Political correctness culture threatens to permanently alter a comedy industry that has thrived on being unapologetically raw and brutally honest. Humor can only be achieved when there’s a kernel of truth behind the joke. My favorite author, George Orwell, was right when he said in 1945 that “every joke is a tiny revolution.” Jokes can be insensitive and still work when they expose a truth people are too polite or unwilling to admit.
Best friends have the special privilege of being completely honest with each other. When people are close with one another, offense is rarely taken because they know each other’s intentions are good. The nature of comedy can enjoy this same privilege when it disregards societal boundaries — race, gender, age, etc. — and instills a sense of closeness among people to achieve humor rather than harm. When we let ourselves surrender to the horror that comics expose and choose to laugh rather than take offense, we learn something about hard-hitting subjects that might otherwise go unaddressed.
We live in a world where self-censorship is rampant due to what some would consider a highly “woke” (and what others would consider an offense-seeking) culture. Comedy may be the last form of interactive media where it is acceptable to be offensive, because jokes are designed to be taken with a grain of salt. By making offensive jokes, comedians are paradoxically able to dispel the notions that make them offensive. Successful comics can bond with people over what they know to be true rather than tearing people apart.
Famous comedians Judy Gold and Jerry Seinfeld have stopped performing on college campuses because they have to “omit any jokes from their routine which might offend a variety of protected classes.” According to Gold, “… you need to learn how to be in this world. The world doesn’t have to adjust for you.” Michael Moynihan, a reporter for Vice, interestingly notes, “the flawed logic of the ‘P.C. Police’: College students can’t be more diverse than ever yet all have the same monolithic opinion as to what is and isn’t funny.” We use cautionary devices in speech and behavior everyday so as to convey respect and avoid overstepping boundaries. Comedy breaks down these boundaries and demands that we ignore these barriers. In this way, comedy provides momentary bliss from the constant dance of tiptoeing around sensitive or controversial topics. Comics are constantly overstepping boundaries and pushing the envelope of what’s appropriate.
The envelope can always be pushed too far, and some comedians voluntarily choose to steer clear of some topics. And colleges are allowed to make these decisions because they’re the ones paying for comedians to come to campus. But the problem with limiting what jokes comics can make is that it misses the whole point of comedy itself. Comedy challenges societal norms while demanding not to be taken critically. The best comics often shock us or make us uncomfortable (and probably should) right from the get go. And it is often the same insensitive jokes that make us uneasy that make us crack up in our seats. That’s because they reveal something about human nature that startles us, triggering a humorous effect. Bill Burr, in one of his standup routines, compares the experience a Black man has walking on the sidewalk to his own experience walking a pitbull on the sidewalk, noting how nice it is that everyone gets out of his way and that he doesn't have to talk to anybody. These claims would obviously receive far more criticism if they were statements instead of jokes. He asserts some validity in these claims, but by arriving at these revelations through humor rather than fact, he is able to do so without necessarily causing harm or offense.
Burr is a white guy making light of a racist situation. However, the goal of his joke isn’t to be discriminatory or racist but to point out that racism exists and to laugh at its absurdity. By making a joke about it, he breaks down the Black and white boundary and assumes he can laugh with Black people. This would be controversial in a regular scenario. In comedy, it works because comics blur the lines of identity repeatedly in order to connect with their audience on a raw, human level as opposed to everyday citizens. Michael Che, in his standup routines, makes fun of Muslim culture and suggests there is such thing as “thoughtful racism.” He justifies appreciating diversity by saying we need Black people because they “make shit cool,” white people because “you make shit safe” and Asian people because “they make shit affordable.” Che claims that assuming Black people like fried chicken and preparing it for them is not as bad as denying someone human rights based on skin color. He validates stereotypes in a joking manner and question how harmful different types of discrimination really are. The protective layer of lacking serious intent allows people to laugh without feeling shame. More importantly, these jokes make people contemplate serious issues without having to arrive at an affirmative conclusion or statement.
Political satire is perhaps the most important form of comedy and should be protected at all costs. The Onion published a skit entitled “Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages Of Queer Feminist Theory.” The funny video comments on the ridiculously high expectations college-educated liberals have about social awareness, political correctness and access to education and resources. It also seems to satirize conservatives who lack a general awareness about social inequities.
I’ve touched on the pitfalls of political correctness before. Another one of P.C. culture’s limitations is that it makes people avoid hard — and often sensitive — topics for fear of criticism. Comedy needs to remain untouched by political correctness in order to address these topics. As a performative art, it is able to reveal some underlying truth without necessitating the claim to be accepted as whole.
Comedy’s full transparency is a breath of fresh air in today’s day and age. While comedy’s nature demands light criticism, successful comics usually have good intentions. Jokes that are cruel to their core cease to be funny. At its purest form, comedy provides sharp relief from solemn life and frivolous sensitivities. When we allow it to, comedy lets us break down our walls and connect with one another as an audience.
Life always runs the risk of being taken too seriously and in what is often a dark world, humor is vital to our sanity.
Valentina House can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.