By Arnold Asamoah-Baidoo
LIFE as a comedian is quite tough; the comedian is unsure whether his/her jokes would hit a nerve or rub people the wrong way. Stepping a foot wrong could see contracts and gigs being abrogated or ultimately, a career being brought to its knees.
As long as there’s been stand-up comedy, there have been offensive jokes. And as long as there have been offensive jokes, there’s been discourse on what’s acceptable, what isn’t and when drawing the line turns into an act of censorship.
Comedian, OB Amponsah, had to issue an apology after he received threats from some NDC party faithful for a joke he delivered about the former President John Mahama.
What is comedy?
Comedy is defined as a literary genre and a type of dramatic work that is amusing and satirical in its tone, mostly having a cheerful ending.
It is also any work that is intended to incite laughter and amusement, especially in theatre, television, film, stand-up comedy or any other entertainment medium.
Interestingly, stand-up comedy is stated to be the “freest form of comedy writing” that is regarded as a fictionalized “extension of” the person performing.
In the comedy scene, ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’ are two common terms of reference. The first applies to jokes targeting the social elite; the politicians, stockbrokers, entrepreneurs and other privileged communities whereas ‘Punching-down’ humour takes aim at those who are, or have traditionally been socially, culturally, financially or racially disadvantaged.
From the mundane to self-deprecating, insulting to absurd, comedy, in all its forms, builds communities around laughter. For many, it’s a joyful, much-needed release, but depending on the type of comedy, that release can come at others’ expense.
Comedy is integral to every society as it is there to ridicule the powerful and relieve the downtrodden. However, rapid social change is fast acting as a divide between comedians and audiences, begging the question: can comedy only evolve alongside society’s attitude shifts for so long?
Social change is causing a new divide between those who think that comedy shouldn’t offend, and those who insist offending is at the heart of good comedy – alongside the argument that comedians are too offensive, versus audiences being too easily upset.
Some people believe that offensive humour such as sexist or racist jokes can help break down barriers and challenge prejudice. Others simply find it appalling. The topic is clearly sensitive and often leads to discussions about free speech, morality and political correctness.
The thin line
The detractors of OB Amponsah were able to dig up some posts on his social media pages that sought to punch the ex-president and his political party. It was too easy for them to connect the two scenarios and tag the comedian as one who is against the party.
OB is not the only comedian to get into trouble over his posts on social media. In April 2015, comedienne and actor, Amy Schumer, was forced to issue an apology after someone unearthed a tweet she wrote in 2010 about dating Hispanic men.
Shortly after being named the new host of The Daily Show in March 2015, Trevor Noah came under fire for jokes he had tweeted going all the way back to 2010 – and Chelsea Handler was accused of racism in March 2014 after she tweeted about Kenyan-born Lupita Nyong’o winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Although, some comedians have courted trouble for materials shared on stage, I strongly believe the public should be open-minded about comedy and appreciate the fact that, everything shared on a comedy platform or at a comedy event are just jokes.
However, the comedian cannot classify everything he posts on his social media pages as jokes. Such posts are opinions and can be questioned, scrutinized and heavily criticized.
Just like the stripper cannot be strutting around town stripping, the comedian should also not take any platform as one for comedy.
Comedy in danger?
It surely looks like it if every sect, grouping and individuals will attack the comedian for every joke delivered.
If comedians can’t share jokes about personalities, the disabled, white men, black men, gays, rapists, rape victims and religion, then clearly, there will be no material to joke with, none!
So, does audience laughter endorse the sentiments of a joke? That decision is ultimately up to the patron! For some, it’s entirely possible to find sexist, racist, tribal and religious jokes funny, and to condemn sexism and racism on the whole. For others, even a chuckle equates approval.
Audiences are increasingly calling out comedians for offensive material and refusing to endorse the ideology implicit in joking, through laughter or even through attendance.
While it’s a comedian’s prerogative to push boundaries, audiences wield the ultimate power, they decide whether you have the credibility and the trust to pull off a joke that’s horrific, offensive or hilarious or you don’t.
Comedy’s whole purpose and existence is to be shocking, to be vulgar, to be the clown who points out that the emperor has no clothes but the only real barometer, at the end of the day, will always be the audience’s reaction.
Social media has amplified how audiences respond when they hear something they don’t like.
In previous years, when people were offended they walked out and told their friends and family and that was the end of it. Now, everybody has an opinion and everybody has to let everybody else know what this opinion is and something has to be done about it.
Offensive humour is political and highlights a connection between our identities, politics and the pleasure of laughter.
In contributing to a blurred distinction between a culture and humour, some jokes may contribute to the normalization of certain societal abuse and would make it more difficult than it already is for victims of say, racism, domestic violence, rape, disability etc.
Easily offended audiences aren’t necessarily a threat to comedy as far as the best comedians will always say whatever they want irrespective of societal pressures to tone down. That said, for economic reasons, comedians should start self-censoring – maybe.
There may be a place and time for certain offensive humour but, as a comedian, if you’re unsure about just how damaging a joke could be, it may be wise to think it over one more time before delivering it.