Nuances of Offensive Humor

I've been a big Anthony Jeselnik fan since late 2009 after I saw him do a segment on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. From time to time, I've had to kind of deconstruct that, because Jeselnik is the type of stand-up comedian whose stock-in-trade is offending people and grabbing taboos by the throat. It's never been that I've felt that taboos should be untouched, and that some topics are sacred. I've just always liked comedians that didn't have to play the offensive, that could get a thrill without pushing the big obvious button.

I've been compelled, on multiple occasions, to express my opinion on the cultural impact that all mass media entertainers have on the awareness, frame of reference, and understanding of the average person. Not that they have a responsibility to be careful with their power, although that would be great, but that they should be aware that they do have power and that if they use it to be an asshole, people (and sponsors) will respond accordingly. Responses, criticism and consequence are part of freedom of speech, too.

Offensive comedy has changed a lot about what pop culture deems to be funny and acceptable. That's fine, and it's a longstanding tradition evident in every comedian's reverence for Lenny Bruce. But these days, there's a certain kind of ugly laziness that comes in with offensive humor, where the only joke you need is, "I'm saying something I'm not supposed to!" with an ironic wink and shy giggle. When I was watching the Conan O'Brien documentary, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, he runs into two kids before a show and, in an effort to make their hero laugh, one of the kids refers to being "jewed out" of some money. Conan gets them into his show on the condition that they stop saying that word.

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Line Steppers

I've been thinking a lot about the line between good taste and bad taste, between acceptable and offensive. Over the past couple of months, there have been a lot of developments in the cultural conversation about where this line sits, if it even exists at all. Everything from Tegan & Sara vs. Tyler the Creator to Tracy Morgan's Nashville show to the Supreme Court's ruling on violent video games are all really about The Line. It's a murky, difficult debate. Do we always look at these things as interconnected?

Although it's a month old, the controversy about Tracy Morgan's Nashville stand-up show is probably the most potent, useful example of why "political incorrectness" matters. First off, calling Morgan's act "politically incorrect" -- an act that says homosexuality is a choice, that he would stab his gay son and that Obama should man up and stop supporting gay rights -- is an understatement. Those kinds of statements should fall far beyond The Line, past decency, and past mere risque. Some people do disagree, mostly other stand-ups. While I'm usually inclined to agree with them, Morgan's situation is reprehensible in a very different way.

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Essay | Nuances of Political Correctness

Political correctness gets a lot of shit. There's the idea that it's purely censorship, that it's oppressive to language, that everyone is just too fussy and oversensitive. We've defined it with a negative stigma so that we can condescend to anyone's protest about offensive material by labeling it as just another attack from the PC thought police.

Comedian Stewart Lee does a great bit about political correctness that dares go against popular opinion: "It's an often clumsy negotiation towards a formally inclusive language," says Lee. "There's all sorts of problems with it, but it's better than what we had before."

That's about as level headed as the discourse on the nuances of political correctness gets. The problem with most of the discourse on PC is that it is seen in the context of a battle, with wins and losses and very tangible goals. A watchdog group speaks out in protest against an insensitive remark in the media, and then that target attacks back, and they try and take away other's legitimacy/career.

The problem with that rhetoric is that it forgets that this is a cultural conversation, not a gladiator arena. There is not going to be a winner and a loser, nor should we be aiming for such. While there may be short term accomplishments (Dr. Laura loses sponsors for racist remarks on the radio) what they're really talking about (the use of the N-word) isn't resolved. The point of having watchdog groups raise their voice, and even the point of people attacking those watchdog groups, is for the rest of the world to gain access to this conversation and make adjustments to their lives if they see fit. This is how culture evolves.

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