An episode of the American television show Saturday Night Live featured the controversial comedian Louis CK delivering a monologue about random topics in American society. This particular episode landed him in hot water amidst concerns by talk-show hosts and activists about the nature of his jokes during the monologue. In one segment, Louis gave his opinion on the topic of pedophilia, noting that while pedophilia is a serious crime with serious legal consequences, pedophiles still exist. Therefore, the act of pedophilia must be really worth the risk. He was quick to point out that it was worth it FROM THE PEDOPHILE’S POINT OF VIEW. The confusion in the crowd was aptly reflected by their somewhat hesitant laughs, with Louis acknowledging openly that “this is probably my last show”.
Comedy has long been seen as a tool for comedians and audiences alike to grapple with sensitive topics in society such as race and gender. It can also be a method of healing from these issues. If a black comedian in America makes a joke about him being detained by the police on the streets just on account of him being black, is it too much to say that this is his way of confronting institutionalized discrimination? Comedy helps to make the uncomfortable comfortable, even if temporarily. If you can make a room of 2500 people laugh, you must have some effect on this 2500-size microcosm of society.
However, a positive effect can quickly become a negative effect, or a precursor to chastisement. A comedian may get carried away, as Louis CK did (or it could have been deliberate). Making a joke in “bad taste” equates you with being an accomplice to a social ill. The line between funny and insensitive can be blurred. The question is when does a joke become offensive, or an insult? By what yardstick do we use to answer this question? Comedians do have every right to share their joke material with the audience but audiences have the right to be offended too, don’t they? In the comedians’ defence, they like to think they’re pushing boundaries. Louis CK made fun of ISIS and said they wouldn’t want to behead a bald man because it would be a hassle displaying him on propaganda TV without hair. The fact is hostages have actually been beheaded. Audiences laughed at his joke, possibly because they can afford to from a position of privilege and security.
Some jokes on the other hand really do just have an intrinsic value to it, only to be taken out of context by the audience. A joke Ellen Degeneres made about piggy backing Usian Bolt so she could run faster was chastised on social media for evoking the memory of slavery. In her defence, this was not meant to be a racist joke and that’s a valid point. TV host Jim Norton notes that the new fad in town in the realm of comedy is to be offended by a simple trigger word in comedy. Being offended is like an addiction that pumps us with adrenaline; smartphones (which facilitate access to comedy) are certainly the drugs giving us this adrenaline.
At some point, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves if certain jokes and favourable reactions to those jokes create a nonchalance and apathy about the suffering of others. I know it’s too much of a stretch to say that we endorse suffering when we laugh at jokes about suffering but the question is should comedians have a standard decorum when they perform for that one hour in front of 2500 people? As I mentioned earlier, it’s crucial to know when a joke goes too far. We should pause and ask ourselves what is the comedian’s point and what is his message in delivering a joke.