Ellis: Comedic Decorum

Comedians like Louis C.K. aren’t recognizing the power of their jokes.

by Simon Ellis | 2/7/19 2:20am

 In the op-ed “Red, White and Offended” published in The Dartmouth on Jan. 31, Peter Leutz delves into the issue of free speech in comedy and declares that infamous comedian Louis C.K.’s recent jokes and their offensive content “should be of little concern” as long as they’re for comedic purposes. I applaud Leutz for his defense of free speech and his analysis of modern comedic discourse, but as a person who both preforms and enjoys comedy, I disagree with his thesis entirely. While many comedians rely on “shock value” and often tread the grey area of “too far” and “just enough,” C.K. should be heavily criticized, and his jokes, such as his most recent mocking of Parkland shooting survivors, have no place in modern comedy. 

It’s one of the first rules I was taught as I began the incredibly rule-laden process of improving my improv: “Don’t make cheap jokes.” I focus on avoiding things like unnecessary swearing, derogatory or inflammatory jokes and going for the cheap laugh. This isn’t to say my scenes are void of these vices, but a study of comedy has shown me that these jokes are feeble and tenuous. Simple jokes like C.K.’s regarding the Parkland shooting rely on one of the most basic and simple comedic principles: content-based shock value. It’s funny when I swear out of nowhere in a scene in the same way you wouldn’t expect a child to drop the F-bomb on his father, and you may laugh at C.K. as he effortlessly makes light of a life and death situation. It’s because it’s shocking and you weren’t expecting it. While shock value does have a role in comedy, it’s the epistemic nature of C.K.’s comments that make them unacceptable and begin to clear the once grey line of “going too far” in comedy.

If you break down C.K.’s comments in an effort to find the joke or the comedic device that he was relying on, you’ll end up just finding a man making fun of teenagers who thought they were going to die and are now standing up for their cause. Leutz remarks that “the greatest insult to school shooting survivors has been Congress doing nothing” and prescribes that those angry with C.K.’s comments should “direct [their] anger in a more productive direction.” Allowing inflammatory comments that serve to capitalize on cheap shock-value humor to pass without criticism is dangerous. At the end of the day, C.K. and comedians like him simply play on problematic tropes. Making jokes to the chagrin of affected people and communities only normalizes already troublesome dialogue and content. 

This sort of phenomenon is not limited to Louis C.K. and other comedians who traditionally rely on shock-value as part of their repertoire. Comedian Kevin Hart recently came under fire for “jokes” he posted to his personal Twitter, referring to someone’s profile picture on Twitter as a “gay billboard for AIDS” and making other homophobic comments. Hart’s response to criticism over these comments seems to fall in line with Leutz’s thought process, as Hart notes in a 2015 interview, “I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now.” Hart’s comments, even more than C.K.’s, simply capitalize on offensive and derogatory language and parade it around under the defense of free speech and comedic freedom. This sort of content is not only cheap comedy — it fails to qualify, in my mind, as comedy at all. 

What is left then of the modern state of comedy? Are we to simply continue to joke about airplane food for the rest of time? I believe there is a place for shock comedy, and there certainly should be license for comedians to push the envelope as long as their jokes are well thought out and do not simply rest on shocking people to the point of laughter. Jokes that lack substance and fail to surpass the low bar of having some sort of humor outside of their direct content achieve low-quality giggles at the expense of those they offend. Certainly, experienced comedians such as Hart and C.K. could come up with more developed jokes. I’m not refuting their right to free speech, but rather the principle Leutz proposes of allowing jokes likes these to pass by without criticism as “attempt(s) at comedy.” Even as a joke, speech has power — and that’s something that everyone, even comedians, can do better at recognizing and accepting.

Of course, no comedian is perfect. Many have recently come under fire for past jokes, from Sarah Silverman to Jerry Seinfeld. That doesn’t mean, though, that Millennials are overreacting or being too sensitive, as Leutz would argue. My hope is that as society continues to evolve and change, comedy continues to change too. I hope that the comedy community continues to remain self-critical, treading through the grey area of comedy as they always have, but perhaps stepping just a little bit lighter than C.K. has done. The process isn’t perfect — I have my fair share of indecorous jokes — but allowing jokes to go without criticism for the sake of “comedy” is a reckless game to play.