Court jester might not be the oldest profession in the book, but it is the only job that has ever existed where employees risked execution if they read their audience wrong; to this day, the people we pay to make us laugh are asked to straddle the line between their job of shedding new humorous light on the world around us and shielding people’s feelings from some of the uglier things we see when comedians reflect our world back at us.
These days the power seems to have shifted to Internet trolls, political pundits, and hecklers who’ve created an atmosphere that is less than friendly to comedians who use humor to tackle uncomfortable subjects. Controversy and comedy will never be strangers because humor is incredibly subjective; the same joke might kill one night and bomb the next. Even the most G-rated comedians have said and done things (on and off stage) that polarized their audiences, their fans, and other comedians, and set them debating each other in public forums.
The following is a list of issues, people and happenings in the comedy world that at best, left fans and funny people agreeing to disagree and at worst, left indelible fractures between people and still ongoing feuds in their wake. These are newsworthy controversies and scandals involving comedians that caught media attention and set the blogosphere alight with Tweets and posts or caused comedians and civilians alike to get at each others’ throats. Here are 12 events that divided the (comedy) world.
12. South Park vs. Family Guy
Cartoon Wars is the title of a two-part South Park episode that aired in 2006, arguably the most controversial and potentially offensive episode in the show’s history but not because it was set to depict Muhammad, but because it stands as a testament to creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s true feelings about the Family Guy writing room and their heavy use of the non-sequitur cutaway gags that have become a Seth McFarlane signature. McFarlane has responded in recent interviews, telling Howard Stern that the “two-parter that [South Park] did…was very funny” but telling Rolling Stone that he’s still baffled by “the personal venom [Parker and Stone] spew in the press.”
11. Carrot Top vs. The World
In 1994, a prop comic named Scott “Carrot Top” Thompson won best male stand-up comedian at the 8th annual American Comedy Awards. Just like Gallagher with his melon-smashing Sledge-O-Matic, Carrot Top had found that perfect combination of attention-grabbing visuals and corny jokes that happens to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Decades later he is still selling out shows at a regular Vegas gig, and he is still the comedian that other comics and non-fans love to hate. Regarding his ’94 win, comedians like Dom Irrera found it “pathetic” that the prop comic had campaigned for votes to win over greats like Bill Hicks and George Wallace. Some people think prop comedy is pandering, some people think it’s just not funny, but the world loves a gimmick and there is no shortage of comedians who will play to the cheap seats.
10. Leno vs. Letterman Becomes Leno vs. Conan
There was a time when a person had to choose, Leno or Letterman. Then Late Night with Conan O’Brien happened and regardless of whether you liked Jay or Dave, you could safely say you watched Conan. After 16 years it was announced by NBC Universal that Jay Leno would be replaced by Conan at the helm of The Tonight Show. About 7 months after the first episode of Conan’s Tonight Show aired, the same executives were forced to cancel the show, due to scheduling changes that Conan would not stand by, and Leno was set to return as host; Conan was audibly upset, Leno’s reputation tarnished, and neither now work for NBC.
9. SNL vs. The Groundlings
Recently the cultural institution that is Saturday Night Live was accused of recruiting more than talent from The Groundlings Improv Group in L.A. A long-running sketch involving comediennes dressed as Tina Turner impersonators and lamenting their lots in life was blatantly stolen and reproduced by SNL cast members on air. Up until now, people kept quiet about the exploitation of less powerful comics, for fear of upsetting the godfather of comedy, Lorne Michaels, but even after voicing frustration backed up by hard evidence and admissions of plagiarism by other SNL alums like Jay Mohr, the comedy institution remains unscathed, having learned nothing, and free to keep pillaging the comedy landscape.
8. Dave Chappelle vs. Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle’s abrupt exit from the entertainment industry, cancelling his wildly popular Chappelle’s Show, cutting ties with long time writing partner Neil Brennan, and disappearing to Africa, left the comedy world with so many questions, but the most burning one was whether Dave had lost his funny. So when reports of Chappelle’s return to standup got out, he found his act under intense scrutiny once again. By most accounts, the trickle of club and theater performances that have been reported on or Tweeted about, including by Dave himself, have been promising. However, he was booed offstage at the Oddball Comedy Festival and at the Fillmore theater in Detroit, where he slurred his way through his act, so the jury’s still out on whether Chappelle is actually back.
7. Katt Williams vs. Comedy Central
By some accounts, including emcee Katt Williams’, the script for the Comedy Central Roast of Flavor Flav was more racially insensitive than usual, even for a roast, The show began with the former hype-man being lowered onto the stage while Williams, sticking to the script, says, “Look, it’s a flying monkey.” And the Roast stayed on the same subtly racist note for the rest of the show. Recent roasts have been less an honor and more a PR vehicle for celebrities trying to make up for scandalous behavior or an embarrassing career, so it should have been no surprise the roasters would pull no punches. The problem with this particular roast was that the former Public Enemy hype-man’s skin color was being insulted alongside his actual faults and insecurities, but skin tone and the choice to wear a giant clock around one’s neck at all times or marry Birgit Nilsson are unrelated. Eventually, Williams coped as comedians do by making light of the situation in a standup bit, saying, “the whole show I was mad, but I was mad at me that I was doing the show, but they had already told me how much they [were] going to pay me.”
6. Dane Cook vs. Louis C.K.
The squabbling between fans of these two comedians over accusations of joke thievery on the part of Cook that went un-addressed by C.K. only subsided 5 years ago, but in 2005 Louis’ fans let their imaginations run wild over a YouTube clip comparing jokes with strikingly similar premises from Louis’ 2011 Live in Houston and Cook’s 2005 album Retaliation. The more fervent and therefore louder CK fans heard a clear case of plagiarism and initially controlled the conversation, until the comedian finally spoke up, saying in an interview, “I think it’s possible he might have seen these bits and absorbed them, and not known that he took them from me. I worry about that myself sometimes.” If this didn’t do it, episode 2.7 of Louis put the matter to rest for good in 2011. Dane Cook guest starring as himself hashes it out with the veteran comic over his decision to stay silent for so long.
5. Sam Kinison vs. Life
Every comedian who ever came across him believes Sam Kinison was one of the best comedians of all time, and also one of the worst human beings they had ever encountered. Sam divided the comedy world by antagonizing it, by pushing audiences as far as they could go, sometimes clearing a room by the end of a bit. Marc Maron of WTF podcast fame is an encyclopedia of Kinison Lore, having spent a year trying to keep up with the party animal himself; he often recounts of Sam’s insanity on his and other podcasts. Nobody like him has performed standup comedy since, but Kinison lives on not only in his recorded comedy but in the bitter sweet memories of his friends, family and fans sitting on their hearts like the burnt rubber tracks he left on the road the night he died.
4. Carlos Mencia vs. Stand-up Comedy
Just like SNL, Carlos Mencia became a household name. Turns out most of his best standup material was stolen. That might be old news, but the joke thief would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling Joe Rogan, who stepped in with his bit of clout and made it safe for his peers who’d been robbed my Men-steal-ia, as he is now known, to speak up. The conflict came to a head and Rogan and Mencia hashed it out on the Comedy Store stage in Hollywood, but even after the claims against Mencia were substantiated, and the case against plagiarism made crystal clear, most popularly by Patton Oswalt, the joke thief still draws a crowd.
3. Daniel Tosh vs. The Ever-Present Heckler
Comedian Daniel Tosh has already half-heartedly apologized for responding to the female heckler, who interrupted to inform him that sexual assault jokes are never funny, by allegedly saying it would be funny if the heckler were to be sexually assaulted that very minute. All we have is the word of the heckler on her Tumblr account where, according to Tosh, she had quoted him out of context. And despite the apology, some of Tosh’s peers surprisingly came out in support of the Tosh.0 host, most vocally Patton Oswalt, who qualified his initial support writing, “Daniel’s bad reaction I don’t defend. His attempting to find humor in the subject of r*pe – again, a horrifying reality that…can sometimes be attacked with humor? I defend that.”
Louis C.K. took a more neutral stance on the issue in a 2015 Daily Show appearance saying both sides should just lower their defenses a bit. With all the avenues for fans of comedy to film and view standup material before it’s been honed to perfection, it is no wonder comics are in hot water for unscripted, unfortunate blowups at hecklers or for offending people with half-formed jokes.
2. Bill Cosby vs. Womankind
Never did I think I would express positive feelings to the thought of Bill Cosby, America’s Dr. Huxtable, being brought to justice, but some things, like Carrot Top, are stranger than fiction. To be clear, the issue here is not whether Cosby’s actions are deplorable or not, the debate here is over whether Cosby’s legacy as one of the most influential and most successful comedians in history should or even can be completely ignored in light of his actions offstage.
Cosby was a mentor to numerous now-legendary comedians including Sinbad, who, on WTF with Marc Maron, expressed his distress over having to recognize that the man who guided him to success was the same who all the while had been spiking drinks. Then there’s also the question of what motivated the lesser-known standup Hannibal Buress, to start touring a half-joke about Cosby being a r*pist; a joke that inspired a slew of Cosby’s victims to come forward and coincided with a spike in Buress’ popularity.
1. South Park’s Cartoon Wars: Religious Extremism vs. Cartoons
Our last item brings us full circle, back to a discussion of South Park and the episode that lambasted Family Guy, but because the two-part Cartoon Wars episode also touched on the Islamic practice of avoiding and censoring depictions of their religious forbearers. Unfortunately, the Family Guy bashing made more of an impression on fans of the episode than the real danger Comedy Central avoided by completely removing the depiction of the Muslim prophet Mohammed from the episode. Meanwhile, the episode actually centers on the South Park boys’ anticipation of a completely fictional Family Guy episode that is set to feature an image of the Prophet.
Not only do heckler and stand-up, roaster and roasted, network exec and late night host, all need to thicken up their skin and quick before comedy, the last bastion of free thought, is sucked dry of insightful irony by humorless, hyper-sensitive, bitter audiences, the entire planet could stand to back off of its ideological hangups and see humor in the fact that our species is so conflicted, even the history of comedy is ironically riddled with conflict.