Has the joke gone too far? The Role of Comedy

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Comedy gets us to laugh as there are many different styles, techniques and senses of humor playing important roles within how jokes are delivered and received. Laughing with or at something allows audiences to relax for a while and have a good time. Depending on how one likes their comedy, some comedians get us to think while we are laughing whether it’s because we relate to the joke somehow, are realizing the absurdity of a situation or so on. However, when does a joke go too far? Where is the line of morality when it comes to comedy? Is there any at all?

When attempting to define a moral line in the world of comedy, there are two aspects to address when analyzing satire or jokes. The comedian’s intent with a joke and its effect on individuals in the audience play important key roles when looking at a joke’s purpose. People define their moral line according to how they feel intent and effect play their roles within a joke. For example, on Saturday Night Live’s 40th season finale, Louis C.K. made a joke during his opening monologue involving the topic of child molestation. After his monologue, many people debated whether or not C.K. had “crossed the line.” What was his intent? Should he have taken into consideration morally the possible effect it could have on individual audience members? One side stated that it may have come across as insensitive or triggering to potential audience members who had been molested as a child themselves and that the “effect” of C.K.’s joke may have been possibly too damaging to audience viewers. On the other side of the spectrum, many argued that C.K.’s “intent” of the joke was justified in that he was trying to prove a point through the comedy, so despite the sensitive nature of the topic, C.K. did not cross any moral line since it served the role of making a commentary about society. Going ahead with these two key elements of comedy, intent and effect, I feel these are two invaluable pieces to the puzzle when trying to define a moral line in comedy. 

For me personally, I can see the logic of both sides. Running with the “Louis C.K.” example, logically, I can reason that he morally did not cross a line; his intent was not to harm an audience member with his joke. He was simply attempting to get people to think while laughing. On the other hand, I still cannot deny that while watching this bit, I get extremely uncomfortable. I see the potential harm that is within the effect of making the joke; therefore, I am not entirely comfortable in saying the joke is morally right.

To me, I think the topics that fall in a grey area in the comedic world are due to relatability. 

Not all of the time, but often, we laugh at jokes that we can relate to. Comedians commonly hone in on life situations and ideas that the everyday person can relate with. There are countless satirical bits on the aspects of relationships, family, work, school, politics, pop culture and the list could go on. However, we may start to feel uncomfortable when comedians start to shift into the realm of topics we feel may be sensitive to a population that the general public may not be able to directly relate to such as rape, abortion, racism, terrorist attacks and so forth. 

We know that these topics are potentially a source of great pain to the individuals who have gone through these experiences, and we may be scared of making light of situations that are hardly light at all. Those of us outside of these populations may become unsure of whether to laugh or shake our heads when 9/11 is mentioned in a comedic bit. We are unsure of its possible “effect” on those who experienced the event. 

The counterargument is that those who have been through painful situations do not simply own those topics, and they have every right to be offended if they are. However, this does not take the material away from comedians. I agree and disagree with this argument.

I think relatability has a much bigger role than often given credit. For example, I recently came across a video on my Facebook news feed where a man with an amputated leg did a comedic bit on his experiences with being physically handicapped. Socially, we feel it’s morally OK that this man was making jokes about his life experiences with being amputated. However, had another comedian made similar jokes about amputees, I suspect many people would have not been morally OK with it at all. The same goes for many other subjects such as how comedians in minority groups are given more freedom to deliver jokes about racism and things of th nature. It all comes down to relatability and intent. 

In the end, my stance on the topic wavers according to the joke. In the world of comedy, a “moral line” may be impossible to define as maybe each comedian has different social permissions to discuss and create jokes about different topics. Personally, what it all comes down to for me is a few criteria. Am I laughing at the joke and why? If I’m not laughing, aside from the fact that it may not be funny, why, and why may I feel uncomfortable with the joke? It may just be I am unsure of how the topic may be affecting those around me or the intent does not justify the punch line at the end of the day.