Sorry, did my joke offend you?

With notable figures throughout the comedic world getting embroiled in controversy over the content they produce, Michael Tuohy explores the question of where and how lines should be drawn in what jokes are acceptable.

We live in an interesting time. The vast majority of us are constantly active on social media networks, and there are two groups of people we're all too familiar with. Those looking to "offend" and those looking to "be offended". Extremist trolls looking to get attention by irritating people, and extremist cry-babies looking to get attention by acting like everything, everywhere is an insult. Admit it, we've all come across these people and they're both pains to deal with. We usually shrug or laugh them off and then go on with our lives, but the combination of the two extremes has led to an interesting issue being addressed: our sense of humour. Some would argue humour often goes way too far, relying on distasteful harsh stereotypes. Others would say humour has gone too soft, afraid to anger the politically correct sensitivities of the world. Does either side hold water?

Nothing is off-limits in comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to tell any joke, any time. You shouldn’t have to be told that it’s unwise to go to a bar mitzvah and tell a Holocaust joke. There is a big difference between whether you can do something and whether you should, and that gets lost in this conversation almost immediately. While no one should be forbidden from telling a joke, it’s reasonable to expect comedians to consider how the audience will receive it. If the only defence you have of a joke is that it is ‘just a joke though’, it may be wise not to tell it; it’s probably not a very good joke.

Socially awkward people looking for fast attention often become trolls, picking pointless fights in forums and comment sections. We all see them throw out swear words and slurs all the while rationalising their own behaviour as “a specific sense of humour”, and often times we simply ignore them. Is it better if we were to just adopt a nihilistic outlook or should we voice our anger when we feel a comedian has taken something too far? Of course we should use voice to respond. There are people that are trying to spread more hate and despair and disguising it as “niche humour”, and we should call them out on it. It is not a case of policing the things comedians can and cannot talk about, that'd be against free speech and would limit to our own growth as a community.

Then there are people looking to fight for a cause, which can be good. Many causes are admirable. They can set change in motion and let the world know when it's time to correct something. Sarah Silverman is a notable comedienne who has garnered much acclaim and attention for incorporating social commentary into her comedy set, taking taboo subjects such as rape culture and making the punchline about society’s response and not the victim. The issue here for most comics who try to mimic Silverman and balance irreverent humor with social issues, lies with using the cause for the wrong reasons, say to fulfill an emotional, even selfish need, resulting in the joke coming across in bad taste. More often than not, if you're fighting for something to fill a void and not because you want actual change, you're liable to be more emotional and closed-minded on the subject. This can also lead to woefullying misinterpreting scenarios.

Of all things the 90s Comedy Central cartoon show Duck Man, might have made the most brilliant comments about comedy ever. The titular character becomes embroiled in a plot to bring down a “clean” comedian that makes it big with his jokes that are not offensive to anyone, though we never get to fully hear one of these jokes. Our hero comes along and says some of the most poignant words ever about the importance of comedy. "It's precisely when humour is offensive that we need it most! Comedy should provoke! It should blast through prejudices, challenge preconceptions! Comedy should always leave you different than when it found you! Sure, humour can hurt, even alienate, but the risk is better than the alternative. Demand to be challenged! To be offended! To be treated like thinking, reasoning adults!"

Equality for people of different races, religions, and genders is worth fighting for. But pent up emotion can explode at the wrong time and at the wrong people, leading us to demonise perfectly good ideas or causes. In reality, the best way to cause change in comedy isn’t to soften bigoted humour, but rather to amplify insightful humour. Great comedians like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart have become some of the most trusted people in media, not because they wave their fingers and complain but because they apply humour, satire and common sense to issues that really matter. But let's be honest, it's the comedy that draws us in and gets us talking about these issues. Lots of people are engaging with subjects that they never would have been interested in, because the most successful and popular comedians introduce them in a way that makes it okay to laugh at. Making issues funny helps make them become more interesting to an audience that isn’t directly affected by it. It’s far easier to pay attention to a skilled entertainer than a stick in the mud on Twitter or in your chosen newspaper. If we were to go by the "no comedy can be offensive" guidelines, then not only would we lose these incredible truths, but also the great comedians that made it possible.

The question is how do we know when a line has been crossed? Sadly, the answer is not in any book and it's not online, you just have to use common sense. You won’t always be in agreement. There are certainly people we have trusted before that have let us down. There are even good comedians that cross the line because comedy is a tricky tightrope, but it's a tightrope that needs to be walked. Most comedians do. It shows how far we could go, and how far we probably shouldn't go. It also shows that wrong steps can be made, but through the positivity that made them likable to begin with, they can get back on track. Some do this beautifully, others not so much, but if the alternative is to fear and judge everything, then comedy will be dead very quickly. So, push the envelope of what's not accepted and keep on fighting for causes worth fighting for. Just be sure that you're communicating it with the right intention, because the cost of the alternative isn’t worth it.