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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.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Tracy Morgan

    An angry audience member reported on Facebook that Tracy Morgan went on a tirade during a stand-up show allegedly saying that gay was a choice and that he would stab his son if he found out he was gay. Morgan's comments sparked a huge debate about going too far in comedy. Morgan later apologized saying <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/tracy-morgans-homophobic-remarks_n_874699.html" target="_hplink">"While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context."</a>

  • Michael Richards

    Michael Richards berated an audience member in 2006 repeatedly calling him "nigger" and saying "50 years ago we'd have you hanging upside down with a fucking fork up your ass." Richards later apologized but the incident prompted the Laugh Factory to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2006/11/20/kramer-actor-to-be-banned_n_34539.html" target="_hplink">ban the comedian</a>.

  • Daniel Tosh

    A Tumblr post titled "A Girl Walks Into A Comedy Club" described an incident wherein Daniel Tosh allegedly teased an audience member saying, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/10/daniel-tosh-rape-joke-laugh-factory_n_1662882.html" target="_hplink">''Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?" </a>Tosh later apologized on Twitter for the remark.

  • Amy Schumer

    During the 2011 Roast of Charlie Sheen, Schumer joked about Steve-O's recently deceased friend Ryan Dunn saying, "I know you must have been thinking, 'It could have been me,' and I know we were all thinking, 'Why wasn't it?'" After the Roast, Steve-O said that Jeffrey Ross texted him and asked him to tell his fans that Steve-O was fine with Schumer, because she was receiving death threats. Schumer has stood by not apologizing for the comment.

  • George Carlin

    Comedians often cite George Carlin as one of their biggest inspirations. Carlin broke barriers and sparked debates with his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" bit. When "Filthy Words" aired on a radio station, a father heard it with his son and complained to the FCC. This lead to the Supreme Court case of the FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation which held that it was within the first amendment to censor certain material.

  • Roseanne Barr

    Roseanne memorably butchered the national anthem at a 1990 San Diego Padres game, seemingly making a joke out of the performance. President George Bush senior called the performance "a disgrace." In 2011, on her reality show "Roseanne's Nuts," Barr sang the anthem again, better this time.

  • Jackie Mason

    During a 1964 performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Jackie Mason was a bit perturbed when Sullivan tried to signal for him to wrap it up (President Johnson was about to give a speech). Mason started making movements with his fingers, mocking Sullivan. After the show, Sullivan banned Mason from future performances alleging that Mason gave him "the finger." Mason filed a libel suit and in the end a court proved that Mason had, in fact, not given the finger.

  • Ricky Gervais

    Ricky Gervais made headlines after his 2011 Golden Globes hosting gig for his colorful performance. In his opening monologue he joked, "Also not nominated 'I Love You Phillip Morris.' Jim Carrey Ewan McGregor, two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay. So the exact opposite of some famous scientologists then." The Hollywood Foreign Press released a statement saying that he did a nice job but that he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/17/ricky-gervais-golden-globe-host-doesnt-care-if-anyone-was-offended-by-jokes_n_809967.html" target="_hplink">"...occasionally went too far."</a> They still asked him back for a second hosting gig.

  • Lenny Bruce

    Police arrested Lenny Bruce for obscenity in 1961 for his use of the word "cocksucker." Eventually he was acquitted.

  • Carlos Mencia

    Carlos Mencia is known for making broad generalizations about race in his jokes. However, in 2009 he was uninvited to ride on a float in the Mardi Gras parade after what many considered too-offensive Hurricane Katrina jokes. Mencia's routine included him saying that black people are hilarious because <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/06/carlos-mencia-pulled-from_n_164792.html" target="_hplink">"you will get on a bus to go to Million Man March, but you won't get on a bus to get away from Katrina."</a>

  • Sandra Bernhard

    In 2008, several reports surfaced that Sandra Bernhard had made a joke in her one woman show that Sarah Palin would be "gang-raped by my big black brothers" in New York City. Because of her comments, Bernhard<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/01/sandra-bernhard-cut-from_n_131091.html" target="_hplink"> was cut as a headliner</a> at an annual benefit at a woman's shelter. The twist? Bernhard later denied that she said any such thing, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/02/sandra-bernhard-denies-re_n_131326.html" target="_hplink">assuring that it was just an internet rumor that got out of hand</a>. She donated money to the woman's shelter, Rosie's House, instead of performing.

  • Kathy Griffin

    In 2007, Kathy Griffin won an Emmy for her Bravo reality show. She decided to make a mark with her acceptance speech, proclaiming that Jesus had nothing to do with her win. "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2007/09/09/kathy-griffin-on-emmy-win_n_63682.html" target="_hplink">So, all I can say is, 'suck it, Jesus.' This award is my god now."</a> Angered Christian groups called for the speech to be censored, but in her special "Straight to Hell" she joked that the whole incident had been "heaven" for her. "You can't buy this publicity," she said.

  • Chris Rock

    One of Chris Rocks' most controversial bits was his "niggers" vs. "black people" commentary during his 1996 HBO special "Bring The Pain." In 2009, Rock told "60 Minutes" that he would probably never say the joke again "'Cause some people that were racist thought they had license to say 'nigger.' So, I'm done with that routine."

  • Gilbert Gottfried

    During the 2001 Roast of Hugh Hefner, Gilbert Gottfried made a joke about not being able to get a direct flight. The joke ended, "They said they have to stop off at the Empire State Building." The punchline sparked debates about what was "too soon," considering the roast took place the same year as 9/11. In his "Dirty Jokes" DVD, Gottfried discussed the joke's "legendary" status.

  • Richard Pryor

    Many consider Richard Pryor a king of comedy -- and of controversy. With his short-lived TV show, "The Richard Pryor Show," Pryor had a skit where he played a rock star who killed all his white fans with a machine gun. The show's final episode has the famous roast of Pryor.