RALEIGH, N.C.—The stand-up comedy stage is the last place where you can speak without a filter.
Or at least I always thought so.
People are bringing tape recorders into workout clubs to make sure comics don’t “cross over the line.” That would be the Speech Code Line, the one that dwells within the active imaginations of humorless graduates of Sensitivity Training Class. We used to have a motto: “The job of the comedian is to define where the line is, and then deliberately cross it.” Good luck with that today. Someone in the audience might just be a Kamikaze Safe Space Warrior, a person being repeatedly triggered on purpose in an act of self-sacrifice for the greater good.
Yeah, I know—in one sense it’s nothing new. I’ve heard all the stories about Lenny Bruce, how the cops nailed him in a Greenwich Village club for saying the word “cocksucker” and then the authorities hounded him all the way to jail, an experience that pretty much broke his spirit. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 02:55 EST - Details)
And yeah, I know how George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine got trundled up to the Supreme Court by humorless moral scolds.
And yeah, I know how Gilbert Gottfried lost his job as the Aflac duck because he made Japanese tsunami jokes. (That’s the best you could do on offensive Gilbert material? The man anchored the Friars Club roasts for years. If the greatest comedians from both coasts had a life-or-death dirty-joke contest, Gilbert would be the sole survivor—he can tell jokes that make Andrew Dice Clay puke.)
It’s almost like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin made the stage safe for any vile thing you wanna say, so self-appointed censors started finding offstage reasons to heckle comics out of existence.
There used to be a foolproof standard for anything said on the stage:
If they laugh, you can say it.
And it’s a pretty good rule because it eliminates all discussion about good taste, bad taste, off-limits topics, and it puts the comedian in the position of having to constantly outmaneuver the audience’s expectations, which is sort of the definition of comedy. Daniel Tosh has a whole section of his act in which he deconstructs the frequent battle cry of the moral crusader: “But there are some topics that can never be funny. There are matters that are beyond joking.” He then proceeds to tell jokes about rape, dead babies, and other topics that he gets away with because…the audience laughs in spite of itself. People are trying not to laughbut he’s identified some startling central truth that makes it impossible to keep a straight face. It’s not the subject matter, it’s the context, as any good comic knows.
Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $15.00 (as of 10:30 EST - Details) That’s why it was ridiculous in the early ’90s when people who had never seen Andrew Dice Clay’s act started movements to bring him down. He was doing what used to be called “blue comedy” of the type made famous by Redd Foxx in after-hours clubs—intentionally dirty material, mostly about sex—but he was branded a misogynist by people who had never seen his act. They just read the jokes in print or watched a short clip of his nasty nursery rhymes. Dice was selling out shows at Madison Square Garden for audiences who did think his material was funny, but he was brought down by people who would never go to one of his shows and for whom, I’m quite sure, the material wasn’t funny.
The material doesn’t have to be funny for 100 percent of the population!
You can have jokes that are funny to Scots but not to Irishmen. You can have black humor, brown humor, feminist humor, lesbian humor, sexual humor, nasty political humor, and each comic will find his audience while offending people who don’t like him and would never patronize his shows. This is the way comedy works—it’s destructive, it blows up pretension, it vaporizes conventional wisdom. It offends.
But now, for the first time in history, we have every comic living on a knife edge, one joke away from being banished to Moral Scold Jail.