Can I Laugh at That? Shifting Norms Present Stand-up Comics with Challenges—and New Opportunities

Comedy Features
Can I Laugh at That? Shifting Norms Present Stand-up Comics with Challenges—and New Opportunities

“I’m anti-covid—I’ll say it right now,” Eric Bransteen, a New York City-based stand-up comedian announces to an unmasked crowd during his set at Greenwich Village’s New York Comedy Club.

“I say risky things up here. You want to cancel me, go right ahead.”

Though mocking cancel culture by taking a stand against the existence of COVID-19, Bransteen’s quip represents a new era of comedy: one of heightened sensitivity. Saturated with a global pandemic, racial justice reckonings, political polarization, and the #MeToo movement, the past few years have provided comedians with new—and often touchy—material.

Some comics, like Bransteen, are adapting to the cultural shift and softening their sets’ edgy moments, while others have leaned into testy topics, attempting to provide a safe space for heavy conversation. Dave Chappelle’s infamously insensitive 2021 treatment of transgender identity on Netflix proves that comedy’s boundaries are being pushed toward one end of an extreme—one which disregards negative implications for the sake of shock value. But its limits are pushed the other way as well, as many comedians are pressing to expand upon what the art form can be and should become.

Bransteen noticed a palpable shift in comedy’s limits after clubs started to open up as the pandemic eased.

“The audiences just seemed very sensitive, which is okay because comedy always evolves,” he says over Zoom, a couple of weeks after his COVID banter. “Some comedians want to put their head in the sand and just ignore the changes. As a comedian, to be a successful one, you want to be able to work with that a little bit.”

Comedian, writer, and producer Abby Washuta agrees that audiences have become more sensitive, adding that demographics may shift a crowd’s receptivity to material. She cites a 2018 comedy set by former Saturday Night Live writer Nimesh Patel as evidence of this movement. Midway through his set, the comedian sarcastically suggested—in front of an audience of Columbia University students—that, if faced with a choice, a Black man would never choose to be gay. The event was promptly cut short by the event’s emcees and Patel was booed, as per a Vulture report.

“I think it depends on who you’re performing to,” Washuta says. “A lot of people talk shit about performing to college-aged people. If a room is very full of college kids, we’re sweating.”

Patel was removed from the show This Week at the Comedy Cellar later the same week; a Comedy Central insider told Page Six that it did not want to invite conversation about censorship on university campuses.

Though it is rare that audience members, regardless of their demographic, get up and leave, or that mics get cut mid-set, comedians can hear clearly when a joke does not land. Bransteen says one reaction in particular can be frustrating to comics: when the audience groans. Lee O. Valentin, a comic and actor, is unbothered by these reactions, though, and says he uses them to inform his work.

“That’s the kind of feedback, as a comic, that you want,” he explains.

Though some are hyper-aware of this—sometimes audible—cultural shift toward political correctness, others believe that “cancel culture” is merely a continuation of what comedy has always faced as an art form.

“Even when you think of old-school court jesters, the court jester was the guy who made fun of the king and hoped he didn’t get killed,” Alex Babbitt, an NYC-based HBO comedian, says, highlighting the nature of the industry. “I don’t perceive it to be any different than it’s ever been. There might be some language choices you gotta switch up but that happens every couple of years, regardless. I can’t do stand-up the way they did back in the 80s. It’s just a different thing.”

In 1972, for example, revered stand-up comic George Carlin pushed the limits in his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Before Carlin’s sketch, nobody broke the unspoken rule that certain expletives could not be spoken on-screen. But now they are accepted by most audiences as normal, demonstrating how comedians have pushed boundaries—and shattered them—for decades.

Whether “cancel culture” has existed invariably over time or whether it is a new, audience-sponsored feature of comedy, crowd members, without fail, feed off of each other’s energy. Some seem to censor themselves, waiting to see if the collective agrees that a joke is politically acceptable before allowing themselves to laugh. Creator and producer of Baby Shower Comedy Tobin Miller explains that if a comic says a homophobic, racist, or otherwise offensive joke, audiences are less likely to laugh in fear that those around them might think they share those beliefs.

“There’s like a contract that an audience, throughout a show, starts making with each other,” Miller says. “They don’t just view it in a silo. They also think about what the rest of the audience thinks.”

Though many comics shy away from politically-charged or controversial topics that may leave audiences offended, others lean into them, using their comedy to provoke meaningful and necessary conversations.

“I had an abortion two years ago, thank you,” Alison Leiby announces to a packed house at Caveat, an entertainment venue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I’m still trying to lose the no baby weight.”

In the rest of her set, titled Oh God, an Hour About Abortion, Leiby provides a candid account of her experience with the procedure. She thinks stand-up has changed—in her opinion, for the better. Instead of men joking about abortion in the hypothetical, she is glad to see women on stage, sharing their lived experiences.

“People who have different experiences that are outside of our mainstream understanding of what it’s like to live in America are given the space to start talking about those personally, and maybe more vulnerably,” she says. “Ultimately, I think that leads to better comedy anyway.”

Leiby believes addressing contentious issues like abortion through comedy can reduce the stigma that surrounds them. She cited many times in which audience members opened up to her post-show, sharing their experience with the procedure.

“If we can laugh about it, we can also start talking about it,” she says. “It’s like your guard comes down a little bit. The whole point of the way I want to talk about this heavy topic is to lighten it as much as I can. It isn’t the crisis that a lot of people imagine it is.”

Whether comedy helps to further an important conversation or not, and whether jokes offend audiences or effectively push boundaries in either direction, political scientist, comic, and circus performer Andrea Jones-Rooy says it may not matter whether an audience feels they should or should not laugh at a joke. They cite the late musician Tom Lehrer’s famous quote: “Laughter is involuntary. If it’s funny, you laugh.”

“For the most part, it’s like having the hiccups,” Jones-Rooy says. “You just do it. You don’t even think about it. So I think that is a really useful lens when you think about, ‘should I laugh at this?’ Because in some ways, you’re going to laugh or not, whether or not you think that you should.”

Abby Wilson is a freelance journalist and news editor at Washington Square News, NYU’s independent newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @aaabbyywilson or Instagram at @abby___wilson.

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