If laughter is the best medicine, can comedy still be poisonous? The Quebec Human Rights Tribunal says yes: on July 20, it ordered comic Mike Ward to pay $42,000 to someone he had joked about back in 2010. But for Ward’s fellow comedians performing at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival (which runs through August 1), the ruling is an ominous manifestation of the creeping political correctness that they’re used to joking about — and now it’s not such a laughing matter.
“You have two options when you hear a joke,” says Californian comic Brad Williams, who’s performing with Ward as part of The Nasty Show — a showcase for dirty and edgy comedy. “Option No. 1: ‘Ha ha.’ Option No. 2: No ‘Ha ha.’ It’s not, ‘Get offended.’ It’s not, ‘Sue.’ It’s not ‘Take away a person’s right to earn a living.’”
Now, more than ever, the onus is on comedians to defend what they do, both legally and in the court of public opinion. Ward was found to have violated the dignity of teenage singer Jérémy Gabriel, who suffers from deformity and hearing loss. “You don’t want to be flippant about such things,” says England’s Jimmy Carr, who is doing a run of solo shows at Just for Laughs, “but if you start drawing the line of what people can and can’t joke about, it becomes very difficult because someone’s offended by everything. Who draws the line, and who’s watching the watchmen?”
Carr, who describes himself as an “equal opportunity offender,” muses, “I don’t think many people are against the idea of political correctness, but it’s about context. If you showed a doctor something grisly about your person that you wanted him to look at, and he recoiled in terror and went, ‘F—k me!’ you’d be horribly offended. There are rightly different rules for different people in society.”
But when comedians are no longer allowed to break these rules, their jobs are under threat. Carr uses the ostensibly p.c. term “safe space” to refer to comedy venues. There, people can choose to watch comics such as Ward “say the unsayable” – things that everyone knows aren’t suitable for polite company. These spaces themselves are now being violated. Gina Yashere, who was born in Britain, lives in New York, and often jokes about her Nigerian heritage, notes that she has seen many people coming to her shows, looking to be offended. “There are some people who just complain for the sake of complaining, and you’re like, ‘Why are you here in a comedy club? You know what kind of stuff I do.”
And those who are offended by jokes will now vent by repeating them outside of the clubs, on social media. Says Williams, “Everyone feels that they need to be heard and that they speak for a majority; it’s creating this toxic environment.” And then there are the kind of social injustice warriors who have made outrageously bigoted comments online about comic Leslie Jones, for the supposed crime of being a black woman in a lead role in a Ghostbusters movie. Jones, says Yashere, is “a black woman who doesn’t look like Halle Berry; she’s not 27, and she’s funny and loud and in-your-face, and they don’t like it. They expect pretty, white, blonde comedians who talk about their vagina.”
Such attackers give lip service to free speech, but they aim to shut down people they don’t like. “Even a guy like (Donald) Trump,” says Williams, “can dish it out but he can’t take it.” The same goes for his rigorously anti-p.c. followers. Recently, in Columbus, Ohio, Williams did an unflattering impression of Trump – albeit in what he insists was a politically “neutral” context – and three people walked out. It seems there are those who believe the whole world should be like their social media feeds: an echo-chamber reflecting their own views.
On the flip side are fans who worry what other people might think. Yashere, who’s part of the Just for Laughs Brit-ish showcase, says, “When liberal white audiences see a black comedian, if you mention race, they clam up” – they don’t want to be seen to be potentially racist. “It’s the same thing if you’re in a room full of women. When a woman might be the butt of the joke, they’re constantly thinking, ‘Oh, am I a feminist if I laugh?’”
But can so-called “offensive” humour actually have positive effects? For Williams, “It allows us to point out unfairness in society.” And if you feel you’re the butt of a joke, he says, it’s best to exact comic revenge. Williams, who stands 4’4”, believes the Mike Ward ruling will only make Jérémy Gabriel “seem weaker. And this is coming from a dwarf, who was made fun of all of his childhood but learned that if you can embrace the jokes that people make and flip them back, then you’re the hero. If you make fun of me, I will make you feel the pain. I will say a harsher joke. I will earn more money than you, and if you are a straight man, I’ll take your girl.”
Edgy comedy can work as societal self-defence too. Nemr Abou Hassan (a.k.a. Nemr), a Lebanese-American comic who has been on the cover of Rolling Stone’s Middle East edition, and is performing at Just for Laughs’ Ethnic Show, jokes about subjects such as suicide bombing. His aim is to take “a very serious thing, and put it into a very funny context. As soon as you do that, you own it.” In one bit, he talks about his father’s referring to Rolling Stone as Throwing Stones: “’Dad, that’s the ISIS publication.’ When I make a joke like that, ISIS is no longer a problem; ISIS is a punch line.”
In the Middle East, Nemr says, “I could say stuff I could never say in a million years in the U.S. When I’m in Lebanon, and there is an attack, you turn on the news, and you see a pile of baby carcasses and heads, and a cameraman slipping in the blood. (If you) say, ‘I would be offended if you make a joke that has bad words,’ we’ll just look at you like, ‘Your skin needs to be a bit thicker. Any time there’s tragedy, we deal with it with humour.”