Aaron Counter

Aaron Counter

Aaron Counter began his career by making the final of the BBC New Comedy Awards in 2005. Though he started his career in the UK, he now lives in his native Australia.
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Don't blame us!

Aaron Counter says audiences , not comedians, are responsible for offensive comedy

There has been a spate of comment pieces in the media recently discussing cases where comedians have been criticised publicly or even sued for what they’ve said on stage. Usually these articles conclude with a standard ominous prediction that free speech is doomed and that political correctness will lead to the end of comedy.

Some comedians do try to push boundaries and they do it in a brilliant and clever way that should be, and often is, appreciated by an audience. While others, lacking ability and intellect, believe a shock is as good as a laugh when it comes to getting a reaction, so they use a sledgehammer to offend.

Thing is, a few people will be offended equally by both styles and we’re just going to have to let them be. To quote some guy who has been quoted by a lot of other people, ‘haters gonna hate’. More alarmingly though, the majority of people will laugh equally at both styles and won’t see the difference.

But who is really to blame for comedians becoming more offensive? As a comedian, let me be the first to suggest it’s the audiences’ fault.

But how? Audiences aren’t telling the comedians what to say, they’re the ones being offended by those hateful jokes. But the audience is telling the comedian what to say. This may come as a shock to the majority of couch-dwellers but comedians don’t just tell jokes to the TV audience. They go out and gig in some of the most inhospitable pub gigs throughout the world. They watch as their carefully crafted, subtle wordlays are ignored and heckled. Then they sit there and watch the ‘old-school’ comedian with jokes older than God storm a gig that didn’t laugh all that much at their stuff. Comedians are people too, and when this happens on a nightly basis it can dent their confidence.

After a while the comedian will have two types of jokes. They still have some clever witticisms that pepper their set, the jokes that remind them they’re better than the gig they are forced to play. Then they have the cruder, ruder, bare-knuckle jokes that the morons living in some random country town expect and demand. The ironic wife-beating joke is misinterpreted nightly as a good old-fashioned wife-beating joke. After a while even the comedian forgets to tell the pullback and reveal they originally wrote that shows they’re not a wife-beater after all.

I hear jokes that I find grotesquely offensive. I’m rarely offended by the statement or joke itself, but, if I am, I’m often infinitely more offended by an audience’s decision to laugh at it. I recently heard a relatively new male comedian address the topic of women fighting on the front line. He proposed a fictional scenario where he was in a situation of certain death with a solitary female soldier. She asked him what was going to happen and he told her that he was going to rape her because if he’s got to die anyway he’d prefer to get his end away first.

I have obviously paraphrased this man’s comical poetry but as offensive as the piece was, the audience loved it and they applauded the man brave enough to say what they had all been thinking. I couldn’t believe it. How could they validate this man’s material in that way? I wouldn’t say that the audience was overflowing with Mensa members but surely common decency would preclude them from laughing at that? Apparently I was in the minority that night.

Whether or not I found this comedian funny is beside the point. The audience did, they loved him and they loved that particular joke the most. And if audiences continue to love that joke with any level of consistency he’ll write more jokes like this. Then he’ll start playing bigger venues and he’ll continue to write more jokes like this. New comedians will try to emulate his success and they will mould themselves around his example. Then TV executives will come and see him perform to this enormous fan base of adoring followers and he’ll end up on TV.

Sure he’ll tone it down a little, because it’s TV, but the producer won’t want to risk stifling his creative genius and will allow him some artistic freedom to deliver what his fans want. Now he’s doing a joke on TV that the media will gladly write more comment pieces about. You’ll then have to write a strongly worded letter to the TV station for allowing this to happen and insisting that this show be axed.

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re perfectly entitled to be offended by that joke you saw on TV. Good for you for having the courage to speak out against it. But the answer isn’t to try to ban comedy. The solution is the fix the cause of the problem. Go and watch comedy in the small clubs. Go and pack out little gigs with like-minded educated audiences. When the comedian with the clever jokes comes on, and they’re out there, then show them the appreciation and encouragement they deserve. When the ‘old-school’ comedian comes and tells you the homophobic joke just stare at him, heckle him do whatever you like but don’t laugh. Make him realise that those jokes aren’t going to cut it and he will either change his ways or quit comedy. Either way is fine by me.

If your political party isn’t going in the direction you want it you don’t get to have a meeting with the Prime Minister. You get involved at the grass roots and you push for change with the next generation. Comedy needs you to do the same. If you want the next generation of TV stars to be the TV comedians you want, then you need to get involved now.

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Published: 24 May 2011

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