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Comedians Debate What Is Acceptable Humor

Comedian Katherine Jessup tells jokes at the Town Tavern open mike in Washinston, DC. (Peter Musto/VOA)
Comedian Katherine Jessup tells jokes at the Town Tavern open mike in Washinston, DC. (Peter Musto/VOA)
Comedians Debate What Is Acceptable Humor
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For over 50 years stand-up comedians have played an important part in the examination of popular culture and society. Several generations of comedians have served as critics and observers of American life. Many comedy acts have also courted controversy.

Right now, people inside and outside the world of comedy are debating what, if anything, is too controversial for comedic use. In other words, should comics concern themselves with "political correctness?"

To be 'politically correct,' or PC, means to avoid language that is, or could be, offensive to a group of people. It is usually used in sarcasm, however, by those who reject political correctness.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld created the hugely successful television show "Seinfeld." He is a leading critic of the so-called PC movement. In fact, he recently said that he would no longer perform at U.S. colleges and universities because he considers students to be too PC.

Chris Rock, John Cleese, Lisa Lampanelli and several other influential comedians also have expressed similar opinions. They say political correctness represents an unreasonable sensitivity. They argue that that it hurts comedy and restricts open discussion. Author and comedian Jim Norton has suggested that society is now "addicted to the rush of being offended."

Not all performers agree, however. Katherine Jessup has been doing stand-up comedy for more than three years. She is also a writer and co-host of the podcast, "Advice! with Dave & Kat."

Ms. Jessup says part of the problem is that for a long time, men have been the only people in the stand-up community with any power. She feels that these people are protesting because they don't want the community to change and they don't want to lose control.

Comedian Micael Berhabe on stage at the Town Tavern (DC)
Comedian Micael Berhabe on stage at the Town Tavern (DC)

"That seems to be said by a lot of people that are… comfortable and well established in where they are… and more than anything else its male comics and men in comedy sort of saying, like ‘You know you're taking this from me and I should have the right to say whatever I want to say.'… There is a lot of patriarchy, a lot of racism… It's this tough thing where, on the one hand,… there are all these great opportunities and on the other hand, like… it's still very much the club that it was before."

​A growing number of performers and members of the media agree with Ms. Jessup. Several writers for The Washington Post newspaper and the CNN news network have released articles that argue against Mr. Seinfeld's position. Others say, however, that the real problem is that the audience does not fully understand the issues that they believe to be offensive.

Randolph Terrance has been doing stand-up for 16 years. He also co-hosts the weekly open mike at the Arlington Cinema Drafthouse in Arlington, Virginia as well as the podcast Three Guys On. He believes that audiences become offended without thinking about how comedians are trying to address a given subject.

"For instance, you say 'black guy' and the audience immediately pulls away from you because they think you're going to say something racist. Or they don't quite understand what the term 'racist' actually means or prejudice actually mean. Here's the mistake Seinfeld made: Seinfeld is too white and too rich to be allowed to say it. That's why everybody's mad….. What he said was true. To me, there's no question. I'm in front of audiences, I see it. You'd be a fool as a comedian to not see it… The audiences don't see it because they, they're not on our side."

The debate about what discussion is acceptable on stage is not new. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars the making of laws that would abridge free speech. However, there are laws that limit that right.

In the 1960s, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested five times on charges of obscenity. His public battles with the law gained attention for and helped change attitudes about free expression.

Lee Rowland is an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is a non-profit organization that works to defend the individual rights included in the constitution. Ms. Rowland says that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly agreed that the only kinds of speech not protected are "true threats, defamation, obscenity, child pornography, and incitement to violence.

"Our constitution was [written] to protect minority viewpoints from government interference," she adds, "including, and perhaps most importantly, ideas that challenge, annoy, or offend us."

Ms. Jessup says people have become quick to be offended and not quick to be thoughtful. She says this is not good for comedy. Mr. Terrance blames this on the fact that the audience does not understand the process of making a joke. He says it partly happens on stage, during open mike performances.

"Open mikes are, for us, we're just trying stuff out. But now, people have a camera in their pocket, so they'll videotape you and put it up. So there's this unfinished thought that's up on stage, or something like that, and people put that up and they think, 'Oh, look at this monster, he's telling a joke.' No, that was an unfinished thought that I am trying to work out, and this is the only place I have to work it out… People don't understand that because they don't understand the art of stand up."

Mr. Terrance and Ms. Jessup both say that some people should not say certain things. This includes language that could be considered insulting to different groups of people. Mr. Terrance believes the limits should be less restrictive than those Ms. Jessup proposes, though.

"Yes, there are people who can't say certain things. Having said that… nothing is off limits…"

"White people don't get to say the N-word. Men shouldn't be walking around saying the C-word... There's a certain level of, 'If you're the oppressor then, you don't get to then use the language of the oppressed.'"

However, both comedians agree that it is important for them to be able to talk about ideas that challenge people. Ms. Jessup sees this as a useful tool.

Comedian Si Mone performs at the Town Tavern (DC)
Comedian Si Mone performs at the Town Tavern (DC)

"Speaking from personal experience, there are things that can be really hard and really painful but that you figure out how to make funny… when you work through that… there is a feeling of speaking truth to power that's really important and takes some of the awfulness away."

Though this debate will likely continue for many years to come, it is safe to say that comedy will always be a main source of social commentary.

I'm Pete Musto.

Mr. Terrance's comedy album 'Blue Magic' can be found on Spotify.
Ms. Jessup's podcast can be found on iTunes.

Pete Musto reported and wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

stand-up comediann. a person who performs alone on stage in front of an audience and makes people laugh by telling jokes or funny stories

court controversyidiom. to act in a way that is likely to create an argument that involves many people who strongly disagree about something

sensitivity adj. the tendency to become upset about things that are done to you, are said about you, or relate to you

offendedadj. caused to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done

patriarchy n. a family, group, or government controlled by a man or a group of men

racismn. poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race

open miken. an event in which anyone may use a microphone to sing, read poetry or tell jokes for an audience

abridgev. to lessen the strength or effect of something

obscenityn. the quality or state of being offensive

attituden. the way you think and feel about someone or something

defamationn. the act of saying false things in order to make people have a bad opinion of someone or something

monstern. an extremely cruel or evil person

Now it's your turn. Do think that it is okay to discuss offensive topics in public? How does your government treat freedom of speech? Let us know in the comments section.