Offensive comedy vs. dark humor


Comedians sometimes take their jokes too far with the use of offensive slurs.

In 1972, comedian George Carlin changed stand-up comedy with just seven words.

Carlin’s routine at the Milwaukee Music Festival, Summerfest, infamously titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” earned him both great notoriety and a charge for violating Wisconsin’s obscenity laws, according to journalist Mark Walton. The case was eventually dismissed, however, on the basis of the First Amendment — freedom of speech.

The dismissal of the case enabled a generation of comedians to begin inching into a more edgy, once-forbidden area of stand-up: offensive comedy.

Offensive material should exist in comedy. The conversation-like nature of stand-up comedy allows for a space in which people of all different backgrounds can come together to poke fun at or even question society. Offensive humor allows for dialogue.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions to the use of offensive comedy — traditionally privileged groups criticizing marginalized groups or ‘punching down.’

Comedian Bill Burr has been criticized for punching down in his use of offensive slurs toward the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, Burr has labeled men who are visibly affectionate or caring as “f**s.” The use of this word by Burr, a heterosexual, is nothing short of oppressive and degrading. Burr is merely using his privilege as a straight, white male to belittle a disadvantaged community; it is a lazy and unacceptable use of comedy.

Similarly, according to CNN, in a 2011 skit with comedians Louis Szekely, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and Jerry Seinfeld, Szekely made the comment “when a black guy gets rich, it’s a countdown to when he’s poor again.”

As a white comedian, this comment crosses the line. If a black comedian were to say something similar, it could begin a conversation about systemic racism or American stereotypes, but for Szekely the remark was merely critical and degrading.

Although what’s funny really depends on who’s hearing it, it also depends on who is saying it.

A comedian from a marginalized group might be able to get away with an edgy or offensive joke about that group for the sake of open dialogue. But a comedian who isn’t shouldn’t be surprised if he or she is met with criticism, or even scandal, when they try to get laughs at the expense of a marginalized group they know nothing about.