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Jeff Maurer's Blog About Comedy
Thursday, 10 July 2008
It's Not Offensive if it's Funny
Topic: The craft of comedy

  There's a lot of debating among comedians about how offensive a person can/should be in an attempt to be funny. Comedy - or good comedy, anyway - has an inherently subversive nature, and you can usually get a laugh saying something that people think but are afraid to say, so there's a natural inclination for comedians to test the limits of good taste. Sometimes - and you'll see this at pretty much any open mic you go to - the comic crosses the line. But where is the line?

  Obviously, the answer to that question is different for everyone, though there's some general agreement on standards; I don't know anyone who argued that Michael Richard's flipout was not over the line. I think the thing that makes offense in comedy so difficult to pinpoint is this: the quality of the joke is one of the things that determines whether it's offensive or not.

  Take, for example, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. It's exactly what it sounds like: a Web site (and now a book) chronicling all of the things that white people like. The first time I heard of this site, I was offended. I mean, the reason is pretty plain: it's nothing more than a list of racial stereotypes. Think of all the offensive things that would be included if stuffblackpeoplelike.com or stuffmexicanpeoplelike.com existed. If you're against stereotypes - and everyone claims to be - then you should probably be offended by this site.

  But I'm not. Because when I started reading it, well...it's really funny. I mean, really sharp, really funny. Not hacky - golf, for example, isn't listed as one of the things that white people like. Religions their parents don't belong to, however, is. The observations on this site are so unbelievably right on. Take, for example, this description of Sarah Silverman* (which is, itself, about saying offensive things in comedy...what a mindfuck):

 Her whole shtick is about saying really offensive things! But it’s ok because she’s pretty and has a small voice so it all sounds so cute! Get it? It’s not offensive, because when she says racist or sexist things she knows they are offensive. So it’s ok.

  Actually, that whole entry about comedians completely busts me, as do about 80 percent of the entries. 

  This site doesn't offend me because the jokes are so good. At the risk of overanalyzing things, I think this logic makes sense: the statements don't strike me as offensive because they are so clearly meant to be funny, not to be taken seriously. Take, for example, this paragraph, from thing #101- being offended:

  If you ever need to make a white person feel indebted to you, wait for them to mention a book, film, or television show that features a character who is the same race as you,  then say “the representation of <insert race> was offensive and if you can’t see that, well, you need to do some soul searching.”  After they return from their hastily booked trip to land of your ancestors, they will be desperate to make it up to you.  At this point, it is acceptable to ask them to help you paint your house.

  With that tone, the only people who could possibly take this site seriously are the same people who, when in a comedy audience, will boo at the mere mention of, say, the Vietnam War (regardless of what you actually end up saying about Vietnam War). 

  It's okay because it's funny. Or, at least, it's okay mostly because it's funny; it also helps that stereotypes about white people have not traditionally been a source of pain or subjegation in this country. And - and I'll keep this in mind next time the "when is it okay for comedians to use the n-word?" argument comes up - I found it interesting that I immediately wanted to know whether or not the author is white. It seems a lot more okay to me if the author is white - it would just affirm that this list is meant to be good-natured, not accusatory. But I'm not ready to say that obervations this sharp, comedy this good, should be ignored because of an over-developed sense of political correctness. What's offensive in regular life is not necessarily offensive in comedy.

*For the record - because I'm begging for an argument with my friends if I don't clarify this - I think Sarah Silverman is pretty funny, but also overrated.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 3:11 PM EDT
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