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Carol Hartsell Headshot

When It Comes To Comedians, Where Is The Line?

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On July 20, a man walked into a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado and shot 59 people, killing 12. On July 26, not quite a week later, a man walked into a crowded comedy club and told a joke about it.

Given the number of comedians who work out new material every night all over the country, it probably wasn’t the first joke based on the Aurora theater-shooting tragedy. But it was told by Dane Cook and it was caught on tape by an audience member.

In the joke, Cook posits that “The Dark Knight Rises” is such a bad movie, “ ... if none of that would have happened, I’m pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it was a piece of crap, was probably like, ‘Ugh, fucking shoot me.’” He later issued an apology.

Cook is just one of several comedians to take a drubbing recently for controversial material performed during the course of his act. From Tracy Morgan’s gay son rant to Daniel Tosh’s rape ad lib, comedians are no longer operating under the radar in the semi-privacy of a dark, smoke-filled comedy club. But if you ask them, they’re not the ones with the problem.

“It used to be that when you were in a comedy club, it almost felt private,” Susie Essman told The Huffington Post back in June. “It used to feel like we’re all in this dark club, and we’re all smoking and drinking and we’re having this experience and we’re all in this together.”

Thanks to camera phones, blogs and social networking, a controversial joke can leapfrog from a scribble in a notebook to a national news headline in minutes. There’s very little that’s not caught on tape, which is a particular problem if you’re a comedian who has a new “chunk” you’re hoping to work out at your local club.
Stand-up comedy is a unique art in that it can’t exist without an audience. Rehearsing and honing jokes has to happen in front of people, as their reaction is the only gauge of how a joke should proceed, change or be scrapped. Not so with other creative fields. No one heckled Paul McCartney when he sang “Scrambled Eggs” instead of “Yesterday.” Comedians have no such luxury.

While McCartney’s non sequitur is an order of magnitude less potentially offensive than Cook’s “Dark Knight” punch line, the fact remains that comedians depend on being able to perform untried material without it being offered up to the scrutiny of anyone outside the room where they’re telling it.

Chris Rock explained the problem to The New York Times last week: “When you’re workshopping [material], a lot of stuff is bumpy and awkward. Especially when you’re working on the edge, you’re going to offend… Just look at some of my material... ‘Niggas vs. Black People,’ probably took me six months to get that thing right. You know how racist that thing was a week in?”

Comedians like Rock take a sensitive subject and hammer on it until it changes shape, becomes funny. If you can find humor in racism, you make it manageable. Take the adage about getting over public speaking by imagining the audience naked; imagine a group of klansmen naked and what do you have? Whatever it is, it’s not particularly threatening.

Jim Norton, whose standup special, “Please Be Offended,” came out on June 30, put it this way: “We take these knots in society — like, you know how you get a knot in your neck — and our job as comedians is to take our knuckles and kind of work it out.” Jeffrey Ross, who made headlines just this week at Comedy Central’s “Roast of Roseanne” for telling an Aurora-related joke, suggests that allowing that process to happen serves a greater good. “I think it’s our job to go too far. That way we know as a society what too far is.”

Then there’s Daniel Tosh and the rape joke heard round the world. At the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles — the same club where Cook was recorded — Tosh responded to a female heckler by saying it’d be funny if she got raped by five guys at that moment. One outraged blog post later and Tosh became the poster boy for a national debate about sexism, rape culture and whether rape jokes can ever be funny.

As offensive or unfunny as Tosh’s joke may have seemed, some comedians defended him for the simple reason that he is a comedian who was on a stage telling a joke. Good or bad, sexist or not, hate-filled or naive, it was a joke, told in a place for jokes.

Patton Oswalt, who admitted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that he found what Tosh said “despicable,” argued, “It’s very dangerous to create an atmosphere where people can’t fuck up onstage, and it costs them their life or career.”

Tosh, like Cook and Morgan, apologized.

While the debates these controversies have generated could be seen as positive, some feel they undermine the creative process that gave us voices like George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

“The sad thing, with all this taping and stuff, no one’s going to do stand-up,” says Rock.

Comedian and director of The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza explains what’s at stake for comics and audiences alike. “The tragedy here is that artists (and yes, I consider comedians artists — some more gifted than others) are being confronted for doing precisely what their function in society is, and has always been: challenge authority, question prevailing attitudes and mores, and tap specifically into perspectives that are not necessarily ‘acceptable’ to voice.”

Cook’s joke may have been “too soon,” and for the majority of people it may never work. But it wasn’t meant for the majority of people; it was meant for a small group of people in a dark room who were all “in it together.”
Which is probably why they laughed.

This story originally appeared in Issue 10 of our new weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

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