a priori/a posteriori

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rape Jokes, Offending People & Comedic Responsibility

I'm just tired of comics pretending they don't have any responsibility. Any comic reading this is already rolling their eyes. I almost wanted to title this differently because I've seen how comics act when they have the word "responsibility" thrown at them. I'll get to that in a second but first let me explain my side, as a comic, as a man and as a human being.

I believe stand up comedy is the greatest art form. Aside from the enjoyment of getting laughs and clicking into the minds and energy of multiple strangers at once, it allows people to share more complex/less available ideas about life than any other arena I've found. There can be a transcendent element to it. Symbiosis, even. Because there are truly no rules, no boxes and no constraints on what you can share your perspective on.

And because of that, I don't think that any topic should be off limits. Including rape. Why? Because rape happens. Any art form that would ignore an element of real life, is a shitty art form.

That's why comics should be able to say/talk about the word, "nigger". Because that word exists. To sweep it under the rug is not how you grow past it. Exposing dark elements to light always makes them evaporate. Because it takes the fear away from it. And creates understanding instead.

9/11. That's also really offensive.

Now, I know many women that have been raped, I have friends that have been called nigger (without irony) and my dad was covered in soot from the Towers going down that day. This is my perspective. I did not choose it, it's just what I have. And my perspective is not more justified than any else's.

But those 3 topics are very offensive. The mere mention of them can turn rooms cold. And to me, that's the beauty of talking about them. You will offend people.

A lot of comics complain about people getting offended by their jokes. I personally think it's a good thing. Because it means it's sparking something in the audience. It's getting to the core of the struggles we all deal with. It provokes dialogue. And we need to have more dialogue. So people should get offended by comedy sometimes. It means we're doing something right. We're pulling on the strings of life that people don't want pulled on, but may need pulled on to grow.

Some comics get off on offending people. Which I also think is misguided. Because offending people for the sake of offending them is also simple. Just make noises that people don't like: "nigger", "cunt", "faggot"...once you learn the barks you can reproduce them easily. I'm more interested in comics that offend people for a purpose. For the sake of an idea/perspective.

"But they should know that we're just joking." I hear comics say that a lot. I don't know why "joke" is synonymous with "untruth". You hear that cliche of "Nothing's funnier than the truth", and "It's funny because it's true", how many times have we heard that? From what I can tell, ALL JOKES are based on truth. Even absurd ones.

My friend Bill Stiteler has a great joke about political cartoons. The joke itself goes into Loonsville but it's based on how political cartoons are jam packed full of heavy handed metaphors/symbolism. Stiteler highlights how absurd they are by creating his own political cartoon. And it's funny because Stiteler's cartoon, while absurd, isn't far from the reality. From the TRUTH.

I bring that up because it's an important distinction to make that it's not only "honest" comics that base their jokes on truth. It's all of us. Whatever word you want to use: truth, life, reality...we all draw from the same pool. That's why the audience laughs. They recognize the validity of what we're saying. Even if it's absurd. So "joking" shouldn't by synonymous with "untruth". In fact, it's way closer to being synonymous with "truth". So whenever someone says, "I'm just joking" they're really saying, "I'm just saying things based on truth."

I say all of that to say this: Comics have power. Personally, the ideas and words shared by George Carlin, Louis CK, Doug Stanhope, Bill Hicks, Bill Burr, Patrice O'neal, Patton Oswalt and many others have had a profound effect on how I view the world. As Carlin pointed out, when you get people to laugh you get them to drop their guard, and open their minds to new ideas. That's the power of a comic. 

And as we all know, with power comes responsibility. No, comics are not politicians. No, we are not religious figureheads. But we are human beings. That are amplified for minutes at a time. Every human being influences those around them, whether it be energetically or spiritually or emotionally.

Even if you don't think you do. Which honestly, is a more comforting idea. I think people in general like to think that their existence doesn't affect others. Lets you off the hook. But our words do affect the thoughts/lives of others. Especially if you say things into a microphone on an elevated stage with a spotlight on you.

Comedy, as far as I can tell, always comes at the expense of something. Whether it be a person, place, thing or idea. What I'm trying to preach is mindfulness of what we're putting at expense. And mindfulness of our influence.

We're going to offend people. Even a young Brian Regan did. But the point is to be mindful of why we are. If I offend somebody because I'm trying to explore race relations in order to improve them, I can live with that. But to make a joke at the expense of the more vulnerable of people: black people, women, Muslims...it's just not a thing I believe in anymore. 60 people laughing at 1 isn't funny to me. It's everything that's wrong with society, and sometimes, with comedy.

I love all of us unconditionally.

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