PC is reviving comedy, not killing it

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There has been a resurgence in the 'political correctness is killing comedy' dialogue that pops up every few years or so. Some of the newest proponents are Kevin 'Bloody' Wilson, Rodney Rude and Austen Tayshus in the Daily Telegraph, whose views can be summed up in the quote: 'The soft new generation of PC-wary comedians need to grow some balls.'

John Mulaney: Kid GorgeousThere seems to be a sense from some that comedy nowadays isn't funny unless it's deliberately trying to be offensive. But it's more than possible to create comedy that avoids this. One example is the the American TV show Brooklyn Nine Nine. What's refreshing about the show is that even though it has a diverse cast, the characters aren't used as stereotypes or the butts of the joke.

That's not to say that the writers don't use the context of the characters' identities for humour. When talking about marriage, Andre Braugher's character Holt says he got married to his husband as soon as it was legalised in New York, because 'we didn't know when it was going to be struck down, so speed was of the essence'. Flashback to a wedding ceremony that consists of a few rushed I do's and a triumphant 'we're married'.

Partly the joke works on Braugher's delivery, but it also hinges on Holt's identity as a gay man. His sexual orientation is part of the joke, but it isn't the joke.

Of course, not all comedy is as lighthearted as Brooklyn Nine Nine. Comedy should be able to take on uncomfortable topics and be transgressive. Addressing the topic of PC comedy on The Project, Peter Helliar says that while he's a fan of inclusion, he thinks 'the left have maybe over the last decade or so become too sensitive'.

This is a fair cop in regards to the fact that many people who want to be progressive often aren't sure what is and isn't okay to laugh at. We're still negotiating that territory. But it's not accurate to say 'the outrage machine' is always the province of the left. Commentators on both sides of the political aisle had strong reactions to Michelle Wolf's set at the White House Correspondents Dinner, though others have commented she was merely doing her job.

And while anti-PCers seem to focus on the right to make jokes about minorities, comics like Benjamin Law get pulled in by conservative media for making a joke about 'hate-fucking' anti marriage equality politicians. Wolf's and Law's jokes were definitely irreverent and not 'PC', but they were speaking truth to power.

 

"There are times where we will all be offended by comedy, but it's worth considering why we are offended. Is the joke compounding prejudice or reinforcing stereotypes? Or is it challenging people with privilege?"

 

Perhaps the issue here is that PC is a broad term that means different things to different people. While some define it as being ethical and not punching down, when others complain about comedy being too PC, what they're really saying is that they can't make bigoted jokes anymore.

So when should we call out a comedian for their jokes? When trying to decide whether a joke crosses an ethical line, the topic of the joke isn't as important as why the joke is meant to be funny, and the context in which it's placed.

Compare side by side a bit by Kevin Hart, to one by John Mulaney in his Netflix special Kid Gorgeous (pictured). In the Hart joke, after saying that he's not homophobic, Hart contends that all parents live in fear about a child's 'gay moment' that they need to immediately 'nip in the bud'.

Conversely, Mulaney's joke has his father saying that Leonard Bernstein was 'one of the greatest composers and conductors of the 20th century' and 'according to a biography [he] read of him, when he held back the gay part, he did some of his best work'. Mulaney then jokes that 'we don't have time to unpack all of that' but emphasises that this is an incredibly weird and obviously ineffective way to try to convince a 12-year-old not to be gay.

Both jokes are essentially about the same thing: a father's anxiety that his son might be gay, and what he does to attempt to prevent that from happening. But while Hart's joke relies on the audience to sympathise with his fear, Mulaney's pokes fun at how this anxiety manifests in his father, and the ridiculousness of attempting to prevent gayness. One joke relies on inherent prejudice, the other pokes fun at it.

I think Nazeem Hussain has it right when he says that 'the audience doesn't buy that homophobic, racist and sexist stuff anymore. It's lazy comedy, they should find new jokes and get a laugh.' This challenges comedians not to go for the cheap laughs but to do better.

There are times where we will all be offended by comedy, but it's worth considering why we are offended. Is the joke compounding prejudice or reinforcing stereotypes? Or is it challenging people with privilege? Ultimately, I think we're sick of comedy that punches down because the best comedy challenges the status quo. Being PC hasn't killed comedy, it's given it new life.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue. Red hair image: Derek Gavey via Flickr.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, comedy, political correctness, Kevin Bloody Wilson, Kevin Hart, John Mulaney


 

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Dame Edna was funny when she took off us, middle class suburbia. She stopped being funny when every second 'joke' was at the expense of the gay community.
Ginger Meggs | 16 May 2018


Long ago, I wrote a letter to a magazine about 'cutting-edge' comedy. That's the kind of comedy that is toughly real and it can really hurt. Comedy writers have fertile ground with figures who are despised. But it's an uncomfortable laugh. I believe it's much more difficult to produce the sort of Marx Brothers comedy that we should be aspiring to.
Pam | 17 May 2018


Pam, you might find Milton Jones 's verbal dexterity and playfulness to your liking - a very funny and witty performer who doesn't need to indulge in 'transgressive' offensiveness.
John | 17 May 2018


John, thanks to Dr. Google I have had a look at Milton Jones. I like his hairstyle, so that's a start. And his name is interesting too.
Pam | 17 May 2018


Referring to your last line, Neve: But being PC is now the status quo. Or have I missed the point?
Stephen de Weger | 18 May 2018


'Politically correct' comedy is the comedy that plays to the mob. It risks nothing because most people agree with it anyway. Benjamin Law's 'hatefucking politicians' falls into this category, I think. Politicians certainly have power, but are they using their power to 'hate fuck' gay people? Not unless you regard a position against gay marriage as automatically and unarguably motivated by hatred. We all laugh and clap this kind of joke, the comedian preens him or her self, no-one is stung into changing their ways. Neve is right - comedy (or satire) can speak truth to power, but for effective edge, it needs a little smidgeon of the truth that makes us flinch with embarrassment. As it is, too many comedians take their own opinions far too seriously. (Not like me, of course).
Joan Seymour | 18 May 2018


Appreciating your comments. I so need a big dose of helpless laughter when something horrible is going on. I'm wondering if you've explored the rich vein of First Nations comedians to be found in abundance these days. Nakkiah Lui, Kevin Kropinyeri, Sean Choolburra, etc.... They are fully able to reduce an audience to hysterics whilst giving us clear information about how things need to be for them (and for us.)
Bev Henwood | 18 May 2018


Thanks for this really interesting article Neve - terrific - although possibly a little overgeneralised in parts. I do think that the KBWs and so on are still dining out pretty much on an anti- so called "PC" diet in which members of minority groups are the butt, but also think that as you state the balance is shifting in that regard. Charlie Pickering and Shaun Micallef come to mind in that regard, as well as the examples you've provided.
Christine Judith Nicholls | 18 May 2018


Amy Schumer's comedy is genius - she gets away with outrageously unPC comments because she's making fun of herself (a bit like the way drag queens can get away with poking fun at the gay community, and black comedians can make jokes about black people)
AURELIUS | 18 May 2018


I think a comedian should be able to make a joke about anything or anyone. If it is not funny or in bad taste then don`t laugh...or even BOO! But what I can`t stand is all the ango-saxon swear words; why do they need to do that? It`s not funny is it, and much of it very demeaning to women? Why is the political left/green-wing in Australia so anti-free comment...though foul language seems de-rigeur?.
Eugene | 18 May 2018


I love the Munk debates and for those who have the time and the interest, there was a great recent debate on PC being viewed as a negative or a positive (as progress) here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt9bbXZlFwc .
Stephen de Weger | 21 May 2018


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