Disconnect: Is offence in comedy now beyond a joke?


At a gig the other day I was asked why so many comedians seem to be getting in trouble with jokes that “go too far”.   (The fact I was having this conversation with an audience member either says a lot about my set or a lot about that particular audience member, but that’s a post for another time)

Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more one word kept coming to mind – disconnect.

The way I see it, a big problem is the disconnect between the idea of the subject of a joke, and the reality of it.  For instance, legend has it that watching someone slip on a banana skin is the height of comedy.  Doesn’t do much for me to be honest, but let’s say you find it hilarious.  You’d probably find it less hilarious if you watched someone slip on a banana skin, then fall and crack their skull open as their traumatised kids scream that they just want Daddy to wake up.

And that’s what I mean by disconnect – the idea of [insert ‘bad’ subject here] is not intended by the comedian to be the reality of it.   So the comedian intends a joke to be a (possibly extreme) idea played for a laugh – whereas some of the audience may focus on the reality of it, which will more than likely end the humour right there.

In short, the comedian wants the audience to laugh at the idea of slipping on a banana skin, but the audience can’t stop thinking about the poor victim of it.

This might also be why certain subjects are generally considered no-go areas – because the effects of them are so horrific that the audience has no choice but to think about the consequences of them.   Look at, for instance, terminal diseases – do a joke about some disease that nobody’s ever heard of and you might get a laugh, but mention a terminal illness that is common, and it’s more likely to evoke memories of traumatic personal experiences that people have had, which is going to kill any humour immediately.

This is one of the reasons that comedy itself is subjective too – everybody’s life experience is different and so everybody finds absurdity, frustration, difficulties, etc in different areas of life.

I think this is why the language used in stand up has to be so carefully selected, and anyone who writes their own material (and I think most of us do) will spend hours both on and offstage trying to perfect every phrase.  The language must keep the potentially offensive subject as an absurd or abstract idea, so it isn’t made ‘real’ to the audience, which is likely to make it less funny or acceptable to laugh at.

There are of course exceptions to this, and there have also been times when I’ve been describing something horrible onstage, and the more realistic it is, the funnier it becomes.  This is generally when I’m telling a story about something that happened to me however, so I’m essentially laughing at myself.  And there is a huge difference (or ‘disconnect’ if you want to stay with the theme) between making yourself the butt of the joke, and feeling like someone else is getting a cheap laugh at your expense.

Another disconnect can exist between contexts – specifically, a joke being made in the context of a comedy club, and a joke being reported in a ‘we are not amused’ newspaper article.  Now, I don’t want to shock anybody here, but there’s been a lot of research to suggest that a newspaper isn’t the same as a comedy club.  The thing is, as performers we tailor our material to that particular audience at that particular time on that particular day.  Onstage, we’re constantly evaluating our material – gauging what’s working and what isn’t, in order to decide which material to use next, and whether to rearrange/abandon our set.  So sometimes we might say things that in any other context could well be shocking or extreme, but that works for that particular audience at that particular time (don’t worry, I’ll stop saying particular in a minute).

This isn’t to say that anything goes in the context of a comedy club as long as it gets a laugh by the way, just that it’s an aspect of performance that needs to be borne in mind here.

In short, comedians get paid to entertain the audience in front of them, using material they think will work and tweaking and changing things that probably won’t.  Those same tweaks and changes might not work for another comedy audience, and chances are they definitely won’t work when taken out of context and quoted in a newspaper.  So a near-the-knuckle one-liner about bestiality might be hilarious on a Saturday night in the comedy club you were in and with the audience who attended, but probably won’t work so well when read about on the way to work on Monday morning.

Lastly, there can sometimes be a gulf (I’m bored of saying ‘disconnect’) between the comedian’s perception of their ability and the reality of it.  To put it less kindly, sometimes a comedian misreads the audience completely and/or isn’t good enough to be doing jokes about such difficult material, and they end up offending pretty much everybody.

I’m not saying that all these issues have contributed to all of the ‘scandals’ that have happened, but some of them haven’t exactly helped.  Equally, I’m not trying to excuse anybody’s behaviour – some people are just intentionally offensive for the sake of it – I’m just trying to put into context why every so often we get a flurry of these ‘incidents’ in the press, and half the world agrees the joke was bad and the other half can’t understand why anybody is complaining.

Ok, I’ve dissected this frog and pretty much killed it so I guess I should end on a joke.

Um, how does that Aristocrats one go again?

Victim Mentality is a crime thriller about stand-up comedian Nick and his battle with comedy audiences, a criminal named Gideon Matthias, and – worst of all – his own mind…

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