The first public reading of Carl Unegbu’s new book, Comedy Under Attack led to an animated discussion last night at the Word Up Bookstore in Washington Heights. Unegbu read from his book and spoke about some of the problems that challenge today’s comedians, including joke-stealing, undue corporate influence and political correctness. It was the latter that sparked the crowd’s reactions. The author maintains that comedians are unduly censored to the detriment of their art (and their income, if they have to forfeit a gig or lose a job because of an offending remark). The First Amendment should protect jokes of all kinds, says Unegbu, and comedy can’t flourish if the sensibilities of specific groups, including, but not limited to, women, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, gays, Arabs, fat people − just about any category you can think of − must be protected. This is a new phenomenon, he says, it didn’t use to be like this in the 50s, for example.
Unegbu is right. The civil rights movement, gay rights, women’s rights − all have transformed society. Consciousness has been raised, and there is a new respect for difference. The inclusion of the historically excluded has led to a relaxing of taboos and discarding of shibboleths. But “political correctness,” even if it wasn’t called that, isn’t new.
The rapidity with which information is disseminated has also contributed to the transformation of society. There was no internet in the 50s, so no Facebook, no Twitter. A comedian could be offensive, but not everyone would know about it, and not with today’s immediacy.
Although I agree that a comedian should be able to say anything − after all, a paramount function of comedy is to call attention to the things that make the rest of us uncomfortable, to reflect our own foibles. But, as others pointed out, the comedian has to know his audience. If people start walking out, then the performer has a choice: to reconnect with those people or continue to alienate them. A male comic would be foolish indeed to expect that women will be amused by a rape joke that humiliates them. If the comic is interested in making only the men laugh and is willing to dismiss half his audience, that’s his prerogative.
A woman, on the other hand, can almost always get away with a rape joke, just as a man can make fun of his mother, but nobody else can. It is permissible to joke about anything, including rape, provided the joke really is funny and the victim and his/her pain aren’t the butt of the joke. As funny as they are, some people would object to the language of these rape jokes but that’s another story. We’re not talking about vulgarity. It has its own place. The question is what makes something funny. Surprise is critical. The audience can’t know where the comedian is going. Situations like pratfalls, stupidity, embarrassing moments − when a person is caught off-balance, but not seriously hurt, are the classic subjects of humor. Mean-spiritedness, cruelty and sadism are not.