Is Sensitivity Affecting Comedy?
Comedian Nimesh Patel didn’t think the joke was all that edgy. Sure, it was about being African American and gay, but he’d written it long before that fateful November performance and never had a problem with how it landed. So, when no one in the audience at Columbia University laughed during one recent appearance, he figured the line had just fallen flat.
But soon, the crowd made it clear that not only was the joke not funny -- it was offensive. With time still left in his routine, student organizers reclaimed the stage. Patel had been booted off -- for the content of his joke.
Patel, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer, quickly became a trending topic in the debate over whether comedians were crossing a line in offensive material -- or whether audiences had become too sensitive, rendering them unable to take a joke.
“There’s a group of people that think everyone’s too sensitive,” Patel said in a recent interview, “and a group of people that think things are fine, and I think both sides can point to isolated incidents that indicate their side is correct.”
To establish a deeper understanding about the relationship between sensitivity and comedy, Patel and four other established individuals in the comedy world shared their take on the changing climate.
Is comedy offensive if it offends everyone?
For seven seasons “Veep,” the HBO political satire, showcased the highly dysfunctional nature of Washington, D.C. and the incompetent staff behind sailor-mouthed Vice President (and, spoiler, President) Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
“I think the key to our lack of offending people is, while we are incredibly offensive, we never designate party,” Executive Producer and Showrunner David Mandel explained. “If you watch the show, we never mention whether Selina is a Republican or a Democrat, we kind of cherry pick issues from both sides.”
The show, which premiered in the midst of the 2012 presidential election between incumbent Pres. Obama and then-former Gov. Mitt Romney, doesn’t care about offending people, Mandel says. “That’s the honest answer.”
Does timeliness impact the humor of stand-up sets?
Los Angeles Comedy Union owner Enss Mitchell has a different take on the idea of sensitivity, especially when it comes to joking about timely subjects.
“I try not to be a person who does censor, but let’s say an event just happened,” Mitchell explained. “I opened this club the night, or the day after, the towers fell. I didn’t want people joking about that because at that moment, the moment was bigger than you telling a joke.”
But Mitchell, who determines the line-up of comedians performing on his club’s stage believes, “Comedians are the people that are supposed to say the things that society can’t say.”
How does comedic sensitivity play in the heartland?
Before a recent show at a church in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., Chonda Pierce, a popular born-again Christian comedian who prides herself on being “the country comic,” explained her take on comedy today.
Pierce thinks the country as a whole has gotten too sensitive, and she believes comedians should be able to joke about whatever they’d like. But audiences also have a choice – and can vote with their feet and their wallets. When another comedian made a joke about Jesus’ sexuality, Pierce chose to walk out. Even still, she says she supports “his ability and his right [to make the joke], but I don’t have to listen to it.”
Has social media changed comedy?
“Everyone is afraid to be offended or to offend anyone else,” actress and comedian Lyric Lewis explained.
Lewis, who is currently the only African American woman in the Groundlings, the famed Los Angeles comedy troupe, added that she’s noticed when performing that “the climate has changed now that people don’t know what they can laugh at, people don’t know if it’s OK to enjoy a joke.”
Social media, Lewis believes, has also played a key role in amplifying perceptions about the audience’s alleged sensitivity in comedy. “People, I don’t know if they’re necessarily more sensitive now, but I think it’s a snowball effect,” Lewis added. “Now it’s like, ‘that was wack,’ and 500,000 other people can feed that machine.”
So, what happens next?
Comedy’s roots run deep -- its origins date back to 4th century BC in ancient Greece, to be exact. In the centuries since, comedy has constantly evolved and grown with the times, moving from days of court jesters to radio to television to everything in between.
“We push people to think deeper than what they would, to laugh at something they would be uncomfortable about,” Pierce concluded.
Mandel agrees: we “shine a ridiculous spotlight on something, that I actually like to think, if we can laugh at it more, we can start to beat it down.”
There have been simultaneous changes in culture and respect. What was once considered funny, in some respects, is now often considered offensive, particularly when it comes to groups with long histories of being the targets of discrimination.
As the conversation about growing sensitivity in comedy continues, two things remains certain: comedy will continue to serve a purpose in society, and our standards will change with the times. In the meantime, comedians with different styles and audiences may find common ground on advice for those who are offended: simply not laughing.
Watch Josh Robin’s exploration of sensitivity in comedy in the latest episode of Untangled, at the top of this page.