Should There Be a Line in Stand-Up Comedy?

offensive humor

Dave Chappelle faces backlash for offensive humor in his Netflix specials, but are comedians required to be inoffensive?

In Deep in the Heart of Texas, one of two new Dave Chappelle Netflix specials, Chappelle starts his show with offensive humor, commenting on how it’s nice to see plaid is back in style. “Most dudes I see around these parts are dressed like a dyke in New York, so I’m glad to see that.” He goes on to claim that during a performance in Santa Fe, an audience member hurled a banana peel at him. Chappelle said the perpetrator, a white man, was arrested and he expected he would be sexually assaulted in his holding cell.

None of this offensive humor is new to Dave Chappelle’s repertoire. He has always made a habit of commenting on hot-button issues. Throughout Chappelle’s pair of new specials, he touches on LGBT+ and race issues, ISIS and more. And the jokes have caused a stir.

“What is Dave Chappelle’s problem with gay people?” The New Republic asked in its critique. “Dave Chappelle’s jokes about trans people haven’t aged well,” said BuzzFeed. “Dave Chappelle’s new stand-up is offensive in all the wrong ways,” claimed Vice. But The Washington Post called the shows “Dave Chappelle’s unapologetic return to the spotlight — and to a very different world.”

Unapologetic is the key word. Chappelle’s social commentary, his ability to survey the current cultural landscape and reveal what makes us most uncomfortable makes his latest routines a perfect distillation of everything I find troubling with the way many view stand-up today. There are no wrong ways to be offended by stand-up comedy, and there is no reason for a comedian to apologize for their jokes — unless, of course, the comedian is inciting violence.

All good stand-up routines induce not just laughter but discomfort. So why has Chappelle become the latest in a recent string of comedians to be vilified by the media and commentators alike for his so-called out-of-touch humor?

As a society, we’ve made strides to eliminate derogatory speech from our vocabularies. In that respect, what many people call political correctness has been beneficial. But has it turned into a mechanism for policing the thoughts of others?

When comedians discuss in-the-news topics onstage, they get people talking about issues in a different way. Weighty subjects become approachable, and the irrational fear of saying or thinking something contrary to popular opinion is confronted.

When we automatically categorize a joke about LGBT+ issues as homophobic or race issues as racist, we’re attributing those labels to the comedian and anybody who laughs at the joke. Additionally, we’re making the stage a less welcoming place for talented comedians.

Comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and John Cleese will no longer put on shows at universities. Seinfeld believes college students can’t take a joke. Chris Rock says students have become “too conservative” in terms of their ability to step on anyone else’s toes. The great comedian George Carlin once called political correctness “fascism pretending to be manners.” On the other hand, Sarah Silverman said, “To a degree, everyone’s going to be offended by something, so you can’t just decide on your material based on not offending anyone, but I do think it’s important as a comedian, as a human, to change with the times, to change with new information.”

All of us, including comedians, have the right to say whatever is on our minds. Of course, that also means people have the right to react to speech with their own. No one could argue that comedians as a group are being overtly censored. What appears to be occurring, however, is the dissuasion of touching on certain topics because of adverse reactions to jokes. The ones made by Chappelle, for example, have stirred up a whirlwind of think pieces about how his comedy doesn’t align with the way the world operates now. Comedians who are perhaps not as bold as Chappelle may avoid specific topics because of the expected backlash.

Like all great art, comedy is supposed to stir emotions. If we aren’t emotionally affected by a piece of art, it’s not doing its job. At face value, a stand-up comedian should make us laugh. To reach something deeper than mere surface-level chuckles, though, successful comedy makes us question why we’re laughing. The sort of comedy we need makes us feel a range of emotions, including discomfort, offense and even guilt.

When guilt washes over us after we laugh at offensive humor, it doesn’t mean it was wrong for the comedian to tell the joke. On the contrary, it signals that we know the words being spouted from the stage are absurd and would never be acceptable on the street. To recognize a joke for what it is, is to be tuned in to the climate of the day.

Often we can become too wound up by the depressing and serious nature of 24-hour news cycles to see the humor that exists around us. Jokes, including offensive humor, can shake up the tone of controversial topics and make us more willing to have a dialogue — now in a different, lighter frame of mind. At least, that’s how it could be.

With the prevalence of social media in our culture, offensive humor can quickly disseminate to the masses — often out of context. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that edgy comedy has become more prone to attacks in this environment, but we should be cautious not to attribute malice to jokes that stir up conversation. After all, wouldn’t we all be better off having a dialogue that, like the stand-up comedian, is vulnerable rather than being closed-off, unwilling to budge from our disparate viewpoints? end


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