One of the challenges you face if you try to entertain people with humour is deciding on what is an “appropriate” topic for comedy or satire. Clearly, I don’t mind if I piss people off and frequently set out to do it on purpose. By the same token, I do have an internal censor of sorts but it leans more towards “is that funny enough to get away with it?” than “am I allowed to say that?”
I was reminded of this conundrum when reading about how Ricky Gervais has upset a few people this week by picking on fat people in a podcast. I’d seen his DVD “Fame” recently where he also ripped on fat people (“not a disease”) so I had a fair feeling for the tone of his podcast when I saw a partial transcript. Suffice to say that he thinks fat people shouldn’t be treated gently.
I have all three standup DVDs he’s released and one thing that was a real eye-opener for me in all of them was how aggressively he went for what could be regarded as soft targets. I know he isn’t to everyone’s taste but anyone who can make me laugh at jokes at the expense of kids with cancer is all right by me.
Gervais (to me at least) is a classic example of it isn’t what you make jokes about that matters, it’s how good you are. The fact that some people are confronted and upset by some of his jokes isn’t in and of itself a measure of their quality. After all, I doubt that the initial publication of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was greeted with universal acclaim as a masterpiece of satire (“He’s saying we should eat Irish babies – he’s a very bad man!”)
The world is, of course, littered with the putrid corpses of jokes that died horrible public deaths when the comedian in question was simply trying to be offensive for shock value and failed to remember the “be funny” part of the equation (doubtless I’ve committed this humourcide many times). The best recent example for me is still when Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s “Kramer”) imploded on stage and repeatedly brayed “nigger” at an audience member. You don’t try that shit unless you’re really, really good.
But if you’re good, and daring, you can go right out there and make jokes about paedophilia:
To be accurate, the target of the satire in that video from Britain’s “Brass Eye” is actually the hysteria that was surrounding paedophilia at the time rather than saying paedophilia itself is funny. The first time I saw that I almost couldn’t believe someone would take the risk of going that far. I don’t know how many death threats the makers of the show received but they won’t be getting invited to tea at Buckingham Palace any time soon.
Which is something else that not enough people consider before they do something (and I’m not limiting this to attempts at comedy): be prepared for the consequences. To white guys who say they should be able to say nigger because it’s free speech I say sure you should. Just be prepared for people to decide they don’t want to be around someone who spouts racist crap. I know a lot of what I’ve done, particularly on YouTube, could have an adverse affect on some people’s opinion of me. It could mean I don’t get a particular job at some point. I made a conscious choice in that regard:
I’ve never taken a video down and I stand by everything I’ve ever done on YouTube. It may not all be comedy gold but it’s all me.