Credit Michel Grolet via Unsplash

I didn’t pay for this: degradation in comedy

By Rothery Sullivan

Rothery takes a deep dive into how comedy is used as a platform for microaggressions and bullying.

CW: misogyny, transphobia, racism, sexual assault

There is a history of degrading the front row of audiences at comedy clubs. From personal experience, I know that it’s not a good idea to walk in a minute before the show starts and take a front row seat. This is because what may seem like innocent banter, and perhaps an impressive stab at improv, may actually be harmful to those who’ve paid to see the show. In fact, it is a long standing tradition in comedy to use others as the butt of a joke, often at the expense of their safety and wellbeing. 

There’s a difference between the physical audience, the target audience and those who are being targeted by the comedian. When a joke is made in a comedy club, it is heard by the physical audience. The ones who the joke is intended for – the ones who laugh at the joke – are a part of the target audience. The ones who awkwardly smile, put their head down or look uncomfortable, however, are the ones being targeted by the comedian. There’s an ethical issue here.

First, those being targeted by a joke in the audience cannot respond, meaning that there’s no way for the comedian to know when a line has been crossed. Comments are publicly directed at audience members without giving them the chance to express their potential discomfort. Moreover, directing an offensive joke at a particular audience member sets a precedent that harmful words and actions are acceptable to direct at that person. In a world where many minority groups experience hate nearly every day of their lives, it’s important that comedy events are not a catalyst for such violence. 

What some comedians call “just jokes”, I would label microaggressions. In live comedy, there are often themes of sexism directed to women in the audience, such as Daniel Tosh’s comment during a comedy sketch directed at a female audience member: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [referring to an audience member] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” Where one in four women have been sexually assaulted or raped, this “joke” (and those who laugh at it) enforce the idea that rape is a laughing matter, or something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Themes of homophobia are also common, such as making fun of LGBTQ+ audience members’ clothing or demeanour. 

Of course, it’s common knowledge that sitting in the front row of a live comedy act could very well lead to mockery – it’s part of the excitement of comedy being a participatory event. However, where audience members are paying for their seat at the event, they should not feel so uncomfortable that they give up this seat and walk out, a practice that is quite common after offensive jokes are made. People are paying to laugh and be entertained, not to have their safety jeopardised. 

This also makes me question how “funny” offensive jokes could possibly be – making a specific audience member uncomfortable surely makes other audience members uncomfortable, too. Putting a person down as a means to humour others sounds all too similar to bullying. In fact, New York Times Magazine contributing writer Carina Chocano agrees with this sentiment, noting, “There’s a lot of things that people find funny that are really just bullying…The comedy club culture is this bullying culture.” Watching others be humiliated is uncomfortable, mainly because it causes fear in those watching and evokes sympathy for how the person targeted must feel. 

Jokes targeted at minority groups are seen in larger, famous routines, too. Famous comedians rarely face consequences for their harmful words, and are instead typically rewarded with a larger platform. Guardian contributor Rachel Aroesti notes how “Jimmy Carr was still making jokes about dwarfism, lesbians and Gypsies in his 2019 tour show. How has society punished him? By giving him a series of increasingly prominent TV gigs.” Moreover, Dave Chappelle, who had previously faced criticism for jokes about trans people, Chinese people and child abuse, was applauded as he won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 2020. There seems to be a market for offensive content, which is what I find most concerning about all of this: if offensive jokes really are harmless, why do so many privileged people enjoy them so much? Is it perhaps because their values do align with the sentiment of these jokes?

Netflix, one of the top media companies in the world, has contributed to this “reward” system, and the series Ricky Gervais: SuperNature demonstrates this well. After a long history of offensive jokes, Gervais’ Netflix performance sparked controversy due to hateful comments towards the trans community. In his sketch, Gervais stated, “I support all human rights, and trans rights are human rights. Live your best life. Use your preferred pronouns. Be the gender that you feel that you are. But meet me halfway, ladies: lose the cock. That’s all I’m saying.” Before making transphobic jokes, Gervais preemptively invalidates the victims of his jokes by prefacing that he is a trans ally, even though his comments prove otherwise. Much of the oppression and hatred towards the trans community comes from the ideas that Gervais reinforces in his sketch. Even though 2021 was the deadliest year for the trans community since records began, Gervais felt that this community should still be used as the punchline of his jokes. Does Gervais regret any of his hurtful words towards LGBTQ+ people after seeing the negative impact they have on the community? No. In fact, the only joke that Gervais regrets is one that was directed at a cis-gendered white man, Tim Allen.

Many of the complaints against offensive comedy are met with concerns that cancel culture is ruining comedy. British comedian Shappi Khorsandi wrote, “The fear of being “cancelled” is real and it will be the death of standup comedy as we know it.” However, I argue that we should consider the dynamic between who is making the joke, who the joke is putting down, and who the joke is intended for. It’s not that people want to erase all comedy on sensitive topics, but instead ensure that comedy is not used as an outlet for microaggressions. But as things stand, too often the most offensive jokes are made by privileged people, for privileged people, and at the expense of minorities. That’s not funny, that’s bullying.


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