If you haven’t been living in a cave for the past month, then you know all about the slap at the Academy Awards. Chris Rock made a joke about Will Smith’s wife, which Will laughed at heartily, but had a change of heart when he saw his wife Jada roll her eyes at it, and then The Hulk took over.
No matter how you interpret the slap, it has raised the question across social media platforms: is it ok to make any kind of joke, or is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?
The debate reminds me of the eternal dilemma of free speech, especially in my adopted homeland, Sweden (I’m from the USA). In regular intervals, Sweden – a social-democracy – asks itself: are haters allowed to hate? Here, there is a law, Incitement to ethnic or racial hatred (Hets mot folkgrupp, in Swedish) that prohibits people from making hate-speech in public, including Neo-nazis handing out pamphlets that are openly racist, for example. Still, the police protected a white-supremacist march which came provocatively close to a synagogue last Yom Kippur, since permission had been obtained.
Back to the topic. I’ve been a fan of comedy since I was a kid. Saturday Night Live was the pinnacle of comedy for me as a teenager, but there were plenty of other programs and stand-up acts I loved, and I started writing my own ideas and keeping notebooks during college. At 18 I tried standup for the first time, in Times Square – to this day one of the most exciting things I’ve done – and recently, I’ve been doing it as much as reasonably possible given my personal and professional situation.
Throughout the years that I’ve been performing and consuming comedy, I’ve seen countless “blue” acts – below-the-belt sexual humor – which is sometimes funny, usually not very, and sometimes not at all. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not so much what, as how. The content is of course important, but even more importantly, the execution.
Comedy is said to be one of the most difficult art forms. Historically, a comic might even get beheaded by a despot for not being funny enough, or too displeasing to his highney, and even without that added stress, bombing onstage is punishment enough. Silence after a punchline is much more punishing than ambiguous clapping after a song. There’s not really such a thing as a polite laugh. Well, there is, but it’s quite see-through.
When a comedian gets on stage, I give them the benefit of the doubt that they are a decent person. They are here to entertain. They want me and the rest of the audience to laugh. Otherwise, why would they get up there to begin with?
If they then start making off-color jokes about, say, being a pedophile, I don’t suddenly think “they must be a pedophile,” although those kinds of jokes don’t usually make me laugh. I never thought I’d write anything defending something with the word pedophile in it, but I’m using it as an example since topics like that are pretty much the norm on any given night at most comedy clubs.
My own act is maybe 95% “politically correct” and I do feel like I have an added responsibility to be a bit of a role model since I know I have students who follow my open comedy accounts on SM, plus my niece, and maybe even my own kids might start checking out their dad one day…but I don’t really feel constricted since for me, what’s funny doesn’t have to be taboo. Humor is almost like a spiritual practice: anything can be funny if you can see the humor in it. It’s as simple as that.
One night, at a club here in Stockholm that has gotten critique for being offensive to some guests (my attention was brought to that after a former student wrote to me expressing concern that I was performing there), I was at a kind “rookie night” which wasn’t great, comedy-wise. After the show, I saw three young, black women confront a white male comedian about his act. The whole thing went down quite respectfully. They simply said: “We didn’t like the part of your act when you said ‘xyz.’ It was racist.” The comedian replied and said: “Ok. I’m going to think about that in the future.” They said: “Yeah, you should, cause we were very offended.”
When I saw that interaction, I thought, imagine if more people did that, in general?? Once, I was pretty offended by a comedian (at the same club, actually) that started picking on me for being Jewish. He wasn’t funny (no one was laughing) – the whole thing was simply uncomfortable for everyone. When I went to talk to him after, he packed up his things quickly and left, seemingly afraid or unequipped to talk about it.
Lenny Bruce was a legendary, ground-breaking comedian in NYC during the 1960’s, who repeatedly broke the law (and was convicted) for using profanity during his act. He was a provocateur who knew that the laws against profanity were an affront and a contradiction to the very idea of freedom of speech.
A few months ago, 4 female Swedish comedians published a Code of Conduct for comedians, a kind of work-environment document with guidelines like “don’t sexually harass others; don’t tease a colleague who just bombed; don’t heckle a colleague unless you know it will land well.”
Some comedians (mostly male) were perturbed by the document, but for the most part, it just seemed like common sense. Besides the heckling part, there wasn’t anything about what should and shouldn’t be said on stage.
Satire is tricky, since one might say one thing, but mean the opposite. But comedy – like any other art form – exists because it can express something in a unique way, or express something that might not be able to be expressed in another way.
That’s why, for me, the comedy stage is kind of sacred, and I do think it should be a free zone for free speech. However – and it’s a worn-out cliché – “with freedom comes responsibility.”
If you make a joke, be ready to own it. Otherwise, maybe best to keep it in the notebook!