PC police no laughing matter: Comics

By Joanne Richard, Special to Postmedia Network

Former comic and Yuk Yuk's impresario Mark Breslin says he encourages his funny people to offend. POSTMEDIA

Former comic and Yuk Yuk's impresario Mark Breslin says he encourages his funny people to offend. POSTMEDIA

Can't we take a joke? Well, it seems like we're losing our sense of humour - the faint whiff of political incorrectness or a controversial point of view is provoking more than just boos.

The very public brouhaha over the Kathy Griffin's recent punchline - a photo holding a fake decapitated head of Donald Trump - has died down but it highlights the issue of whether comics are losing their footing as the last line of resistance in a politically-correct (PC) environment.

Is their art form being stifled? It's not only controversial comics who are under the microscope: beloved and respected comedians like Bill Maher, Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Colbert have also found themselves in hot water over recent political jokes.

You can bet Jackie Gleason didn't care about being politically correct. Definitely, Richard Pryor and George Carlin wouldn't be laughing.

The PC debate is not new but social media makes it easier to mobilize and attack - the loudest person is no longer the one with the mic.

As Tracy Morgan recently pointed out to 24 Hours, "Today, instead of telling this motherf--er his breath stinks, you have to ask him if he wants gum instead!" According to former stand-up comedian Mark Breslin, the fun police are out in full force: "People are powerless against real villains, but comedians are an accessible target."

Yep, social media has amplified the voices of the aggrieved.

While Breslin isn't on stage much anymore, he wishes he was so he could aggravate the PC brigade and torture them with his independence. "I take great care to book those comics who do."

The owner of Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club adds that his club has never censored a professional comic in its 40-year history. "It's the audience that censors ... by withholding their laughter."

Some entertainers avoid gigs at PC-friendly campuses because their comedy is not  acceptable -- Jerry Seinfeld and Maher have rallied against overly-sensitive college kids. Breslin encourages comics to go to the colleges and deliberately offend everyone until they're dragged off the stage: "They won't get paid, but consider it charity work to show young minds how to be free."

He adds, "Comedy needs to be relevant, free to express uncomfortable truths and make people squirm. But the trouble with Griffin's decapitated head stunt is not that it was shocking, but that it wasn't funny. It's hard to defend her when the sat-ire is nonexistent or clumsy."

One comic not changing her routine is Aisha Alfa, who will continue to joke about race, sex and vaginas.

She doesn't think that comedy specifically is under attack, opining, "I think everyone who expresses their opinion publicly is under attack through social media now. Anyone willing to put themselves in the public eye is signing an unwritten contract to accept ridicule, attack, criticism and negativity anonymously online."

Trevor Noah agrees. On a recent episode of The View, The Daily Show host reminded the audience that not "all comedians are in trouble. A lot of comics are being well-received right now."

Moreover, he adds that being sensitive to political triggers isn't a bad thing.

Noah admits, "I won't lie: As a comedian, there have been things I've said in the past that I shouldn't have said. We're progressing, moving forward - and that's good! There were things about women we shouldn't have joked about. I used to love writing fat jokes because I thought it was edgy - but it really wasn't. You're just playing in the same box as everyone else. If you're a good comedian, you can still make people laugh with edgy material without offending people. That's what makes a good joke."

Interjecting, View co-host and comic Joy Behar reminded Noah that censorship is a concern under this current U.S. administration.

"There should be consequences for free speech," countered Noah. "In America, I find people conflate freedom of speech as being consequence-free but it really means that your government won't come after you; which happened in the country I came from [South Africa]. You're free to say what you like but someone might punch you in the face - that's the consequence!"

But isn't comedy supposed to be a place people turn to as an escape ? Not necessarily, says the L.A.-based Alfa: "Comedy's job is to push boundaries, tiptoe over lines and express authentically - even if it doesn't make everyone happy. In fact, especially if it doesn't make everyone happy."

In fact, people tell her all the time that she shouldn't say certain things on stage.

Alfa says, "If I had a dollar every time someone said I shouldn't say vagina or talk about periods, I would be able to afford a home in Winnipeg!"

According to funnyman Hunter Collins, what's really going on is that bad comedians are being attacked for bad comedy. "You go to any comedy club where people pay money to see trained professionals and you won't see any comics being attacked for their words. That said, you go see an amateur comedy show at a cat-friendly bistro/library where they only serve raw food, omelette sliders on planks, yeah, you might see an audience member get miffed over a lazy gay joke."

You should be able to perform stand-up about any topic you choose, says Collins (huntercollinscomedy. com), but some critics, and even colleagues think tackling certain subjects are forbidden based solely on attributes like your race or gender. "It's tantamount to artistic prejudice and if you subscribe to that school of thought, you are, in my mind, an enemy of comedy," points out Hunter.

So is he tempering his act? "100%. I've become the very embodiment of pure progress: I converted to Islam, I wear a burka and I flash my post-op vagina onstage right before making out with my non-binary spouse and tearing up a print-out of the word 'patriarchy'while farting Sade songs at the end of every show and all the crowds compliment me on how brave I am now. It's amazing. I get away with everything. I'm beyond reproach."



Have we lost our personal laugh track? You bet!

According to prominent Canadian civil rights lawyer Julius H. Grey, "we live in a humourless society. Outrageous and politically incorrect statements are usually very funny and that is why the public laughs. Applying the rules of political correctness means promoting tame, edulcorated humour and conventional ideas."

Grey represented comedian Mike Ward who was fined by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 for mocking a disabled singer - Grey argued that the case was an affront to freedom of expression.

When it comes to recent comedian controversies including Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher, human-rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis says that civil libertarians typically oppose constraints on free speech imposed by the government, preferring that public opinion and public shaming do the heavy lifting - "which is exactly what is happening here. Social media has a huge role in amplifying public opinion, of course, but those people have a right to their views too."

With rights come responsibilities: Say all the stupid things you want but you may have to bear the consequences. "I do not think comedians are being singled out. We are seeing these same or similar issues playing out in universities, in literature, in visual arts," says Eliadis, who teaches civil liberties at McGill.

Be provocative all you want but there is always that line between what is edgy and what is unacceptable for the audience paying the bills, reminds Eliadis.

"Freedom often cannot protect artists against the economic consequences of poor judgment ... As comic Kevin Hart said, it is in part about understanding how society has evolved and being in control of your own craft as an artist."