When “It’s Just a Joke” Isn’t Enough

Comedy Features

Every few months, a minor media scandal erupts around an off-color joke or offensive comedy riff. Each new incident brings a slew of articles about tastelessness in comedy that inevitably turn into comments-section-and-social-media screaming matches, point-winning debates that do little but irritate loyal comedy fans stuck in the middle. And then, just as suddenly, things go back to normal, as if it was a one-off, as if comedy is an occasional thing that happens at award shows gaffes a thing that only occasionally occur onstage, instead of every single night in every single city in the country.

“The blowback from prejudice and ignorance is over-sensitivity and politically correct outrage,” Joe Rogan recently tweeted. “We are a nation overrun with silly bitches.” He’s right, in his own caustic way. When only people talking about appropriateness in comedy are humorless social gatekeepers, it forces the discussion into “You can’t say that” versus “Leave us alone,” while the question that comedy fans care about—is it actually funny?—is overlooked.

There are those that believe, or at least wish, that comedy was the Wild West, but their insistence doesn’t make it so. Comedy, at least for the moment, and possibly for good, has moved into the mainstream. Louis C.K. has become a household name as he’s collected Emmys and revolutionized direct-selling, and an increasing number of podcasts hosts are popping up on their own TV shows. As comedy, particularly stand-up, becomes a more recognized art form, it invites more scrutiny. Comics don’t have to like it; this isn’t really about them. It’s about the fans, the audience, the consumer, anyone who cares enough to read the comedy issue of a magazine—and that’s a pretty vast audience.

The go-to defense for a comedian accused of being offensive is always, “It’s just a joke.” This dismissive tone attempts to take the wind out of any argument about the content of the artist’s material. But it shouldn’t. There are genuine arguments to me made about the things comics should and should not be saying on stage. And those of us paying attention should be saying them. Don’t make me feel bad for not wanting to hear your offensive musings, don’t make me feel like a prude for thinking cruelty isn’t funny, and for the love of God, don’t make it my fault when you’re not funny enough.

Too many times, from many comedians I respect, have I heard the “It’s just a joke” defense, and I’ve struggled to articulate why it is so infuriating and insulting as a critic and an audience member. Here’s my best shot: “But, it’s just a joke.” If you have to say it, maybe it’s not a good enough joke, though. There are great, edgy bits that don’t tip over into offensive because they’re painstakingly crafted comedy. If it’s really good, it won’t be misconstrued. Not by most people, at least.

All jokes are absurd—that’s their most fundamental quality. If your joke doesn’t have the degree of absurdity needed to make its premise clear and funny, then it’s understandable that someone may not interpret it as such.

“I’m just a clown. People shouldn’t take me seriously.”
Comedy has been used to make points and satirize society since the days of Aristophanes. Comedians have used their platform to say something significant, and it’s reasonable for an audience to think that the person on stage is trying to say something real.

The point of the court jester was to tell the truth. That was a unique position to be in, and only allowed if he could be funny. From the fool in King Lear to every precocious child in a sitcom, the idea of the silly-but-wise has only reinforced this role of a clown as a truth teller.

“But, I’m not trying to be a truth teller.”
What are you trying to be, then? If you’re not a jester, speaking truth to power, or a satirist, using absurdity to make a point, then what are you?

“It says the words ‘comedy club’ above the door!”
Physical context is not enough. The Jon Stewart on Crossfire defense—“the show before me has puppets making prank calls”—doesn’t mean everything has to be taken as a joke. Should we be laughing at all jokes because we know, since it’s a comedy club, that the person is trying to be funny? Attending a comedy show doesn’t mean that audience members lose the right to listen and judge. It’s your job to get through to them.

“Well, it’s not my problem if they take it seriously.”
Actually, it is. By putting yourself on a stage, with a microphone and a spotlight, you are making yourself a public figure. If you want to vent your opinions without any adverse reactions, there are a laundry list of career options, from political strategist to Internet troll, where you will never be held responsible for the content you produce. But if you want the glory—and clearly you do, you make strangers laugh for a living—you need to accept the responsibility.

“I can’t control how people react.”
Of course you can. That’s also your job. Your words, when funny, create a involuntary reaction in people for which you rightly take credit. If your words create a feeling of anger or resentment, you have also created that. Own it or find a new gig.

“Everyone’s sensitive about their own things, but they’re happy to laugh at everything else.”
Perhaps this is true. Certainly, many comics believe it is. Undoubtedly, everyone has their soft spots and sensitivities, areas in which they could never find humor. This doesn’t make them bad people or spoilsports, so long as they don’t disrupt or ruin a show.

They’re allowed to be unhappy, to not laugh, to not like you as a comic, to not like you as a human, and if it’s really upsetting to them, to quietly remove themselves from a situation that brings them discomfort.

But as often as comics cite this as the reason people get offended, it’s rarely niche issues that cause a stir. If, god forbid, you’re trying to find humor in peanuts on airplanes, and someone in the audience had a childhood friend who died of a peanut allergy, that’s some bad luck. I’m sure a mommy blogger could find reasons to be offended about the lack of respect for food allergies, but as a whole, society will probably let that one slide.

But jokes that “just” offend groups group that could be considered a voting bloc (women, gays, minorities, immigrants, religious people) are more than that—especially when you’re someone operating outside of those groups. If you make a joke about judging or ill-treating minorities on an airplane, you should be in no way surprised if someone in the audience is or knows or loves someone for whom that joke is offensive. That is a much bigger issues, affecting many, many people. It’s not even about right or wrong. Really, it’s about math.

“But, I’m just joking.”
Funny, I couldn’t tell.

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