People are weird about their comedy. They like to laugh, and often at the expense of others. Make a joke that references something that personally affects them, though, and you’re like to see your interlocutor react with outrage.
Much of this has to do with them just not understanding the basic premise of comedy. Jokes offer a unique lens through which we can see the world around us, changing our perspective through tricks of language and performance. Good comedy offers truth you won't find elsewhere, and it’s a valuable thing.
Sometimes, even often, the journey to the punch line wanders through uncomfortable territory. That’s one of the ways comedians find themselves in hot water. A joke may be intended one way - to ridicule a person in a position of authority, for example – but might be interpreted by the audience as being an attack on those in society who need help and protection. A comedian, after all, is just one part of the equation. Much of the impact will reside with the interpreter of the joke.
And then, of course, some comedians do make jokes at the expense of marginalized people. They're usually shock comedians, just saying outlandish things for the sake of being surprising. Not surprisingly, of course, many people don't care if the words lack intent - they'll be offended all the same.
It's an artform that consistently blurs the lines, so you'll typically read about a serious comedy controversy at least once a year - indeed, there have been comedy controversies of all kinds stretching way back to the days of Vaudeville. Here are a few of the most notable, both old and new.
6 The Daniel Tosh R*pe Joke Incident
There’s ongoing debate as to whether jokes about sexual assault and abuse can ever be funny. A joke that tackles a subject like this should, as mentioned earlier, direct its ire against the aggressor. In that way, using comedy as a tool to ridicule the darker elements in society might actually help in generating discussion and in preventing future acts of that nature. Nobody, after all, likes being laughed at.
Daniel Tosh alleges he was trying that sort of point when he was interrupted during a comedy set. His reaction was to make a joke about members of the audience banding together to r*pe the woman who had called out.
Twitter exploded. Opinion pieces on all kinds of websites started arguing for and against the right of a comedian to make any kind of joke they want to make. When all was said and done, it was generally agreed that the joke he had made was in poor taste. Tosh apologized.
5 Michael Richards’ Racist Slurs
You’ve never seen a show degenerate as quickly as in the Michael Richards video. In 2006, Richards was performing at the Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles, and went positively mental when a group of men in the audience interrupted his set.
Comedians typically have a few options in a situation like this. If there are bouncers present, they can be asked to remove the offending parties. If you’re the kind of comic who likes to work the room, you can go off on the chatterboxes in brutal and hilarious style.
Well, Richards tried for the latter. Among other things, he yelled “You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherf**ker. Throw his ass out. He's a n****r! He's a n****r! He's a n****r! A n****r, look, there's a n****r!”
A huge portion of the crowd left, the media talked about it for weeks, and Richards made an apology on The Late Show.
4 Chris Rock’s Black People vs. 'N*ggaz'
One of Chris Rock's most famous bits involves him breaking down a divide in the black community. The joke, which draws a line between productive, hardworking black people and a group that is lazy, violent, and glorifies ignorance, was hugely controversial when Rock first performed it – largely because of his liberal use of a racial slur to describe those less desirable elements of society.
This is an example of a time when a comedian was aware of the impact of his material and decided to act to correct potential damage. When asked by CBS why he thought the joke became so popular, he said the following:
"I think a lot of people were thinking in those terms and hadn't been able to say it. By the way, I've never done that joke again, ever, and I probably never will," says Rock. "'Cause some people that were racist thought they had license to say n-----. So, I'm done with that routine."
3 3. Tommy Tiernan's Holocaust Joke
A few topics in comedy are almost certain to generate controversy. Jokes about race and sexual abuse are two we’ve already mentioned, and holocaust jokes are right up there with them.
Before reading what he said, a couple of words about Tommy Tiernan. First, he’s frequently a controversial figure, and makes jokes of just about anything he likes. Second, the comments below came right on the heels of his saying you couldn’t take anything in comedy at face value, and that comedy is a protected space.
Recounting a time that Jewish audience members confronted him about a joke he made about Jews killing Jesus, he said: "But these Jews, these f**king Jews come up to me. F**king Christ killing bastards. F**king six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**king problem. Two at a time they would have gone. Hold hands, get in there, leave us your teeth and your glasses."
Complaints and condemnation came in from all over the world, to the surprise of very few, but Tiernan stuck to his guns. He said his comments, in context, should not have been offensive.
2 The Lenny Bruce “C*cksucker” Incident
We're going back a few years for this one. For any who aren't in the know, the ideal in America that any and all speech should be considered free has rarely been the reality. Case in point, when comedian Lenny Bruce used the word “c*cksucker” in his act, he found himself arrested and on trial for obscenity. That was in 1961, and he was acquitted in 1962.
He was arrested three more times in the next two years – two of those arrests being in a single week. In 1964, he was convicted of obscenity, and then lost on appeal. He was also barred from entering England and Australia.
Bruce’s story highlights just how much our sense of comedic propriety has changed. Where even the most heinous slur can be apologized away these days, it was straight to the courthouse for Bruce and some of his contemporaries. In 1965, he was “declared a legally bankrupt pauper,” and he died of a morphine overdose in 1966.
1 The Supreme Court Rules On George Carlin's Seven Words
Early subversive comedians like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce have gone on to have great influence in comedy, but few found the mainstream popularity that George Carlin did. Carlin also found himself in the middle of what is probably the most famous controversy in comedy history.
In 1972, Carlin released a comedy album that included a track that highlighted the absurdity of banning 7 words from broadcast when there were at least 400,000 in the English language at that time. He was also arrested for performing the joke that same year.
In 1973, a similar routine of Carlin’s was broadcast over the radio, drawing the ire of a man who was a member of a fun-loving group of activists, “Morality in Media.” The FCC got involved and warned the broadcaster against playing that kind of material - a position which the broadcaster then appealed. After making it all the way up to the Supreme Court, the FCC’s decision was ultimately upheld, and proper guidelines for the broadcast of “indecent” material were established, barring such material from being aired during hours when children might be able to hear or see it.
The jokes are now available on Youtube.