"Did you know that if you are still telling the same tired jokes you were telling 20 years ago with no regard to the changing social and political climate that you probably won’t get tons of laughs on college campuses? ...[But] there is nothing more American than the ability to say whatever you want — no matter how vile and hate-filled, no matter the social consequences, no matter how steeped in the blood of people of color, trans people, or rape victims those jokes are — without having to face any criticism." - Ijeoma Oluo
You can be dirty, raunchy, and talk all about the taboo. But you gotta be really freakin' good to do it well. It's why Louis CK can get away with murder (or, in the case of his SNL monologue, a heinous yet hilarious joke about pedophilia).
Lazy comedy is pointing at a stereotype or taboo topic and saying "HERE IT IS." Laughter because you made the audience uncomfortable is easy.
Good comedy takes a taboo stereotype or problematic topic and inverts it, twists it, highlights its absurdity, and makes us examine an uncomfortable thing up close and observe the need for transformation.
It’s easy to say something offensive and provoke a response. It’s harder to call out the offensive thing or stereotype and make a joke about why it's offensive that simultaneously barbs, is funny, and highlights why it's problematic.
An imperfect example:
I was playing a game where a fellow improviser and I were movie critics who narrated/set up scenes in a movie. Then, two of our other teammates would act out that scene. For a suggestion of a genre, we received Martial Arts film.
I chose to narrate the scene with a British accent, because I had no interest in the low-hanging fruit of playing up my Asian-ness. The two (white) actors acting out the scenes however immediately made the choice of coming onstage and immediately doing stereotypical Asian/Chinese accents and talking about shaming the honor of their family, etc.
It’s a fine line. There is not anything inherently wrong with their choice to play the accents. Sure, their content was stereotyping - but it’s a genre game which often leans into stereotypes of genre for bits and jokes. Audiences laugh when they recognize tropes, and accents, dubs, and white-appropriated depictions.
To me however, this is really beginner-level comedy and jokes, and also fraught with the easy danger of tipping into offensive/racist choices. We’re reinforcing expectations instead of inverting them - the comedy comes solely from recognition, not from any element of surprise or intelligent inverting of expectations.
My partner narrating the scene was obviously a little uncomfortable, and made a comment questioning the “historical authenticity” of the movie. This was an amazing gift that I got to jump on.
Instead of pointing out how inauthentic two white guys pretending to be Chinese warriors was, I instead asserted how deeply, amazingly authentic the film was, and how it wasn’t at ALL weird or problematic having two white guys play all the Chinese characters through the film.
The audience laughed, and then the game of our scene became the two white actors purposefully playing into horrible overblown stereotypes, my character embracing them ridiculously, and my co-anchor playing the straight man getting more and more uncomfortable and finally rebuking the whole thing.
What could’ve been a generic scene of stereotyping and bad accents instead became a commentary on appropriation of culture and how Hollywood whitewashes Asian roles.
The scene could’ve just been easy humor that was laughing at a culture’s perceived other-ness. Instead it became a commentary on how white culture consume foreign stories, then grotesquely twist it to fit white cultural understanding, standards, and expectations by inserting white characters into non-white environments.
Whine Less, Write Better Jokes
People who complain about "censorship" in comedy sound a lot like the people who say we are “too politically correct” as a country nowadays.
I call bullshit.
The actual case is, we as a culture are getting to be more inclusive and aware. We’re also spotting lazy, discriminatory humor from our comedians, humor that enforces existing power structures, that “punches down.” Comedy has the power to change minds, to talk about the taboo, to revolutionize how things are. George Carlin, Louis CK, Amy Schumer, all buck expectations and punch up and out against power systems, against prejudices and injustices.
We are not too sensitive. We are saying we're not interested in lazy humor that picks on the disempowered.
Punching a little kid is easy. Let’s tackle the 2 ton gorilla with our comedy.
Same thing with people complaining about having to be politically correct. Political correctness actually just means “hey, don’t be an asshole and completely dismiss or insult a group of people through ignorance or intentionally hurtful words.” If that’s “too much trouble” and “stupid” to you, then you’re an asshole.
And here’s the thing - an audience might not be able to articulate that, but we as professional comedians need to recognize that and make smarter, better, more subversive jokes.
We need to step up our game.
The first stand up set I ever wrote had a bit about having dogs in jars in my fridge growing up. You know, because Chinese people eat dogs. How foreign and weird! The fact is, I’ve never eaten dog; it’s not in the culinary culture and regions my family is from. But it was an easy joke and got a huge laugh every time.
I’m more than a little embarrassed by that joke.
I’m trying to evolve past that.
I hope that teachers and institutions and people in positions of instruction and power will encourage players to play smarter.
It’s not censorship; it’s not political correctness; it’s playing smarter and sharper and better.
Because at the end of the day, there’s a dick joke, and then there’s a dick joke that illustrates what male privilege looks like while simultaneously kicking patriarchal expectations in the dick.