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Political Correctness Does Not Limit Comedy

Emotional damage is difficult to monitor because it is imperceptible to the naked eye. Intent can’t always be pinned down, making it easy to dispute censorship on grounds of misinterpretation. As a result, we pay taxes on the freedom of expression by accommodating hate speech. Political correctness was born of this very dilemma — it aims to set a standard for decency to protect people from being disparaged. Though seemingly straightforward in theory, it has produced inconsistent results because its application hasn’t been consistent across the board.

This has become a bone of contention in comedy, a craft that involves inverting the happenings of everyday life. The problem is that not everyone finds it amusing when serious issues are given a humorous spin for entertainment value. Making light of sensitive matters can be dangerous in the wrong hands, because that might authenticate and enable prejudice. Contrarily, comedians repeatedly contend that the objective behind any act, regardless of its subject matter, is always the same: making people laugh. But when the guidelines for artistic expression are culturally subjective, they come with an escape clause that impairs their credibility. Even though political correctness is necessary, its impact in comedy varies due to how it is selectively enforced.

Comedy aims to suspend the gravity of the human condition. This is why constructing a joke around a subject isn’t necessarily the same as belittling it — a skilled comedian can take a situation involving violence and make it funny without saying that violence in itself is funny. The failure (or refusal) to make this distinction makes facetious comedy potentially dangerous.

People laughing for the wrong reasons is a valid concern.

Appropriating only an aspect of a joke without taking into account its contextual purpose can have damaging effects. For instance, comedian Larry David was poking fun at President Donald Trump's supporters when he wore a “Make America Great Again” cap on an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm." The scene in question shows him quarreling with an aggressive biker, but he quickly pacifies the situation by putting on the bright red cap. Later in the episode, he clarifies that the cap's connotation is useful to him and that he doesn’t actually support Trump. Oblivious to this, the President tweeted the clip of the biker with the caption, “TOUGH GUYS FOR TRUMP!” The tweet has since been viewed twelve million times, whereas the episode from which it was taken had less than a million viewers when it premiered.

The context of a joke reveals its purpose.

Comedy that functions without context often imposes humor on its subjects. An apt example of this is Apu from “The Simpsons," which centered jokes on the Indian identity instead of adding any depth to it. This wasn’t deemed offensive at first, perhaps because South Asians were underrepresented in Western media and entertainment when the show began. Over the years, however, the frugal convenience store owner and his catchphrase, “Thank you, come again,” has become not only the most common Indian stereotype but also a widely acceptable one. In 2020, the voice actor responsible for Apu’s inflated accent stepped down from the role. The character still exists, but without a voice. It took two decades for the showrunners to budge, but they did it in a manner akin to a pouty temper tantrum triggered by constructive criticism: "You don't like what what I have to say? Fine! I won't say anything at all then." Improvement, it seems, isn't an option.

Racial stereotyping allows people to use comedy as an excuse to point and laugh at someone's appearance. The ease with which people disguise derogatory comments as jokes has done comedy the greatest disservice. This is the strongest body of evidence in favor of politically correct humor. In view of this, the difference between performative comedy and conversational humor is important to weigh. Professional comedians are granted the benefit of doubt as they dig themselves out of scenarios that initially make them seem impassive, but there’s no such thing as an audience in a regular conversation. If your remarks don’t sit well with a particular group, then it would be wise to rethink what you said as opposed to telling yourself that your "audience" just doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Finesse is the most crucial element of comedy. Whether or not a joke is ethical barely makes a difference because its success relies on how well artists sell their perspectives. If enough people laugh at something politically incorrect, there’s a good chance is protected by a cultural escape clause. Consider Tyler the Creator, one of the most successful musicians today but by no means a professional comedian. Just like Eminem before him, he got away with brandishing slurs and joking about rape because of his clownish temperament, and whatever criticism he initially elicited is now forgotten. His “sense of humor” had minimal consequences because edgy rebellion is a built-in feature of hip-hop culture.

Political correctness seeks to instill morality inspired by the state of affairs. Because it doesn't operate under a rigid standard, it is crippled by irregularities. Apu’s character had a negative impact on the Indian community, but this became an issue mainly because the people in charge of the character were Caucasian. On the other hand, English actor Sasha Baron Cohen continues to find success as Borat Sagdiyev, a deeply humiliating caricature of Kazakhstani folk that depicts them as incestuous and misogynistic anti-Semites. What's more worrisome, though, is the number of people whose impression of the country and its culture is limited to this mischaracterization. Perhaps Cohen’s Jewish ancestry has made it acceptable for him ridicule a predominantly Muslim country with such freedom or maybe the people of Kazakhstan just don't have a voice loud enough to shift global perspectives ... it could also be that far too many people are amused for any of it to matter, which is most likely why Amazon Studios poured millions into a new film on the character just last year. 

Borat is a problem for the same reasons as Apu — his antics are foisted off as a satire on American attitudes, creating a purported balance that obscures how the West has always painted the Other as unrefined and backward.

The example that best exhibits the futility of political correctness in comedy is the cartoon series, “South Park.” The show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, take everything a step further and show things like rape, murder, pedophilia, molestation etc. — nothing seems to be off limits for them. Their brand of humor is partially responsible for prompting a reevaluation of what is and isn’t funny, yet they’re among the few in their profession to have completely dodged it. This puzzling anomaly is the closest an entity has come to total immunity in comedy. The show continues to gain momentum and its latest season generated some of the highest ratings in the 24 years since it first aired. Stone and Parker are notorious and admired for showing no bias in their all-inclusive ridicule, and it is now common knowledge that no one is safe from “South Park.” It has thus become one of the most socially and politically relevant shows in the United States. The cartoon’s approval is so widespread that we have to pretend like it isn’t the ultimate contradiction to political correctness.

Though comedians have been cancelled, it’s rarely for their comedy. Bill Cosby was championed for his family-friendly humor, but what landed him in trouble was the out-of-character revelation that he is a sexual predator. Jokes aren’t an accurate measure of a comedian’s real-life morals; only clearly stated opinions determine that. In 2002, the ABC network ironically cancelled Bill Maher’s show, “Politically Incorrect,” after his politically incorrect remarks on the September 11 attacks. When he said the terrorists involved were not cowardly, he was held to it because political comedy is seldom detached from personal opinion. Despite the public backlash, Maher's market value increased. A year later, he bounced back with a new show on HBO with twice the airtime, because he was and still is an asset to entertainment and politics. His comments weren’t the issue; he just hadn’t found the right backing up until then.

Entertainers who repeatedly fail to finesse their material are destined to suffer commensurate penalties. When comedians complain about not being allowed to say whatever they want, it’s because they struggle with ineptitude.

Michael Richards, best known for playing Kramer on “Seinfeld,” had a public meltdown during a stand-up set in 2006 where he went on a tirade and began screaming racial slurs. He abused the privilege of a microphone and an audience, which is why he was never given a second chance. Such occurrences, though rare, are nearly impossible to recover from because fans don't come to the aid of those who crash and burn.

That political correctness limits the potential of comedy is a baseless claim, because if that were the case, “South Park” and Borat would no longer exist. Presentation governs acceptance in comedy. To label something as "politically incorrect" doesn’t necessarily stop it from being funny to certain people. Blatant racism might have been funny at some point in time, but Richards' fall from grace proves that it no longer is. However, Apu is still hilarious to a lot of people; Bill Cosby is still a legend to a lot of people. These opinions will continue to grow more and more unpopular over time, but for now, a nostalgic attached to said figures will linger.

The extent of a consumer’s control over comedy is being able to tune out or boycott the product. One less ticket sale, one less stream and one less mention on social media affects the popularity of entertainers tremendously, but only over a period of time. Because laughter is a spontaneous reaction, trends in comedy can’t be taken out with a single blow.


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