world's most beloved rule breakers once said, "Comedy doesn't work unless someone's getting offended." And he's right. Puns are a mockery of language, goofy faces are a mockery of strange looking people, you really have to think about it, but, yeah. Somebody's pride has to be challenged in order to for it to work.
NC: But what most good comedians realize is the more truth in pain you can emphasize, usually the more funny it is.
NC (vo): Tom and Jerry is much funnier than Smurfs because it really looks like the pain hurts. Malcolm in the Middle is much funnier than Full House because they address much harsher realities. But of course if you were to see any of these in real life, you'd probably be horrified and wouldn't laugh at all. Hence, this is why comedy is a defense mechanism, which I go more into in other editorials.
NC: But this begs the question, when does a joke go too far? Why is it OK when Dave Chappelle...
NC (vo): ...uses the N-Word...
NC: ...but not OK when somebody else uses it like eeeh....
(Cut to Michael Richards' racist rant at The Laugh Factory, 2006)
Michael Richards: IT'S UNCALLED FOR YOU TO INTERRUPT MY ASS, YOU CHEAP MOTHERFUCKER!
(Cut back to the NC in awkward silence)
NC (vo): To many of us, this might seem pretty fucking obvious what the difference is, but like in many cases, you need an extreme to understand an extreme. So we'll just use this one as an example. When Richards used the word, it wasn't to laugh at a problem or offer an interesting point of view, his intent was to seriously hurt a person. With Chappelle, he uses the exact same word, but he's mocking such hate. He's using it as a means of satire and to get people to look at an issue. Both were trying to make the audience laugh but one came from a place of trying to do something positive, while the other came from a place of trying to do something negative.
NC: So, does it simply come down to intent?
(Cut to imagery relating to Gilbert Gottfried's tsunami joke controversy)
NC (vo): Not entirely. Gilbert Gottfried got in trouble when he made tsunami jokes shortly after a massive Japanese earthquake. It even ended up costing him his voiceover job for Aflac. Now tsunami jokes were nothing new, but when it was made just after that real life event, the pain was still too close for most people. This is why most people say comedy is pain plus time. We've all heard Titanic jokes or Lincoln assassination jokes but, if you were to make those shortly after the event, it would be seen as insensitive because you wouldn't be taking into consideration the pain others are going through. This is where the phrase, "Too Soon" comes from. Gottfried eventually apologized as he realized he crossed the line. There wasn't enough positivity to the joke in order to make people laugh. That doesn't make him a bad person and his career would still do fine, but many would agree the joke hurt more than it healed.
(Cut to scenes from South Park and Family Guy)
NC (vo): Some comedians however thrive on bad taste. There's people like Matt Stone and Trey Parker and to a lesser extent, Seth MacFarlane, who make no qualms that they want to try anything funny and don't care who gets offended in the process. While both can be entertaining, most find themselves enjoying Stone and Parker's humor more. But why? They both seem focused on shock value and what's inappropriate. Part of it may come from the fact that their (Stone and Parker) most popular projects "South Park" and "(The) Book of Mormon", instill trust that its creators can be goofy but also have a balanced mindset. The extremism seems like an excuse to apply common sense into a world of madness. Something a lot of us can identify with and see a lot of comedy in. Seth MacFarlane's work is always a mean crazy person in a mean crazy world. So his comedy seems less balanced and more desperate to shock. Nowhere is that more obvious than with the joke about Sarah Palin's child. I think it's actually kinda confusing. On "Family Guy", Chris goes on a date with a girl who has Down Syndrome and she says her mother is the former Governor of Alaska. Palin got so pissed and caused others to make a big fuss about it but, to me, the biggest insult is the joke doesn't make sense. Palin has a son with Down's Syndrome. Are they implying that former Governors of Alaska have Down Syndrome kids? Are they saying the son got a sex change and suddenly became a teenager really fast? The joke is such a cheap shot at shock humor that people got offended by it before they even asked if they really got it. That's an example of humor looking to shock just for the sake of shock value. Now that's not to say it can't be funny or even downright hilarious at times, but it's not gonna hit as many bulls eyes as "South Park" - (Posters for "Ted 2" and "A Million Ways to Die in the West") as we've seen the past couple of years - because we relate with Parker and Stone's humor more and therefore trust them more. So the art of bad taste is still an art nonetheless.
NC: But what about when it goes the other direction; when not being too offensive kills the comedy but being too politically correct kills the comedy?
(Images relating to Speedy Gonzales)
NC (vo): Remember when they banned Speedy Gonzales for a while? Yeah, this was actually a thing. So many people were offended and said he was a bad Mexican stereotype. That is except for one group of people: fucking Mexicans. Yeah, they thought Speedy was fine, there was nothing wrong with him! Eventually too many complaints saying they wanted to see him back that that's exactly what they did. And now he's back in the regular Looney Tunes lineup. That was getting offended for a group of people that wasn't even offended!
(Images of Jerry Seinfeld related controversies)
NC (vo): Jerry Seinfeld once made a joke about models looking pissed on the runway and people were shouting sexist at him. In fact he stopped playing at college campuses because audiences were too sensitive to his material.
NC: College campuses were too sensitive to the most vanilla stand-up you can think of?!
NC (vo): I thought colleges were supposed to be wild and crazy; a bunch of party people! Jerry Seinfeld was too extreme for you?!
NC: Christ, they'd probably faint if Raffi went onstage.
(Imagery of people being offended by Amy Poehler)
NC (vo): Amy Poehler, one of America's funniest performers and feminist icon, did a sitcom on Hulu about a comedian who leaves the profession because her colleagues say too many offensive jokes.
NC: Guess what happened? Twitter got...
NC (vo): ...offended at the offensive jokes they were supposed to find offensive! Christ, isn't that kind of like saying...
NC: ..."You know, I know I'm not supposed to like the Nazis but the way you represented them just seemed a little too mean. These were a little too mean for Nazis!"
(Images of Key and Peele sketch)
NC: These aren't the only comedians that have noticed it. There's a brilliant Key and Peele sketch where a company vice-president asks a black man, a white woman, and a gay man to listen to his speech to make sure it's not offensive. They make dozens of complaints about how offended they are before he even gets to the speech. When he finally does begin the speech, he says that a Chinaman, a Polack and an Arab walk into a bar, and of course, the three of them have no problem with it.
NC: And I think that sketch gets to why there's such an extreme between people who are looking to offend, and people who are looking to be offended.
NC (vo): It all comes from where we place our emotions. We still live in an online culture where you can be ambiguous and therefore your actions don't really have any punishment. Now not everybody abuses this like a psychopath, but many use the internet as a means to get out aggression and frustration that everybody feels in their lives. And of course, if you do it in a healthy way that's not hurting anybody, there's nothing wrong with it. At least, if you realize that's what you're doing. Socially awkward people looking for fast attention usually become trolls or pick pointless fights in forums. And we all see them throw out swear words and slurs and pretty much just ignore them. But then there's people looking to fight for a cause, which is fine. Causes are good, they set change in motion and let the world know when it's time to correct something...
NC: ...but if you go into a cause for a wrong reason say, to fulfill an emotional, even selfish need, you're gonna probably be making the cause look bad.
NC (vo): If you're fighting for something to fill a void and not because you want actual change, you're liable to being more close-minded to the subject. This can also lead to seeing scenarios that aren't really there. Remember when Michael Jackson said one of his albums (Invincible) didn't sell because Sony was racist?
NC: Uh, yeah, that must be it.
NC (vo): Remember when Meryl Streep called Disney a sexist, anti-Semite? Even though there has never been any evidence to prove so? And not to bring up Palin again but, remember when she turned feminist for just a few minutes? Claiming the reason everyone was picking on her because she was a woman?
NC: Nailed it! You've given us NO other reason to possibly make fun of you!
NC (vo): All of these are good causes: race, religion, gender. The equality of all of them is worth fighting for. But pent up emotion can explode at the wrong time and at the wrong people. Leading us to demonize perfectly good ideas or causes. Don't worry. We're not gonna be short of racist, sexist bigoted assholes out there. You don't need to go searching for them where they don't exist. And you don't need to destroy good comedy for it either.
NC: In reality, the best way to cause change isn't to soften humor but rather increase humor.
NC (vo): Great comedians like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, have become the most trusted people in media not because they wave their fingers and complain, but because they apply humor, satire and common sense to facts that really matter. But let's be honest: it's the comedy that draws us in. We listen to them first because they're funny, then, because they're dealing with hard truths.
NC: Look at John Oliver on YouTube; he's fucking...
NC (vo): ...exploding! Lot's of people are getting interested in subjects that they never would have been interested before. But because he makes them so funny and so interesting, you'd rather listen to him than some stick in the mud on twitter.
NC: But, if we were to go by the "No comedy can be offensive guidelines" then not only would we lose these incredible truths, but also the great comedians that made it possible.
NC (vo): So then, should we never be offended by anything? No. There are people and jokes that are trying to spread more hate and despair rather than joy and change, and we should call them out on it. But does that mean we should list the things we can talk about and the things we can't talk about? Of course not; that would be against free speech and limiting our growth. Remember when we were offended by Bart Simpson on TV? Or Madonna, or any of these other people? These were shocking icons that were gonna destroy our generation and now, they're just common place people barely even give a shit about them anymore. But they evolved us to an area where this could be common place. And talk about subjects that need to be talked about. So then, how do we know who to get offended by and who not to get offended by?
NC: Well sadly the answer's not in any book and it's not online, you just have to use common sense.
NC (vo): I think most of us get a pretty strong feeling that Louis C.K. and Chris Rock don't use their offensive comedy out of mean spiritedness, they use it to make you laugh and bring out a strong point. Where comedians like Carlos Mencia and Andrew Dice Clay probably do use it out of mean spiritedness, aren't funny and that's why they didn't last very long.
(Clip of Carlos Mencia's "stand up")
Carlos Mencia: You will get on a bus to go to the Million Man March but you won't get on a bus to get away from: Katrina!
NC (vo): You just have to use your intuition. Does your gut say that deep down, they're really prejudiced or sexist or whatever. (Picture of Michael Richards) Will we always be right? (Picture of Bill Cosby) Probably not. (Pictures of Jared Fogle and Hulk Hogan) There's certainly people we've trusted before that have let us down, and there's even good comedians that crossed the line because comedy is a tricky tightrope. But it's a tightrope that needs to be walked and we need to slip up sometimes. Every comedian does. It shows how far we can go and how far we probably shouldn't go. And it also shows that we can make wrong steps but, through the positivity that made us likeable to begin with, we can get back on track. (Picture of David Letterman) Some do this beautifully, (Picture of Mel Gibson) others not so much, but if the alternative is fear and judge everything, then comedy will be dead very quickly.
NC: So, still push the envelope of what's not accepted and still fight for what's worth fighting for! Just be sure that you're communicating with the right intention.
(Clips from The "Duckman" episode, "Joking the Chicken" play)
NC (vo): Because the cost isn't worth the price. Of all things, the 90's show "Duckman" might have made the most brilliant comments about comedy ever. It's when a comedian comes in claiming he wants to do humor that doesn't offend anyone.
Iggy Catalpa: So this medical caregiver of indeterminate gender, because nurses can be male or female, says to his or her disabled, or should I say differently abled patient...
NC (vo): You get the idea. But when he surprisingly becomes a big hit, our hero comes along and says some of the most poignant words ever, about the importance of comedy. They're actually so good that I think it only fits to end the editorial with it.
Eric T. Duckman: This precisely when humor is offensive that we need it most. Comedy should provoke! It should blast through prejudices, challenge preconceptions! Comedy should always leave you different than when it found you! Sure, humor can hurt. Even alienate. But the risk is better than the alternative. DEMAND, TO BE CHALLENGED! TO BE OFFENDED! TO BE TREATED LIKE THINKING, REASONING ADULTS!
NC: A duck voiced by Jason Alexander just said one of the most important, things, ever. This is why comedy is so great. I'm the Nostalgia Critc, I remember it so you don't have to.