By VAYNE ONG, ’16
What do you get when you combine a devastating tragedy with a notoriously “edgy” stand-up comedian? News headlines that read, “[insert name here] has crossed the line.”
What may seem to be a career-ending fiasco worthy of noting in the history books actually occurs all the time. It seems that after nearly every headline-making tragedy, some young, up-and-coming joker will respond with an offensive and insensitive joke. For example, less than a week after the Aurora theater mass shooting in July 2012, comedian Dane Cook remarked that had he watched the first twenty-five minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, he probably would have remarked, “Ugh […] shoot me.” Topics long considered to be too sensitive for lighthearted conversation are also not out of any comedian’s grasp. Whenever a comedian makes any remotely controversial joke, we can’t help but ask: how far is too far?
One of the best and most powerful aspects of comedy is its ability to deconstruct an idea: to not only address the elephant in the room, but also build a comfortable setting in its presence. Comedy is an art form. The problem is that while anyone can be an artist, not everyone can be a great one. While some successfully manipulate comedy to push boundaries, other artists completely ignore or transgress them and neglect to think twice about the consequences. The latter includes trivializing sensitive issues by inadverdently performing a routine in an inappropriate context. Would a joke about a kid bringing a gun to school be considered funny if you heard it a week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings? No, it wouldn’t.
Perhaps the question of “Was this safe comedy, or did this push the boundaries too far?” is best exemplified by Stephen Colbert’s hosting stint at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. This event has been cited frequently as one of the most daring and memorable moves a comedian has made in recent years. For nearly twenty-five minutes, Colbert, in character as the same conservative pundit he plays on The Colbert Report, roasted then-President George W. Bush and other high-profile members in the audience — directly to their faces. As part of his routine, Colbert jokingly pledged his support for the president’s actions and policies, stating that President Bush stands “not only for things, but also on things,” referring to Bush’s photo-ops at the site of the World Trade Center post-9/11.
In the end, the central issue of Colbert’s performance wasn’t its content, but its context — the audience didn’t exactly consist of liberal college students, and the routine took place at a time when the Bush administration was at a low point. Some critics argue that he ventured close to bullying, while others lauded him for discussing the dire state of the country. He may have gone too far in some respects — perhaps he offended his conservative-leaning audience — but he did not trivialize the Iraq War or the energy policy at the time. Instead, Colbert took a stance on important issues through his comedic routine in a room full of people that might have encountered tension in attempting to discuss those issues themselves. That is pushing the boundaries without going too far.
But the issue of content and context in humor relates not only to mainstream comedians, but also to average people. Many people mention violence, sexuality, and race in their jokes to sound edgy and unafraid of what others may think, but sometimes what they actually do is perpetuate a culture of prejudice. Instead of pushing the boundaries of society, these jokes create more. It is saddening how often people “jokingly” threaten others with assault; although nobody may actually wish such a heinous crime on another person, the joke reduces the gravity of the crime to a seemingly meaningless threat.
As for context, several factors must be taken into consideration — timing, environment, and audience. Yes, comedians should question authority and teach others to think for themselves, but there is a line between lighthearted teasing and plain disrespect. The student jokester should be well aware of his friends’ insecurities; teasing goes “too far” when he exploits these, gambling his friendships for a few laughs.
Comedy legend George Carlin once said, “It’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” It’s true that we shouldn’t live in a culture where we feel afraid to express our opinions, but we should at least be aware of the consequences. Most of us are aware of the line between a joke about gun culture and a joke about mass murder; acknowledge that boundary with caution.