“The Limit Does Not Exist”: Crossing The Line In Comedy
The internet court was in full swing recently when a recording of Louis C.K.‘s most recent stand-up routine and return to the stage after months of (necessary) exile was unearthed for all comedians, armchair and real, to see. His set spiraled downward at an exponential pace as he set his target on gun violence survivors – namely the Parkland students who have turned their tragedy into amassing support for policy change and protest. Are we in the Bad Place?
His routine had seemingly mixed reviews. Though you could hear a disgusting amount of audience laughter, comedians like Judd Apatow and Mike Drucker took to Twitter to express their disgust and dismay at the harsh words. Ricky Gervais took a different perspective, tweeting, “Please stop saying ‘You can’t joke about anything anymore’. You can … And some people won’t like it and they will tell you they don’t like it … And so on. It’s a good system.”
All of this begs the age-old question, is there a line in comedy and can it be crossed?
The original star of The Office thinks not – and maybe there’s a hint of truth there. The central point of comedy isn’t to be perfectly politically correct or to censor yourself into dull storytelling. Nobody wants to pay to see that. Though some comedians succeed within the realms of purer comedy of simple observation, silly, self deprecation and the like (Hi, John Mulaney, you sweet, high-waisted wonder), many of the most memorable comedians of our time have turned to the taboo topics of race, sexuality, gender, etc. Amy Schumer is never not talking about her sexcapades or her genitals, Joan Rivers’s life calling was insulting others and Anthony Jeselnik literally made a career out of telling dead baby jokes like that kid in the back of your high school math class. And who are we to tell them they can’t?
Well, that’s the problem. When do we make the call that something is just too much? In the era of “canceling” the people we don’t like, are we getting out of hand? Not to mention the too-familiar argument of free speech getting in the way.
Jeselnik knows something about this, specifically facing backlash for his bit, “Shark Party,” which featured him throwing a party for a shark that ate an actual person, shark strippers and all. When the victim’s family demanded a personal apology, he didn’t have kind words to say back and was ultimately fired by Comedy Central. This wasn’t a surprise to any of his loyal fans who were already familiar with his particular brand of comedy. Does that make it right? Not to a shark victim’s mom. But his fans would hardly call it a step too far from his other material.
And maybe that’s why Louis experienced his second internet-wide bomb. The point of comedy is to cater to your audience, not yourself. David Steinberg, who directed Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, knows that the audience needs to come to you, but you have to put the work in to get them there, as discussed on his Showtime program Inside Comedy. “You have to find out what they want to hear and connect with them,” he said.
The main goal of being a stand-up comedian is make others laugh. If we paid to watch someone laugh at their own jokes, we’d all be millionaires. Though it’s an art form and a medium of self-release and expression, it’s one entirely dependent on those receiving it. The audience is Ned Stark, and they’ll decide whether or not they want to swing the sword. In this case, the Twitterverse swung swiftly. His routine suggested malice, seemed to be a desperate reach, and was only amplified by his recent scandal and his inability to form a humble apology (or, you know, hire a good publicist).
It’s hard to compare the examples and decide who passes and who gets sent to comedy purgatory to rot forever. Both of the comedians searched for laughs within tragedies at the expense of others. They’re not the first to find the humor within the darkness. Jeff Dunham has been creating success with the help of a dead terrorist puppet named Achmed for years. Kathy Griffin almost lost her career after taking a picture with a beheaded Donald Trump.
When people find success and kill in comedy around topics that others bomb at it’s hard to create a line or decide who can say what and when. Comedy is about exploration, imagination, and the human experience, all of which don’t come with guidelines or handbooks (unfortunately for many of us). The audience makes that choice on the fly with each show, each video or sound clip, each tweet and Instagram post and each situation. As the world around us changes with the ever-evolving social and political climate, it might seems as though we’re collectively becoming more sensitive, but maybe audiences are just changing their tastes, looking for comedy that doesn’t kill at the expense of the already marginalized and hurt or display the intent to harm. Maybe we just want something that’s actually funny. Long-running cartoon Family Guy seemed to pick up on this trend and recently announced it would step away from telling gay jokes.
So, maybe there is no line. Maybe there’s just good comedy and bad comedy, something we each decide on our own and share for the benefit of trying to laugh with those around us, and we’re figuring it out one step at a time.