The anti-political correctness brigade will tell you that comedy respects no one’s sensitivities. The universe in which humour operates is divorced from the one in which we live. Offence is never given, it’s taken.
This attitude is prevalent amongst big time comedians. Notably, Ricky Gervais was heavily criticised for his controversial hosting of the Golden Globe awards, and in July 2012, comedian Daniel Tosh came under fire for suggesting it would be funny if an audience member were raped. But it came as a rather unpleasant surprise to witness such behaviour exhibited by performers at student-run events of the Sydney University comedy circuit.
At the annual Extreme Theatresports Competition held on July 31, a feature of weekly comedy show Project 52, one improv game challenged performers to make the audience feel horribly uncomfortable, so they were asked to replay characters as various racial stereotypes (perhaps it is telling that ‘uncomfortable’ can be conflated with ‘offensive’). The following week, many of the performances at ‘Get Up! Stand Up!’, a lunchtime comedy show introduced this year, were rife with sexist and pro-rape jokes.
The notion that such behaviour is acceptable in this context presupposes a complete disjuncture between comedy and ‘real life’, but that’s hardly true. Comedy alludes often to the ungainliness of human interaction. The self-deprecating asides, the retelling of deliciously awkward encounters, the exaggerated ridiculing of commonplace absurdities – it is this kind of wit that has spawned the adage, “it’s funny because it’s true.” Then there’s the absurdist brand of comedy, which is often used to convey social criticism by drawing not on what is believable, but what is not. A gag about a dog getting breast implants for an animal beauty pageant constitutes wry social commentary. Joking that Ariel Castro’s victims should have been grateful for the free food is repulsive. We do not live in a society in which sexual assault and gendered violence are non-existent, let alone one where these matters are laughably absurd.
Perhaps what was most disconcerting about the racist and sexist humour I observed was the context in which it occurred. I would not have thought the young, relatively diverse, and (I hope) tolerant Sydney Uni populace to be fertile ground for such malicious small-mindedness. The audience at Extreme Theatresports sat uncomfortably through Lebanese, Japanese, and Indian caricatures, though the imitation of Indigenous Australians was forestalled by discontented rumblings. Every one of the pro-rape jokes at “Get Up” was met with (admittedly uneasy) laughter. The casual atmosphere of these shows is hardly conducive to expressions of outrage or disapproval, forcing audiences into a reluctant kind of collusion with performers, no matter how objectionable their conduct.
To his credit, ‘Get Up’ coordinator James Colley’s response to the offending show was prompt and unequivocal. In a post to the Facebook group he stated that “Get Up! Stand Up! will not be tolerating material that is homophobic, racist or that justifies/normalises/trivialises rape/sexual assault/violence against women”, and he tells me this policy will be incorporated into the show’s terms and conditions for performing.
Comedians who choose to engage in politically controversial humour should understand that they do not perform in a power vacuum, in which offending rape victims or racial minorities is comparable to offending upper-class white men. Good comedy forces us to deconstruct our perspectives, our assumptions, our prejudices. Good comedians know how to nimbly tread the line between irreverence and offensiveness, and they know that if they occasionally and inadvertently cross it, their audience will be forgiving. Making people laugh is an art, not a science. The imprecise and personal nature of humour ultimately renders it an exercise in how we relate to one another. The cardinal question (for both comedians and their audiences) then becomes with whom, and at whom, are we laughing?