First published on 8 Mar 2013. Updated on 12 Mar 2013.
Is any subject off-limits for comedy? It’s a tedious argument that comes up with wearying predictability, whether it’s Seth MacFarlane’s ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ song at the Oscars, Joan Rivers’ Heidi Klum-slash-Holocaust joke or whenever some local comedian starts whining on Twitter about how he (and it’s always, always he) can’t tell jokes about rape without them feminists getting all up in arms about it.
You can set your watch by it: comedian says controversial thing, people get outraged, and then the debate sinks into a mire of predictable arguments about comedy versus free speech and whether people have the right to tell offensive jokes.
And it’s pointless. Oh, so very pointless.
Now, let’s be clear: there are countries where telling a joke can and will get you in serious, life-threatening trouble. Burmese comedian Zarganar has been jailed multiple times for speaking out against the government, Russian comic Victor Shenderovich has been fighting suspiciously trumped-up-looking charges in response to his vehemently anti-Putin routines and Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef is currently facing criminal charges for making fun of president Mohammed Morsi on his Daily Show-like programme El Bernameg (“The Programme”).
In most Western democracies, though, the whole freedom of speech argument is a meaningless smokescreen. Even if one does have a constitutional right to free speech (which Australia doesn’t, by the way) then said speech is still legally constrained by laws around stuff like hate speech and defamation – and there is a raft of laws governing what sort of things can be broadcast or published, with most media organisations having their own internal standards and practices.
However, if you’re telling an offensive joke, you’re already enjoying that delicious freedom. And for all the oft-cited concerns about censorship, what do you actually risk? Being banned from jokes? Having your gag license revoked? Getting beaten to a pulp by roaming comedy squads?
No. You risk being told that you’re a jerk. And being told you’re wrong is not the same as being oppressed.
"If you're unable to support what you're about to say, it's almost certainly going to be idiotic"
I still recall a televised debate from the early ’90s where Pauline Hanson of One Nation (remember them?) was arguing her vision for Australia against Natasha Stott-Despoja of the Australian Democrats (remember them?). At one point Hanson started bleating that Stott-Despoja was infringing on Hanson’s freedom of speech by pointing out that her proposed policies (notably her memorably hilarious “get out of debt by printing more money” one) were asinine. Stott-Despoja patiently explained that she wasn’t oppressing her: she was disagreeing with her. It always stuck with me, and it’s a distinction that’s worth making explicit. Debate supports rather than diminishes our freedom of speech.
And something being offensive in and of itself isn’t any reason for censorship. The truth can be unpalatable and, as anyone who has faced anti-marriage equality campaigners can testify, people can be genuinely and sincerely offended without having any sane explanation as to why their concerns should be taken seriously. And in this is a lesson that comedians – and everyone else, really – can take away.
So, in that light, allow me to coin what I hope future generations will know as the Andrew P Street Rule of Thumb For Saying Stuff In Public:
“If you’re unable to support what you’re about to say, it’s almost certainly going to be idiotic.”
See, “I have the right to my opinion” is the equivalent of “I can’t back up what I said” approximately 100 per cent of the time. Being forced to argue about something you’ve said is only a challenge if you have no argument.
Whether we are politicians, journalists, radio DJs or anyone else with a voice in public, we should really try to avoid just making things up and spouting them out of our stupid mouths. The same thing applies to comedians. You want to make a joke about black people? Go for it – and if that joke seems racist, then be ready to address the accusations that you’re a bigot. And if you are, in fact, a bigot, then it shouldn’t bother you that people are accurately assessing your shortcomings as a human being on the basis of the things you believe, based on the stuff you say.
Does this mean that comics should shy away from controversial humour? Only if they’re not prepared to think about it carefully first, which is the same sort of standard that we apply to science, economics, politics and pretty much every other area of human endeavour.
That’s why the more fearless comics are usually smart and articulate people who’ve thought long and hard about the power of comedy and language and how to use it to touch on deeper truths and make bold, subversive points. George Carlin knew that. Bill Hicks knew that. Louis CK knows that. And, occasionally via attention-grabbing headlines quoting lines from a show deliberately attempting to shock, Joan Rivers knows that.
Making fun of someone without an underlying point isn’t comedy – it’s just yelling insults for the sake of it. And that’s fine, if that’s what you want to do, but don’t get all precious about people calling you a jerk for doing it. Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism.
You can make a joke about absolutely anything. But if you want to say that joke in public, you’d best be sure that it’s a really, really good one.