Can’t You Take a Joke?

Comedians aren’t exactly known for being models of ethics in society. But there’s always been a contract between the audience and the comic: if it’s funny, the comic can push any and every boundary they like. Great controversies are landmark events in stand-up history, when people like Jackie Mason, Sammie Davis Jr. and Richard Pryor broke taboos and opened up topics like race and class for incisive commentary through humor. These controversies usually followed a predictable pattern, where the comic would incite outrage from television censors or Christian family values groups with some new joke, and in return the audience would defend the comedian, launching him (almost always a “him”) to even greater fame because of the controversy.

But in recent years it feels like this process has been turned upside down — many comedians feel like it is the audiences who are turning on them. Jerry Seinfeld’s comments on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” were perhaps the best summary of how many comedians are feeling today. Seinfeld stands with a number of Americans who believe that political correctness, or “PC culture,” is threatening free speech in America.

The argument goes that because college students are rejecting comedy on the basis of how offensive it is, comedians are now more frightened to attempt controversial humor, a cornerstone of stand-up comedy. Though Seinfeld has never put it in these terms, the fear is of a world exclusively with comedians exactly like him — observational comedians who appeal to the most universal experiences, with little if any edge.

This is one interpretation of what’s going on across college campuses, but it isn’t the whole picture. Few would argue with the statement that stand-up comedy is vastly male-dominated; a study by estimated that 14.3 percent of comedians are women. There are many black stand-up comedians ranking among the most well-known and admired, but there still remains a tension between black comedians and their white audiences once they reach a national stage.

Dave Chapelle’s abandonment of his hit sketch show, “Chappelle’s Show,” because of that tension is the best example of the toll that such comedy can take on people of color. Because a great deal of comedy plays off of stereotypes of people, there is an inherent risk in creating comedy that can quickly slide into misogyny and racism. Though the majority of comedians at this moment in history tend to appear more liberal, there’s a long tradition of right-wing comedians whose work is at best disrespectful and at worst outright offensive — Jeff Dunham, Greg Kinison, and Dane Cook are some examples. So while it may seem unusual for Jerry Seinfeld to receive backlash for his observational comedy, no one can deny that there is comedy out there that crosses the boundary of good taste, and it might be worth telling a Durham or Kinison that what they’re doing on stage isn’t exactly okay.

There are many explanations and arguments to be made for both sides of the “PC” debate. But ultimately, it becomes a matter of what people want to see and what they think is funny.

A version of this appeared in the Tuesday, October 11 print edition. Email Michael Landes at [email protected].