Over the past few years, the comedy scene in India and abroad has been engaged in a fierce debate over the limits of ‘offensive’ comedy—should comedy only punch upwards, or is everyone fair game? Is it acceptable to make jokes on minorities already vulnerable to social prejudice and political disenfranchisement? Is the point of comedy just to evoke laughter at all costs, or should there be a deeper message hidden behind the punchlines?
What’s missing in this debate though, is any serious discussion about why we laugh at jokes that revel in giving offense. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss people laughing at such humour as sexists/racists/just total douchebags—and often that can be true—but the reality is a little more complex.
Take Dave Chappelle’s iconic “so I kicked her in the pussy” bit for example. If anyone else were to utter that line without context, it would be met with instant indignation. When Chappelle says it as the punchline for a setup he hasn’t even laid out yet though, it gets immediate guffaws. Is it the shock value of someone saying things we could never utter in public ourselves? Is it the idea that a comedy show is a space where taboos can be ignored? Or are we just all really in love with Dave Chappelle?
To explore these ideas a bit further, we’ve put together this list of six situations where comedians had us laughing at the most awful things, and why they were able to sneak past our ethical/good manners/outrage filters. And yes, we know you’re wondering why Louis C.K. is on the list. It’s not because we condone his sexual misconduct (we don’t), but because apart from being a master of such comedic sleight-of-hand, his case also serves as an example of the risk that a comedian’s offensive misanthrope persona is more reality than act.
One of the most underrated comedians out there today, Tig Notaro has a calm, unhurried style that eschews quick-fire punchlines in favour of a ‘what will she say next’ anticipation that keeps us at the edge of our seats.
In this particular segment, she talks about her bad parenting skills, building up to a scene where she ends up kicking her baby… twice. As Notaro describes a “tiny little baby head flying across the room”, the audience cracks up in shocked laughter. My personal theory for why a room full of probably pretty decent adults laugh at the assault of a child is to do with our own biases. As mature audiences of standup comedy, we believe that we can easily tell when someone is just indulging in absurdist fantasy or joking about things that actually happened (though as at least one comedian on this list proves, we’re not always accurate).
So, because of Notaro’s onstage demeanour, we don’t really believe that she’s such a terrible parent. We don’t take her at face value, even though we don’t really know the truth one way or the other. Just the fact that this is crafted in the form of a humorous story tricks us into suspending judgement. This bit illustrates the complex disarming effect that humour has on us—we become less critical, we forgive quicker—which makes it a very helpful tool of communication. The flipside, of course, is that it can also be used to disseminate some pretty nasty ideas.
2. Daniel Sloss On Fantasising About His Partner’s Death
Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss played the biggest meta-joke on his fans when he recently got engaged to his girlfriend, only after (allegedly) breaking up 50,000 couples around the world with the release of his Netflix special Jigsaw.
In the special, he talks about being stuck in relationships and how sometimes we find yourself wondering, “How much easier life would be if they (your partner) were just to die?” The laughter that followed was partly because of the shock value, yes, but perhaps there was also a hint of collective guilt. Sloss taps into the grey area of having the satisfaction of being in a relationship, but not necessarily enjoying it. It’s a pretty common feeling, so it’s likely that a certain percentage of the audience may have daydreamed about such horrible scenarios (though they would never dare to admit it).
Sloss also uses these bits as an ice-breaker for a larger conversation about the stigmatisation of single-hood. By nonchalantly breaking such significant taboos, he makes it easier to talk about the oppressive social pressure to find a partner if you want to be happy. So go forth and be single, because Sloss says so (even though he’s probably knee-deep in wedding planning himself).
3. Nikki Glaser On Fingering And How To Use A Diaphragm
This one is less about things we shouldn’t laugh at than about things we just don’t laugh—or talk—about enough. Nikki Glaser’s comedy isn’t offensive or mean so much as it is just straight-up bold and at times uncomfortably honest. While oral sex or the sexual act of fingering are topics that many comedians have joked about, it’s usually men approaching them from a masculine perspective. So to watch women like Nikki Glaser, Leslie Jones and Sam Jay talk about these very intimate aspects in such a raw unfiltered way feels emancipatory.
Glaser in particular excels at drawing laughter from the social discomfort that almost always accompanies conversation about the awkward, less-than-perfect aspects of our sex lives. There’s also a sense of frisson that comes with the anxiety of watching her perform, because she’s so fearless that as a viewer you’re almost afraid of how far she is willing to go with her jokes. Let’s face it, none of us show up at a comedy show expecting aggressive hand gestures associated with bad fingering techniques (or do we?) but that’s Nikki Glasser for you: surprising, unfiltered, bold.
4. Dave Chappelle’s Abortion Stance
“I am not for abortion.”
Now, this could easily have been Trump, but Dave Chappelle it is again.
There is definitely a shock effect with Chappelle, some of the things he says are so ridiculous they’re immediately funny. But in this particular set; I think he redeems himself pretty well.
The argument he makes is that women do deserve the right to choose whether they’d like to abort their baby or not, but then men should have the right to choose to pay for it or not. It’s an immediately controversial statement, but also one that is perhaps worthy of consideration. Chappelle isn’t trying to excuse the deadbeat dad epidemic (at least we hope not), but he does highlight an un-discussed stigma attached to men who are financially or emotionally incapable of taking care of a child.
And this is where the real power of comedy comes out, moments where we laugh at inappropriate statements but it opens us to look at things from a different perspective, whether or not we end up agreeing with it.
I would argue that this is just a great comic moment—it’s humbling, it’s enjoyable and it leaves you thinking.
5. Anthony Jeselnik Will Drop Your Baby
In a list of comedians who love to flirt with absurdist gallows humour, Anthony Jeselnik may be the weirdest and most out-there entry. The comedian expertly plays with the ambiguity between himself and his on-stage persona, shifting between real-life story-telling and surreal scenarios with nary a hint. The audience is left guessing which parts are authentic, and which are exaggerated or made up.
So when Jeselnik proudly announces that “I drop babies all the time”, there’s a moment of uncertainty where you have to decide whether he’s actually being honest. Laughter ensues from the relief of realising it’s a joke (or is it?) All we can say for sure is that you should probable keep your babies away from Jeselnik… you know, just in case.
6. Louis C. K – Of course… but maybe
“Of course children who have nut allergies need to be protected…. But maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.”
There’s really no way Louis C.K. wasn’t going to make this list. The many instances of the comedians’ sexual misconduct are public knowledge, but exploring C.K. the comedian may also open up an opportunity to discuss how or why so many excuse the crimes of C.K. the man. He embodies both the power and the dangers of this sort of comedy, and our willingness to let our guards down in exchange for a few laughs.
Louis C.K. has a really interesting tone to his performance, where he could turn tragedy and misanthropy into a funny, insightful and exciting performance. The trick, especially with this segment, is form and repetition.
He starts by establishing the two voices that he battles with on a daily basis, the good voice (“of course”) and the bad voice (“but maybe”), which is a relatable introspection because we all have these voices in our minds. He uses three different examples of the conflict he faces using the “of course… but maybe” form, starting with nut allergies, then war, finally leading up to the most controversial premise, “of course slavery is the worst thing that ever happened.” At this point he senses some discomfort from the audience, but he reminds them that they abandoned their moral compass when they chose to laugh at dead kids with nut allergies, so they don’t get to sit this one out.
What I think for a large part works for this set is that his content comes from his disgust or disillusionment with humanity, in this case, the unnoticed exploitation of thousands of people in the name of progress. Therefore we are little easier on him, because he is able to imagine these very nuanced situations that present us with fresh takes on the darker side of humanity.
But the dangers of rewarding “on-stage” misanthropy is that you may also end up rewarding or enabling awful behaviour in real life. The magnetism and brilliance of comics like Louis C.K., which allows him to trick us into breaking taboo after taboo, can also provide cover for their own real-life offenses. If you put the standup comic on a moral pedestal—thinking that his critical observations on life and the world’s hypocrisy make him less imperfect—then you may end up excusing or even denying the worst of transgressions. But, as in the case of Louis C.K. and so many others, no mastery of the craft is good enough to exempt anyone from treating others with kindness and respect. And as consumers, we have a responsibility to avoid conflating a good comic with a good person.