Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Comedian's Dilemma.

Bloomsbury Coffee House
12oz Soy Mocha w/whip
Zucchini Bread

The best comedy tells the truth.  And because of that, comedy often traffics in uncomfortable taboo topics.  Racism, sexism, war and violence... the bread and butter of many comedians.  You don't have to use "blue humor" to be a master comedian - think Bill Cosby.  But it is often the blunt, crass, shocking comedians who add the most value to our society by their ability to reveal truths about ourselves that have gone unacknowledged.  Think George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor.  However, that doesn't give comedians license to be shocking and vulgar and claim some noble cause, that they're just telling it like it is, holding up a mirror to society.

My husband and I have very different taste in humor.  He is much more fond of the Jackass movies, pranks, and the modern-day Comedy Central roasts.  These are often unwatchable for me.  But we do agree on many things in principle.  He is adamantly anti-censorship, and insists that no subject is taboo as long as the joke is funny.  And I am basically in agreement, but I have to add one caveat, one challenge to the performer: Maybe the subject isn't "off the table," but should the joke be told?

It would probably surprise people to know that all those stereotypes about Jewish people which appear regularly in comedy routines - I didn't know any of them till I was in high school or college.  I learned them from comedians.  And even though I don't believe in racism - in that I don't think there is any behavior that is intrinsic to one group of people or other - those thoughts are there now, whether I want them to be or not.  They pop up like a reflexive twitch of the knee when it is struck by the comedian's hammer, and every time I have to make the effort to correct the thought, lower my foot to the floor again.

Racism, sexism, any kind of prejudice, can only survive through its repetition.  It has to be branded into your thinking, like any marketing campaign. 

So, for a comedian trying to find their voice, make their name, they need to ask themselves also,  "Is the joke worth telling?"  You can come up with some clever turn of phrase, some situational joke that will have a good punch, but does the joke reveal?  Does it enlighten?  Will it bring us to a better place by challenging our previously-held perceptions?  Or will it reinforce the old worn-out prejudices?  Where does the humor of the joke come from?  If you're telling a joke about something horrible happening to someone, does the humor come from exposing the horribleness of the perpetrators, or of society's reaction to the event?  Or does the humor exploit the victim?  Will the joke strengthen the weak or the strong?

At the end of the day, I'm not a comedian, and I'm not for censorship, so this is not directly my dilemma.  But I do not have to partake in that kind of humor, and I feel a responsibility to call it out when I see it, because, so often, those who are telling the joke do not see it. 

Then, it's our turn to hold up the mirror.

No comments:

Post a Comment