When enjoying the art of comedy, it is inevitable that one encounters a joke or a bit that uses a premise that is shockingly offensive. Yet, in some circumstances, this form of joke proves itself to be overwhelmingly funny. Why is this? And what is required for this seemingly warped comedic formula to work?
A valuable case study for answering these types of questions is the Michael Richards’ racist rant against African American hecklers at the Laugh Factory comedy club in November of 2006. He used blatantly offensive language and referenced some truly hateful stereotypes in an angry tone that made the viral video clip from the event difficult to watch.
Michael Richards appeared on “Letterman” to apologize for the incident and Letterman asked the question, “Did you think that somehow, by being outrageous and completely inappropriate, that it might somehow […] diffuse it a bit?” Richards responded with, “Yeah I tried to do that. […] You know you do that. I’ve got a microphone in my hand; I’m trying but it didn’t work out.”
Letterman’s question highlights the significance of Richards’ incident in the grander scope of comedy. Comedians often find themselves walking a metaphorical tightrope. Leaning too much in either direction will lead to a long fall from grace. On one end, the comedian may lose prevalence for being too inoffensive or not fully following through with the creativity of their ideas in fear of the potential social fallout. On the other end, the comedian may lose all ethical ground, and, with it, their entire career.
It is important to note that some gifted comedians find success and a profoundly meaningful voice without resorting to the use of shocking language or offensive premises. But not all comedic styles foster that luxury.
It is clear on which side Richards fell. As I understand the situation, Richards’ problem was that he used this offensive language against hecklers at whom he was already angry. Given the genuine display of emotion, it is impossible to see Richards playing a character or being ironic as he berates the hecklers with racist insults.
This case shows the necessity for a comedian to not only be funny but know why what they say is funny. Without that critical self-awareness, a comedian will quickly find themselves on either the unsuccessful or morally insensitive sides of the tightrope.
In theory, this would be the end of the discussion, except that the vast majority of cases of offensive comedy are not nearly as clear-cut as Richards’. Take, for example, Dave Chappelle’s controversial raping superhero bit in which Chappelle describes a superhero who must rape people to save lives. This joke is seen as acceptable by some and criticised by others, but for a host of different reasons. Some believe that if Chappelle is going to reference rape jokingly he must use it in service of a more important point while others argue that he was drawing a worthwhile moral comparison between saving a life and preventing the trauma of rape. There are also those who feel that he should never be referencing rape in such a lighthearted context.
I am not in any position to say what criticism is fair or unfair. I do believe it is important, however, for all consumers of comedy to understand that Dave Chappelle along with every other comedian is walking that tightrope. I would argue that this dilemma warrants a greater widespread forgiveness of comedians.
It seems to be that the most commonly accepted form of offensive humor is that which most clearly presents an outlandishly problematic premise in an ironic manner that flips and undermines that premise in order to make a reasonable and cogent point.
A more worrisome issue underlies this otherwise fairly harmless problem regarding acceptable comedy. In September of 2017, the 17-page style guide for The Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi aligned website, was acquired and published by the Huffington Post.
The entire document is a disturbing yet intriguing look at the strategies a hateful organization uses to persuade. One such tactic is described thusly on page 11 of the guide: “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor—I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”
From this, it is reasonable to conclude that some white supremacist groups are aware of the hateful nature of their viewpoint and consequently want to shroud those genuine statements of hate behind a veil of irony. Comedians use irony to convey a meaning that is opposite to what they say, but it seems as if some truly hateful individuals and organizations are inclined to co-opt that artistic device for usage as a medium for hate.
Michael Richards has demonstrated that if a comedian makes an offensive joke, but their intentions or emotions seem to align with what they said, there is no room for irony and the offensive joke merely becomes an offensive statement. This can easily lead to a comedian being called a bigot for making a statement they never intended to make. But the reverse is also true.
The truly hateful can use irony to make hateful statements into more socially acceptable and even humorous content that is intended to tear at the fabric of our linguistic and moral understanding of what is right. And The Daily Stormer style guide reveals that those hateful people are ready and willing to do just that.
This presents yet another dilemma for the comedian. Is it that by using irony to make shocking, yet meaningful jokes comedians are contributing to a veil of irony that prevents hateful individuals from being forced to fully confront the social ramifications of their viewpoint? I would argue that the answer to that question is a soft yes.
While I think using irony contributes to the ambiguity surrounding hateful speech, it would be absurd to deem immoral every artistic medium and device that has the potential to be used for hateful purposes. Ultimately, I believe that it is the responsibility of the individual to think critically about the intent behind such humor just as it is the responsibility of the comedian to convey their intent as clearly as they can given an ironically presented premise. If done effectively, the well-meaning consumers and purveyors of comedy can use jokes to strengthen their moral understanding rather than confuse it.