Can you have comedy with a conscience?

Jahnavi Goldstein wrestles with her ethics

I love comedy, I love making people laugh and I treasure the ability and gift comedians have to turn pain into the powerful solace of laughter. And yet comedy is increasingly cutting and mocking. It evidences and takes advantage of stereotypes, stupidity and tragedy. It is often racist, misogynist and outright cruel. It is also courageous, revealing universal truths; fighting the villain pain with the superhero laughter. Does the joy of laughing justify or balance the meanness that is often a requisite ingredient in making comedy funny?

I struggle with this daily: is the laughter I generate worth the hurt I spread? I wish I did not care – I wish I could say the end matters more than the means. But I cannot. I want to be funny, to be a successful comedian who not only makes people laugh, but makes them feel understood and challenges them. Can comedy with a conscience really exist, and be funny?

My current comedy style can be categorized as lewd, overly-sexualized, edgy – but overall funny. The majority of the comedians I admire and enjoy are similar – if not blatantly offensive, at least highly acerbic. Daniel Tosh can make racism and homophobia adorable, Ricky Gervais picks on the weakest of targets, Jerry Sadowitz spews unabashed hatred at everything and everyone including himself, Jim Jefferies defiles women, Louis C.K. says things about his kids that will have them in therapy for years and Doug Stanhope, Lewis Black, Dylan Moran and others thrive on angry rants and raves.

I am a strong believer that comedy is perhaps the last stand of creative expression where political correctness has not stamped out truths and most importantly laughter. Comedians are given more free reign to speak the ugly things we all think but don’t dare to voice. Because of this freedom they can find the funny in the tragic and, for two hours in a comedy club, very different people are united in shared, honest laughter.

I also believe that if you choose to pay money to go to a comedy club, especially to see a comedian who is known as being edgy, you should be prepared and delighted to be shocked and offended, so long as there is humor in such shock and offence. I find myself laughing hysterically at well-crafted and delivered rape, Aids, Jesus, natural disaster, paedophilia and race jokes.

In theory, I believe that nothing should be off limits in comedy. Who are we to decide one horrible thing is funny while another is atrocious? Yet I cannot ignore my own hypocrisy. While I am down for horrible jokes about most everything I am repulsed and offended by jokes pertaining to animal cruelty and 9/11. These subjects to me are not pain in which I feel we should find the funny and consider jokes about them disrespectful and unnecessary. Still, there are probably 9/11 survivors or family members who lost loved ones who might find some solace in them.

Recently, there was outrage and scandal in regards to Ricky Gervais’ posting pictures of himself making spastic faces and tweeting various jokes using the term ‘mong’ (short for Mongoloid, someone with Down’s Syndrome). The arguments surrounding Gervais’ actions were numerous, some with merit and some without.

I am a fan of Gervais and found his cutting Golden Globe celebrity remarks brilliant. He also does a regular bit in his stand-up mocking kids with cancer – straight to the faces of the kids with cancer in his audience, who appear to enjoy it. Behind his cutting ‘I don’t care if anyone is offended’ persona, Gervais donates thousands of dollars to many charities – including those supporting children with cancer.

For the most part, Gervais cannot be classified as a shock comedian, such as Jerry Sadowtiz. Thus Gervais’ singular focus on mocking ‘mongs,’ especially through Twitter, rather than through an actual comedy show forum, came across as bullying of a singled-out group. Ironically, Sadowitz’s harsher mocking of ‘mongs’ in a recent tour warm-up show of his I attended, seemed less impactful and malicious in that it was simply one part of everything Sadowtiz hates and mocks (including himself). Is hatefulness easier to swallow and less powerful when it is applied indiscriminately across the board rather than to isolated things/people?

I find Gervais quite funny and while I thought a stand-up show rather than Twitter might have been a more appropriate forum for the ‘mong’ jokes, I didn’t have a problem with it. His followers know he can be harsh and ‘mongs’ would not be part of his audience. However, his wishy-washy explanation that he was talking about idiots and not the mentally disabled was weak. If you are going to offend you have to own it and hopefully be funny in the process. However, I generally thought the public was making a big fuss about nothing and that people needed to stop getting so offended, supposedly on behalf of others.

But then a funny thing happened to me while riding the London Underground. A mother and her two children got on the train and the little boy, probably about eight years old, bounded onto the seat next to me. As he brushed against me in his enthusiasm, I sighed in annoyance like a typical city public transport user. Then I saw he had Down’s Syndrome. He smiled at me so sweetly and when I opened my Kindle he leaned over, oblivious of the rules of personal space, fascinated with the device, looking back and forth between it and me. I wanted to engage with him and let him examine the Kindle, but admit that interaction with him frightened me.

After this brief and perhaps insignificant interaction with a true ‘mong,’ I felt less certain that Gervais had the right to offend. Perhaps the people who were offended were not just pompous PC twats? A moment with this innocent boy on the tube made me question, as comedians, who we think we are to assume this right to offend and to wield this ‘right’ so viciously? In comedy it is easy to forget that the things, events and people we make jokes about are real, because in a comedy club they seem so far away and the laughter so strokes our egos. I heard a hysterical joke about the Turkey earthquake at a show. Then the next day I saw a picture of a 14 day old baby pulled out of the rubble and I felt a sick pang of guilt about laughing so hard the night before.

However, if we felt the pain of every horrible thing in the world none of us could withstand the weight of it and we’d be paralyzed by depression. I think audiences embrace dark comedy because it gives them permission to turn off their own consciences for an hour or two, which feels immensely freeing. Humor, mocking, making light of horrible, horrible things is a coping mechanism, a healthy survival mechanism that keeps us emotionally able to respond, keeps us human. Mark Twain wrote, ‘the human race has only one effective weapon and that is laughter.’ But what happens to comedians who turn off their consciences show after show?

Personally, I feel my comedy is on the edge of breaking through to the next level. Yet I feel torn and conflicted about making people laugh at the expense of others. I try mainly to target myself or inane topics, but sometimes this feels timid. I don’t want to hurt people, or perpetuate negativity, but neither do I want to be a stale, family-friendly, observational comedian. (Nothing against that type of comedy, but my mind is incapable of family-friendly observations).

My conscience, my fear of hurting others, is holding me back from taking my comedy to the next level. I’m stuck at a safe, trite level of comedy because I am scared of the guilt I feel when I wonder if I go too far. I tell some very funny rape jokes, and then I fret because I have a friend who was raped and I worry if my telling rape jokes will one day result in my own, or another’s rape due to a karmic joke. I think of really bizarre and twisted jokes and, when I go there people, seem to enjoy them.

But I recently received some really telling feedback from a few people who were privy to what I consider some of my more edgy material. I was told that I seemed apologetic during my set and that weakened my ability to get (or should it be, give) laughs.

My inner conflict is apparently seeping out into my routine and my delivery. I think the same sick, horrible thoughts we all think, and I have some pretty funny things to say about them. I don’t want to back down; I don’t want to sacrifice creativity and laughter for the sake of political correctness or an overactive conscience. But nor do I want that sweet Down’s Syndrome boy I encountered on the train, or others similar to or close to him, to be the victim of ridicule because of jokes shared for the sake of laughter from a room full of strangers.

I genuinely want to give the gift of laughter to those rooms full of strangers; the gift of losing themselves for an hour or so from their own pain through laughter. I also selfishly want to take laughter, validation, and approval from those strangers, for in that shared laughter, that shared recognition that people and life often suck, we share a bond. For those short moments we are no longer strangers but very much alike. Here’s the question: Who is comedy for, the comedian or the audience? And can comedy with a conscience be funny? I don’t know, but I wish I could find a way to reconcile the two.

One comedian I respect very much and consider comically brilliant, Stephen Colbert, has managed to find this balance – and does hilarious ‘comedy with a conscience’ on a daily basis on his U.S. television show The Colbert Report. The extreme right-wing, conservative character he plays incorporates healthy mockery and draws attention to horrible issues in a hysterical and educational manner. I am always left laughing and feeling hopeful – even about the most awful or taboo of subjects.

Does the fact that he has a television show, rather than a more demanding, live, stand-up comedy club, as his forum – allow him to do this? Is it the fact that he plays a character and that it’s his character rather than Colbert himself who is the over-the-top, callous, narcissistic news commentator that leaves me laughing at horrible things while actually feeling like a better, more moral person for it?

Comedy is my calling. And I am as twisted as they come. I don’t want to apologise for that or limit the possibilities of where that twistedness might take me. Yet I can’t and don’t want to ignore my conscience. I want to make people laugh. I want to push the limits and challenge people, even shock people. But I don’t want to turn off my humanity to do so. How can I do comedy, truly funny and mind provoking comedy, with a conscience? Can we comedians care, without killing the funny?

Published: 9 Nov 2011

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